The best books about history’s hidden heroines

Ellen Alpsten Author Of The Tsarina's Daughter
By Ellen Alpsten

Who am I?

Even though I was born and grew up in the Kenyan Highlands (which taught me the value of storytelling in Technicolor!) and studied in Paris (where I won a short-story competition) before moving to London, the Germano-Russian ambivalence runs straight through my family: my father grew up in the GDR. He still remembers the people’s terror when the US tanks withdrew one morning, and the Soviets rolled in after renewed territorial negotiations. On the other hand, my cousin owns a high-brow publishing house that publishes nothing but latter-day Russian intellectuals. My fascination for the early Romanov women and their unique century of female reign started when I was thirteen – I'm theirs ever since!

I wrote...

The Tsarina's Daughter

By Ellen Alpsten,

Book cover of The Tsarina's Daughter

What is my book about?

Born into the House of Romanov to Peter the Great and Catherine I, beautiful Tsarevna Elizabeth is the world's loveliest Princess. Insulated by luxury and as a woman free from the burden of statecraft, Elizabeth seems born to pursue her passions. However, a dark prophecy predicts her fate as being inexorably twined with that of Russia. When her mother dies, Russia is torn, masks fall, and friends become foes. Elizabeth's idyllic world is upended. By her twenties she is penniless and powerless, living under constant threat. As times change like quicksand, an all-consuming passion emboldens Elizabeth: she must decide whether to take up her role as Russia's ruler and what she's willing to do for her country – and for love.

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The books I picked & why

Child of the Morning

By Pauline Gedge,

Book cover of Child of the Morning

Why did I love this book?

Who would have thought that one of the most important rulers of Egypt’s powerful eighteenth dynasty was a woman, who was never intended to rule, yet eclipsed them all – had not her (male) successor diligently erased all literary & visual traces of her reign. I love the first-person narrative, adopting the same today for my own novels. Also, Gedge’s fine plotting teaches us that the ups and downs of life are not enough to keep a reader enthralled. It takes a red line with a good hook to pull the reader in. This brilliant novel about Pharaoh Hatshepsut spawned my life-long passion for ancient Egypt. I cried when I first visited her temple in Deir-El-Bahari, which still inspires modern Architects.

By Pauline Gedge,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Thirty-five centuries ago the sun had a daughter: Hatshepsut. Youngest daughter of the Pharaoh, she was a lithe and magical child. But when her older sister died, it became her duty to purify the dynasty’s bloodline. She was to wed Thothmes, her father’s illegitimate son, who was heir to the throne. But fearing his son’s incompetence, Hatshepsut’s father came to her with startling news. She was to be Pharaoh, ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever known--provided, of course, that the unprecedented ascension by a woman did not inspire the priests to treason or instill in her half-brother…


By Annemarie Selinko,

Book cover of Desiree

Why did I love this book?

I am astounded how many people have not read Desiree despite it being the world’s second best-selling historical novel, after Gone with the Wind. A Marseilles silk merchant’s daughter gets engaged to a destitute Corsican Cadet, who ditches her in favor of Josephine de Beauharnais and goes on to become Napoleon, Emperor of France. She marries one of his generals, who is later voted King of Sweden. And yes, it’s all true, just that we didn’t know. What joy! I love the narrator’s strong, innocent, and then maturing voice, which is so porous to her emotions. This inspires me when I write today: emotions make us human. The book teaches us that fate is no straight line; God’s quiver has many arrows. It’s a sweet, female, wonderful twist on the times of the Sharpe Saga!

By Annemarie Selinko,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Perhaps the most successful historical romance since GONE WITH THE WIND, DESIREE is the bestselling novel of Napoleon's first love. All the passions and intrigues of Bonaparte's court are seen through the eyes of a silk merchant's daughter from Marseilles, a young woman who became Napoleon's fiancee and, ultimately, the Queen of Sweden. 'An astonishing story told with verve and a swift, fluent and deeply feminine charm. The Napoleonic background is vivid and accurate' Evening Standard First published in 1953.

The Other Boleyn Girl

By Philippa Gregory,

Book cover of The Other Boleyn Girl

Why did I love this book?

Ok this is a massive bestseller by now, but how lucky was Philippa Gregory to give Mary-Rose Tudor her long-overdue moment in the limelight? It made her career as an author. The other Boleyn girl had been always there, yet hid in plain sight, overshadowed by her fascinating and more forthcoming sister. It’s the same for my erstwhile debut, so it inspired me to keep going. An artist needs a voice and a brand, only focus brings success. Gregory does a great job in accentuating both Anne’s and Mary-Rose’s character and how their hands were forced in a Court steaming with sex appeal and intrigue – or not! There is a great movie, too, which doesn’t harm.

By Philippa Gregory,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Other Boleyn Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*A stunning brand new unabridged recording*

The acclaimed international bestseller of the Tudor court, during the years of Henry VIII's pursuit of Anne Boleyn - and the revolutionary sequence of events that followed.

1521. Young Mary Boleyn arrives at court, maid in waiting and favourite to Queen Katherine of Aragon.

Yet Mary catches the eye of the capricious king and - propelled by the ambitions of the powerful Boleyn family - she betrays her queen, and takes her place as Henry VIII's new mistress.

But while Mary is in childbed, a rival comes to court - her sister Anne, a…

Book cover of Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey

Why did I love this book?

Ah, those Tudors. Just when I think I am fed up with their well-recorded antics, they have a terrific comeback. Lady Jane Grey is not that hidden in history; she merely had no time – no time at all! - to make her mark. Books about England’s most unknown Queen are few and far between, which makes this novel by Alison Weir – an ambitious writer - such a delight. Grey’s fate fascinates me as it is filled with tantalizing questions – what sort of Queen would she have been, once she shed the shackles her ambitious family placed her in? Often in writing what you do not say is more powerful than what you say. I have learnt to love letting my imagination free reign, asking my heroines: "So, what was this really like?"

By Alison Weir,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Innocent Traitor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A wrenching novel about the life and death of Lady Jane Grey, one of the most complex and sympathetic figures in Tudor England, by popular historian Alison Weir: ideal for fans of Wolf Hall

Lady Jane Grey was born into times of extreme danger. Child of a scheming father and a ruthless mother, for whom she was merely a pawn in a dynastic power game with the highest stakes, she lived a life in thrall to political machinations and lethal religious fervour.

Jane's astonishing and essentially tragic story was played out during one of the most momentous periods of…

Book cover of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China

Why did I love this book?

The memory of this 'novel' – which crosses the line to biography for some – still gives me heartache. It offers the most fascinating insight into the demise of an Empire and the brutal, ruthless making of a communist nation, in which nothing is as superfluous and as expendable as human life. As such, it is reminiscent of my series and the making of Russia we know today. However, I left the last pages of Wild Swans unread, as the inhumane suffering so casually imposed on women was unbearable to witness. Still, I took so much away from it, above all the strength and resilience of human nature. It’s a monument to all women, all over the world, something I would like to reflect in my novels and in my heroines’ voices, too.

By Jung Chang,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Wild Swans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few books have had such an impact as Wild Swans: a popular bestseller which has sold more than 13 million copies and a critically acclaimed history of China; a tragic tale of nightmarish cruelty and an uplifting story of bravery and survival.

Through the story of three generations of women in her own family - the grandmother given to the warlord as a concubine, the Communist mother and the daughter herself - Jung Chang reveals the epic history of China's twentieth century.

Breathtaking in its scope, unforgettable in its descriptions, this is a masterpiece which is extraordinary in every way.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in queens, China, and World War 2?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about queens, China, and World War 2.

Queens Explore 87 books about queens
China Explore 513 books about China
World War 2 Explore 1,535 books about World War 2

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Tombland, Hamnet, and The Man Who Loved China if you like this list.