The best historical fiction about famous leaders we thought we understood—until we read these books

Why am I passionate about this?

When I lived in France as a youngster, museum portraits became friends. I could hear courtiers scheming in Versailles and gladiators clashing in coliseums. Naturally, decades later, when I learned Napoleon Bonaparte tried to write a novel of love and betrayal, I vowed to finish it for him. But to ghostwrite for Napoleon, I had to know him as personally as his great love Josephine did. I dove into research, translated his writing to capture his cadence, and became secretary of the Napoleonic Historical Society. Finally, on remote St. Helena Island in the ramshackle rooms where Napoleon died in exile, I found the intimate connection I demand from historical fiction.


I wrote...

Book cover of Finding Napoleon

What is my book about?

With its adaptation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s real attempt to write romantic fiction, Finding Napoleon: A Novel offers an intimate take on Europe’s most powerful man after he’s lost everything. His last love—feisty Countess Albine—fleshes out the steely leader who’s a lusty lover, tender father, and naïve friend.

Exiled to St. Helena Island, defiant Napoleon schemes against the British for his freedom. When he recruits enslaved Africans, British sympathizers, and French followers, treachery foils his plans. Albine, intent on her survival, swerves between devotion and betrayal. Amid the intrigues, Napoleon finishes writing Clisson, his youthful novel. Now the idealistic manuscript is a message to his young son who his enemies hold in Europe. To deliver it, Napoleon must find someone to trust.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Women of Chateau Lafayette

Margaret Rodenberg Why did I love this book?

We all know the Marquis de Lafayette, right? To my surprise, I didn’t know his first name or his wife’s. (Gilbert and Adrienne.) The historical novel The Women of Chateau Lafayette fills in the rest of the blanks. It starts with those Lafayettes, then weaves in women who protect Lafayette’s castle during World War I and II. While I enjoyed all three plots, the intimate portrayal of the famous Marquis fascinated me the most. I loved his youthful clumsiness, cringed at his marital infidelities, and grumbled at his hesitancy to take power when the French needed him. So, read The Women of Chateau Lafayette for the strong women’s roles, but, for me, Gilbert the Marquis was the star.

By Stephanie Dray,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Women of Chateau Lafayette as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The USA Today Bestseller!

Recommended by Oprah Magazine ∙ Cosmo∙ PopSugar∙ SheReads ∙ Parade ∙ and more!

An epic saga from New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Dray based on the true story of an extraordinary castle in the heart of France and the remarkable women bound by its legacy.
 
Most castles are protected by men. This one by women.

A founding mother...
1774. Gently-bred noblewoman Adrienne Lafayette becomes her husband, the Marquis de Lafayette’s political partner in the fight for American independence. But when their idealism sparks revolution in France and the guillotine threatens everything she holds dear, Adrienne…


Book cover of Courting Mr. Lincoln

Margaret Rodenberg Why did I love this book?

Write about Abraham Lincoln’s intimate life? I wouldn’t dare, but I’m thrilled Louis Bayard did. Courting Mr. Lincoln catches America’s icon at his pivot from aw-shucks buffoon to fast-track politician. Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s roommate who’s in love with him, applies social veneer, teaching him to dress and dance, and where to rest those spidery arms during dinner. The friends’ touching love never crosses into sexual on the page. Yet, intimacy flows through Bayard’s extraordinary writing. We, too, inhabit Lincoln’s long torso, flailing elbows, and head crammed in a too-small top hat. Alas, a society matron pushes Lincoln “toward destiny,” requiring marriage with Mary Todd. Melancholy Lincoln, snared in grasping love, moves on to save our nation. Because of this book, I’ll always consider Abraham Lincoln a beautiful man.

By Louis Bayard,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Courting Mr. Lincoln as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Mary Todd meets Abraham Lincoln in Springfield in the winter of 1840, he is on no one's short list to be president. A country lawyer living above a dry goods shop, he is lacking both money and manners, and his gift for oratory surprises those who meet him. Mary, a quick, self-possessed debutante with an interest in debates and elections, at first finds him an enigma. "I can only hope," she tells his roommate, the handsome, charming Joshua Speed, "that his waters being so very still, they also run deep."

It's not long, though, before she sees the Lincoln…


Book cover of Becoming Madame Mao

Margaret Rodenberg Why did I love this book?

I wrote my book because I love historical fiction that explores the person behind the myth. In that genre, Becoming Madame Mao is a tour de force. It’s no beach read, but who expects the Communist Revolution to be easy? Personally, I’ll never forget this portrait of Madame Mao—a poor girl who claws to the top, discarding lovers and husbands, performing opera, promoting and denouncing communism, and holding life-long grudges. Frankly, I’ve seldom felt so shocked, riveted, and immersed in a person, culture, and history. Her rocky, passionate relationship with Chairman Mao and the power she wields staggered me. While it’s not for the faint of heart, I highly recommend this best-in-genre book, especially to those who admire The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

By Anchee Min,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Madame Mao as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the national bestselling author of Red Azalea: “Extraordinary . . . Min lets [Madame Mao] be seen as never before. Bottom line: riveting” (People).
 
In a sweeping, erotically charged story, Anchee Min creates a finely nuanced portrait of one of the most fascinating, and vilified, women of the twentieth century.
 
Madame Mao is almost universally known as the “white-boned demon”—ambitious, vindictive, and cruel—whose bid to succeed her husband led to the death of millions. But Anchee Min’s story begins with a young girl named Yunhe, the unwanted daughter of a concubine who ignored her mother’s pleas and refused to…


Book cover of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

Margaret Rodenberg Why did I love this book?

May I suggest historical fiction fans of the English Tudors try the French royalty for a change? For me, Tudor intrigue pales in comparison to France’s 16th-century queen and regent, Catherine de Medici. This lush, biographical novel from C.W. Gortner follows Catherine from traumatic childhood to poignant death, revealing the necessity behind her ruthlessness. Since the era’s religious conflicts echo today’s cultural divides, the history feels surprisingly fresh. I can’t help thinking that this strong woman who stopped at nothing to protect France, her children, and her power would be more admired if she had been a man. 

By C.W. Gortner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Confessions of Catherine de Medici as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is a dramatic, epic novel of an all-too-human woman whose strength and passion propelled her into the center of grand events. Meticulously-researched, this engrossing novel offers a fresh portrait of a queen who has too often been portrayed as a villain. Bravo Mr. Gortner!”—Sandra Gulland, author of The Josephine B Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun 

The truth is, not one of us is innocent. We all have sins to confess. So reveals Catherine de Medici, the last legitimate descendant of her family’s illustrious line. Expelled from her native Florence, Catherine is betrothed to…


Book cover of To Befriend An Emperor: Betsy Balcombe's Memoirs of Napoleon on St Helena

Margaret Rodenberg Why did I love this book?

This memoir reads like historical fiction and influenced my perspective on Napoleon. As its title proclaims, it’s not so much about the writer, Betsy Balcombe, but about Napoleon himself. Upon arrival on St. Helena, the British billeted the exiled, depressed emperor on her father’s estate. Fourteen-year-old Betsy, who spoke French, treated him like a favorite uncle, teasing and playing tricks on him. Unlike other contemporaneous memoirs I’ve read, Betsy’s doesn’t demonize or glorify Napoleon. Rather, her recollections provide the most extensive, reliable account of the real Napoleon, a lonely human hiding behind the vestiges of power. Look for the version with the excellent introduction by J. David Markham who puts the history in context.

By Betsy Balcombe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To Befriend An Emperor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Young Elizabeth Balcombe, or Betsy to friends and family, found life on the remote island of St Helena intolerably dull. Most fourteen-year-olds would. Her father had been posted to that unforgiving station in the Atlantic and, being a family man, he took his family with him.

Life was bleak in Balcombe's bungalow on the fringe of James Town. But then, in October 1815, the situation was transformed by the arrival of an unusual visitor. Napoleon Bonaparte, one-time master of Europe, now prisoner and exile, stepped ashore. The Balcombes, like all the islanders, were amazed. And even more so when Napoleon,…


You might also like...

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

By Brett Dakin,

Book cover of American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

Brett Dakin Author Of Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Lawyer Traveler Dog lover Reader Swimmer

Brett's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Meet Lev Gleason, a real-life comics superhero! Gleason was a titan among Golden Age comics publishers who fought back against the censorship campaigns and paranoia of the Red Scare. After dropping out of Harvard to fight in World War I in France, Gleason moved to New York City and eventually made it big with groundbreaking titles like Daredevil and Crime Does Not Pay.

Brett Dakin, Gleason's great-nephew, opens up the family archives—and the files of the FBI—to take you on a journey through the publisher's life and career. In American Daredevil, you'll learn the truth about Gleason's rapid rise…

American Daredevil: Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

By Brett Dakin,

What is this book about?

MEET LEV GLEASON, A REAL-LIFE COMICS SUPERHERO!

Gleason was a titan among Golden Age comics publishers who fought back against the censorship campaigns and paranoia of the Red Scare. After dropping out of Harvard to fight in France, Gleason moved to New York City and eventually made it big with groundbreaking titles like Daredevil and Crime Does Not Pay.

Brett Dakin, Gleason's great-nephew, opens up the family archives-and the files of the FBI-to take you on a journey through the publisher's life and career. In American Daredevil, you'll learn the truth about Gleason's rapid rise to the top of comics,…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, China, and Napoleon Bonaparte?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, China, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

France Explore 903 books about France
China Explore 601 books about China
Napoleon Bonaparte Explore 97 books about Napoleon Bonaparte