The best historical novels with kick-ass female leads

The Books I Picked & Why

A Very Long Engagement

By Sebastien Japrisot

Book cover of A Very Long Engagement

Why this book?

Unable to walk since childhood, Mathilde Donnay never lets her limitations get in her way. She is on the search for her fiancé who was reported killed in the Great War, but whom she believes might still be alive. Mathilde is feisty, caring, strategic, and driven—all things I’d like to be.

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Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson

Book cover of Life After Life

Why this book?

Ursula Todd is born in 1910 — and then dies and is reborn over and over again. Ursula does not wholly understand that she’s had past lives, and yet she is able in later lives to conquer the boy who once raped her, the husband who abused her, and she even aims a gun at Hitler in the hopes of avoiding World War II and saving her younger brother. It made me think I could heal past wounds even if I didn’t get the chance to live through a difficult experience again. 

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Three Hours in Paris

By Cara Black

Book cover of Three Hours in Paris

Why this book?

Speaking of World War II, Kate Rees is an expert marksman hired by the British government in 1940 for a very particular mission: to assassinate Hitler during his brief visit to occupied France.

Kate navigates her way out of Paris after the mission fails (no spoiler there!); she’s a creative and sly mouse who won’t let the cat (a German officer on her trail) catch up to her. I felt like I was seeing Paris in a new way as Kate raced through little-known nooks and neighborhoods. A fast-paced and twisty thriller!

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By Jo Baker

Book cover of Longbourn

Why this book?

Why do I think Sarah, the orphaned housemaid to the Bennet family (of Pride and Prejudice fame) is a kick-ass heroine? Because despite never being given a surname, she’s smart and observant, she’s not afraid of having a mixed-race relationship (unusual in 1813), and she leaves the safety (I won’t say comfort) of her job at Longbourn to find and help a man in trouble. I loved re-reading Pride and Prejudice from a maid’s point of view. Lots of dress washing and chamberpot emptying, and snarky remarks about class differences.

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The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

By Jane Smiley

Book cover of The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton

Why this book?

Tall, plain, and fearless Lidie marries Thomas Newton before heading out to the Kansas Territory in 1850. She’s thrilled to be having an adventure, although Kansas turns out to be more rough and violent than she imagined. Lidie is skilled with horses and guns, which turns out to be a good thing, and she can also dress to look like a man—also helpful. I had never read about the troubles in Kansas before the American Civil War and I was astonished at how dramatic and prophetic it was. Lidie needed every bit of her strength and cunning to survive.

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