The best historical fiction books where the damsel is not always the one in distress

Who am I?

I am a strong, independent woman (*snaps fingers through the air*), yet I adore a soul-sucking romance. Many might think this is a contradiction, but it’s not! A woman can be both loving and stubborn…both enamored by her partner yet still strong enough to speak up for herself. Sadly, I think historical fiction often defaults to portraying dependent and subjugated women, and this isn’t necessarily wrong—in fact, it’s probably more accurate. However, when I’m getting lost in the magic of a novel, I want to experience the all-consuming love without sacrificing the resiliency and independence of the women involved, and these books spin stories where both outcomes are possible!


I wrote...

All the Gold in Abbotsford

By E.L. Daniel,

Book cover of All the Gold in Abbotsford

What is my book about?

Elena Redewolde has lost everything—her family, castle, title, and dignity—and King Edward II’s corrupt court is to blame. All that remains is her freedom, but even that’s taken away when she’s forced to wed the local mercenary captain, Stephen Warde. Though Stephen promises to restore her lands and salvage her family’s reputation, he refuses to tell her how. The months pass by while her circumstances remain the same, but then strange events start unfolding around their town, and she begins to wonder whether she might twist the situation to her advantage. Tax raises, falsely forged gold, whispers of a foreign invasion? If Elena can uncover this fraud and corruption surrounding her, maybe it’ll help her reclaim her destiny and win back her home…

The books I picked & why

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The First Princess of Wales: A Novel

By Karen Harper,

Book cover of The First Princess of Wales: A Novel

Why this book?

Star-crossed lovers and a strong female heroine! This setting is the beginning of the end for the Plantagenets. Their royal court is turbulent—filled with secrets and enemies after the dramatic coup of the current king’s father, King Edward II (the events of which are featured in my book). When the beautiful and willful Joan of Kent, cousin to the royal family, is sent to live among them, she soon learns they’re the ones responsible for her father’s unjust execution and her family’s subsequent shame. Though the handsome and chivalrous Black Prince of Wales is falling at her feet, she twists his affection against him in an act of revenge, only allowing Fortune’s Wheel to turn once she decides it should be so.

The First Princess of Wales: A Novel

By Karen Harper,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The daughter of a disgraced earl, she matched wits with a prince.

It is the fourteenth century, the height of the Medieval Age, and at the court of King Edward III of England, chivalry is loudly praised while treachery runs rampant. When the lovely and high-spirited Joan of Kent is sent to this politically charged court, she is woefully unprepared for the underhanded maneuverings of her peers.

Determined to increase the breadth of his rule, the king will use any means necessary to gain control of France—including manipulating his own son, Edward, Prince of Wales. Joan plots to become involved…


World Without End

By Ken Follett,

Book cover of World Without End

Why this book?

There is so much going on in this book in terms of plot, drama, and relationships, but why I especially love it is because Caris, one of the protagonists, breaks the mold of the typical powerless medieval woman. When the Black Plague comes to Kingsbridge, Caris is the only one who uses observation and common sense to realize that the disease spreads by contact. In a world that revolves around religion and superstition, this doesn’t go over well. Though forced to sacrifice the love of her life, and put on trial as a witch, Caris sticks to her guns and enacts the medical policies she knows will save lives. Eventually, she gains the townspeople’s trust, ultimately ascending into a position of power within the town. Get it, girl!

World Without End

By Ken Follett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked World Without End as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the day after Halloween, in the year 1327, four children slip away from the cathedral city of Kingsbridge. They are a thief, a bully, a boy genius and a girl who wants to be a doctor. In the forest they see two men killed. As adults, their lives will be braided together by ambition, love, greed and revenge. They will see prosperity and famine, plague and war. One boy will travel the world but come home in the end; the other will be a powerful, corrupt nobleman. One girl will defy the might of the medieval church; the other…


The Lady of the Rivers: A Novel

By Philippa Gregory,

Book cover of The Lady of the Rivers: A Novel

Why this book?

I love this story because the main character, Jacquetta, is not outright royalty—like the typical queen or princess that many historical fiction novels feature. She’s descended from a river goddess, which gives her the gift of second sight and an alluring presence, propelling her into various rings of power. From meeting Joan of Arc in France, to studying alchemy, to participating in a secret marriage, to becoming a trusted confidant of the Queen of England, Jacquetta navigates so many dangerous situations and precarious relationships using her special gifts. Yet after all of this, it’s her family that ultimately comes out on top in what is the beginning of a dynasty in the War of the Roses… the revered House of York! Sneaky and fascinating!

The Lady of the Rivers: A Novel

By Philippa Gregory,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

THE COMPELLING NOVEL FROM SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER PHILIPPA GREGORY

'This is a man's world, Jacquetta, and some women cannot march to the beat of a man's drum. Do you understand?'

1435. Rouen. Jacquetta of Luxembourg is left a wealthy young widow when her husband, the Duke of Bedford, dies. Her only friend in the great household is Richard Woodville, the Duke's squire, and it is not long before the two become lovers and marry in secret.

The Woodvilles return to the Lancaster court, where Jacquetta becomes close friends with young King Henry VI's new queen. But she can sense a…


The Locksmith's Daughter: A Novel

By Karen Brooks,

Book cover of The Locksmith's Daughter: A Novel

Why this book?

I always knew that espionage and spycraft were a huge part of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, but to have a young woman be at the very core of the conspiracies was totally badass and unexpected! Mallory Bright is the talented daughter of a London locksmith, but after a terrible scandal, she’s propelled into Sir Francis Walsingham’s world of danger and deception—picking locks, unraveling codes, and trying on new identities! At first, she’s enamored with her new profession, but even as a woman, she can’t escape the brutal tortures and punishments that await someone in such a dangerous role. Throughout her trials, her bravery and talent are captivating, and I loved watching her eventually regain her own agency and strength while putting her horrid past behind her.

The Locksmith's Daughter: A Novel

By Karen Brooks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Locksmith's Daughter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From acclaimed author Karen Brooks comes this intriguing novel rich in historical detail and drama as it tells the unforgettable story of Queen Elizabeth's daring, ruthless spymaster and his female protegee.

In Queen Elizabeth's England, where no one can be trusted and secrets are currency, one woman stands without fear.

Mallory Bright is the only daughter of London's most ingenious locksmith. She has apprenticed with her father since childhood, and there is no lock too elaborate for her to crack. After scandal destroys her reputation, Mallory has returned to her father's home and lives almost as a recluse, ignoring the…


Here Be Dragons

By Sharon Kay Penman,

Book cover of Here Be Dragons

Why this book?

I seriously enjoy a good “between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place” romance, especially when the female heroine is able to navigate it while staying true to herself. In this one, King John weds his illegitimate but beloved daughter Joanna to his bitter enemy, Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, in an effort to take Wales under his control. But Joanna loves both of them—father and husband—and is forced time and again to prove her loyalty to one side or the other, until neither faction supports her in return. While this definitely portrays the helplessness that many medieval women faced, often experiencing a forced marriage for some political purpose or other, Joanna’s courage, bravery, and sense of self in the face of so much conflict were inspiring and so addicting to read about.

Here Be Dragons

By Sharon Kay Penman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Here Be Dragons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An absorbing historical novel of power and betrayal, loyalty and political intrigue in thirteenth-century England, Wales and France, centring on King John of England, younger brother to the brilliant Richard Lionheart, Joanna, his illegitimate but recognised daughter and Llewellyn Ab Iowerth, Prince of Gwynedd, a bitter opponent of English ways, laws and encroachment into Wales who becomes Joanna's husband.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, the House of Plantagenet, and the Wars of the Roses?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, the House of Plantagenet, and the Wars of the Roses.

The Middle Ages Explore 303 books about the Middle Ages
The House Of Plantagenet Explore 12 books about the House of Plantagenet
The Wars Of The Roses Explore 22 books about the Wars of the Roses

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Deathless, Tigana, and A Natural History of Dragons if you like this list.