The best historical fiction books featuring women who aren’t queens

Who am I?

I have a PhD in history and used to be a college professor. I decided to write historical fiction novels so that I could reach a larger audience than college students and share incredible stories from history with more people. The reason I created this list of books about women is because the farther back in history we look, the more invisible women seem to become. That’s why I wanted to tell Theodora’s story—it’s an amazing tale, first, but it also allowed me to share how different conditions were for women in the past. The other books I’ve recommended do the same.


I wrote...

Theodora

By Rob Bauer,

Book cover of Theodora

What is my book about?

Theodora of Byzantium is a scandalous teenage actress and Constantinople’s most sought-after courtesan. But she didn’t choose that life. Her mother and sister were actresses, so in Byzantium’s rigid and patriarchal society Theodora must be one, too. She vows that one day she’ll free herself from the whims of men and the shame of flaunting her body for money.

Theodora’s only route to personal freedom is to break society’s rules and seduce men of wealth and power. The religious and political enemies she makes in the process, however, put the lives of Theodora and her sister, Comito, in danger.

The books I picked & why

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The Four Winds

By Kristin Hannah,

Book cover of The Four Winds

Why this book?

One thing I loved about The Four Winds is that it blended three important historical things about the 1930s—the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and the struggles of farm laborers. A second thing I loved is that it made the environment/nature come alive in a way that few books do. 

The main character, Elsa Martinelli, struggles with issues that are common to women historically. Because of a sheltered early life, she must overcome numerous self-doubts to succeed and raise her two children despite almost insurmountable setbacks.

Hannah also captures the mood of the 1930s well and writes characters whom you’ll sympathize with and root for.

The Four Winds

By Kristin Hannah,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Four Winds as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The Bestselling Hardcover Novel of the Year."--Publishers Weekly

From the number-one bestselling author of The Nightingale and The Great Alone comes a powerful American epic about love and heroism and hope, set during the Great Depression, a time when the country was in crisis and at war with itself, when millions were out of work and even the land seemed to have turned against them.

“My land tells its story if you listen. The story of our family.”

Texas, 1921. A time of abundance. The Great War is over, the bounty of the land is plentiful, and America is on…


The Girls in the Stilt House

By Kelly Mustian,

Book cover of The Girls in the Stilt House

Why this book?

This book takes place in 1920s Mississippi, in a cypress swamp. I loved how it portrayed life in the rural South in the 1920s—hardscrabble, poor, and difficult. The specter of racism hangs over the story, always threatening Ada and Matilda with ruining their plans, because Ada is White while Matilda is Black.

The plot is that both girls must find a way to get away with murder. Kelly Mustian does a nice job of making this swamp world come alive, too.

The only drawback is that the book has the same plot as a ton of African American fiction—two characters, one white, one Black, whose lives intertwine. If you can get past the fact that you’ve seen this plot before, the book is quite good.

The Girls in the Stilt House

By Kelly Mustian,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Girls in the Stilt House as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE USA TODAY BESTSELLER!
"Remarkable debut.... [a] nearly flawless tale of loss, perseverance and redemption."-Publishers Weekly, STARRED review
Set in 1920s Mississippi, this debut Southern novel weaves a beautiful and harrowing story of two teenage girls cast in an unlikely partnership through murder-perfect for readers of Where the Crawdads Sing and If the Creek Don't Rise.
Ada promised herself she would never go back to the Trace, to her hard life on the swamp and her harsh father. But now, after running away to Baton Rouge and briefly knowing a different kind of life, she finds herself with nowhere to…


The Impossible Girl

By Lydia Kang,

Book cover of The Impossible Girl

Why this book?

I loved the originality of The Impossible Girl. Cora Lee is a resurrectionist—she steals bodies from cemeteries for medical dissection in 1850s New York City. This isn’t really a sympathetic activity, however. Would you love a grave robber? So, to add flavor, bodies with unusual physical traits bring in extra money, and Cora specializes in stealing these.

But she’s got a unique malady of her own—she has two hearts. And people want to kill her to cash in on her body. Now we have a reason to cheer for her.

The story has many twists as Cora learns who she can (and can’t) trust. Add to that some romance, the vibrant setting of 1850s New York City, and some twisted characters, and this is a fun book.

The Impossible Girl

By Lydia Kang,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Two hearts. Twice as vulnerable.

Manhattan, 1850. Born out of wedlock to a wealthy socialite and a nameless immigrant, Cora Lee can mingle with the rich just as easily as she can slip unnoticed into the slums and graveyards of the city. As the only female resurrectionist in New York, she's carved out a niche procuring bodies afflicted with the strangest of anomalies. Anatomists will pay exorbitant sums for such specimens-dissecting and displaying them for the eager public.

Cora's specialty is not only profitable, it's a means to keep a finger on the pulse of those searching for her. She's…


Mistress of the Art of Death

By Ariana Franklin,

Book cover of Mistress of the Art of Death

Why this book?

Who doesn’t love a medieval murder mystery? Someone has been murdering children near Cambridge. Everyone blames the local Jews. King Henry II wants answers.

I enjoyed the diverse characters—the local prior, some rabble-rousing townspeople, a tax collector, a handful of knights, the prioress of a nunnery, and a woman from the fens. One is the killer.

Enter Adelia Aguilar, a Sicilian doctor sent to help Henry II unravel the mystery. But she puts herself and her companions in death’s way in the process. What I loved best was Adelia’s methods—she uses evidence and clues in a rather unconventional way. In the process, she defies many stereotypes about medieval women—she’s not submissive, sheltered, uneducated, or a saintly religious ascetic.

Mistress of the Art of Death

By Ariana Franklin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mistress of the Art of Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the CWA Best Historical Crime Novel of the Year

'Great fun! Franklin succeeds in vividly bringing the 12th century to life with this cracking good story' KATE MOSSE

Medieval England. A hideous murder. Enter the first female anatomist...

Adelia Aguilar is a rare thing in medieval Europe - a woman who has trained as a doctor. Her speciality is the study of corpses, a skill that must be concealed if she is to avoid accusations of witchcraft.

But in Cambridge a child has been murdered, others are disappearing, and King Henry has called upon a renowned Italian investigator…


Freshwater Road

By Denise Nicholas,

Book cover of Freshwater Road

Why this book?

The setting of the book was a huge draw for me—1960s Mississippi. Celeste is a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and she goes to rural Mississippi in 1964 to take part in Freedom Summer, a major event of the Civil Rights Movement.

I enjoyed this because, for all its drama, heroism, and moral righteousness, the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t get a lot of attention in historical fiction. I feel like it should.

Readers will be drawn in by the all-encompassing scope of segregation in 1960s Mississippi. Add in some characters with secrets, some people who unexpectedly rise to the occasion, and the overall climate of fear that pervaded Mississippi at the time, and you’ll enjoy this book if you care about civil rights at all.

Freshwater Road

By Denise Nicholas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Freshwater Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The critically acclaimed debut novel from pioneering actress and writer Denise Nicholas tells the story of one young woman's coming of age via the political and social upheavals of the civil rights movement. Nineteen-year-old Celeste Tyree leaves Ann Arbor to go to Pineyville, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964 to help found a voter registration project as part of Freedom Summer. As the summer unfolds, she confronts not only the political realities of race and poverty in this tiny town, but also deep truths about her family and herself. Drawing on Nicholas' own involvement in the movement, Freshwater Road was…


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