The best books about empresses

13 authors have picked their favorite books about empresses and why they recommend each book.

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Nicholas and Alexandra

By Robert K. Massie,

Book cover of Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

This classic tale of the last Romanovs is both a meticulously researched history and a sweeping personal saga. Massie and his wife were the parents of a son who suffered from the same condition as the last Russian heir to the throne: hemophilia. His empathy for their personal lives makes this a poignant and ultimately devastating read.


Who am I?

Jennifer Laam has been long fascinated with the mysteries surrounding the last Romanovs. Book Bub named her debut novel The Secret Daughter of the Tsar one of  "12 Books to Read if You Love Anastasia." She has three books published with St. Martin's Griffin, all focusing on an aspect of Russian history.


I wrote...

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar: A Novel of the Romanovs

By Jennifer Laam,

Book cover of The Secret Daughter of the Tsar: A Novel of the Romanovs

What is my book about?

A compelling alternate history of the Romanov family in which a secret fifth daughter--smuggled out of Russia before the revolution--continues the royal lineage to dramatic consequences

In her riveting debut novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her.

Theodora

By Stella Duffy,

Book cover of Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

The Empress Theodora is one of the most colourful and notorious figures in eastern Roman (or ‘Byzantine’) history, and in this book, and the sequel The Purple Shroud, Stella Duffy brings her brilliantly to life. After spending her early years in the coarse and brutally competitive demimonde of performers, dancers and prostitutes surrounding the Hippodrome of Constantinople, Theodora scales to the heights of imperial power with tenacity and determination. But she always appears as a figure of her age, immersed in the complex and often bewildering culture and society of the 6th century AD. Duffy uses the travails of Theodora’s life to take us on a tour of the eastern Mediterranean, from the slums and palaces of Constantinople to the desert monasteries of Egypt. It’s an engaging tale of rags to riches, to rags again to riches again, and remains scrupulously close to the few historical sources that survive, while…


Who am I?

Ian Ross was born in England and studied painting before turning to writing fiction. He has been researching the later Roman empire and its army for over a decade, and his interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail with a devotion to the craft of storytelling. His six-novel Twilight of Empire series follows the career of Aurelius Castus as he rises from the ranks of the legions to the dangerous summit of military power, against the background of a Roman world in crisis.


I wrote...

War at the Edge of the World

By Ian Ross,

Book cover of War at the Edge of the World

What is my book about?

The epic first installment in a sequence of novels set at the end of the Roman Empire, during the reign of Emperor Constantine. Centurion Aurelius Castus - once a soldier in the elite legions of the Danube - believes his glory days are over, as he finds himself in the cold, grey wastes of northern Britain, battling to protect an empire in decline.

The Romanov Empress

By C.W. Gortner,

Book cover of The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna

The sumptuous story of Nicholas II’s mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna, aka Princess Dagmar of Denmark. Initially engaged to his brother, she becomes the wife of Tsar Alexander III. This elegant novel follows the new empress from the triumphs of her early years in Russia, conflicts with her son’s wife, Alexandra, and the challenges and heartbreak of the Russian Revolution.


Who am I?

Jennifer Laam has been long fascinated with the mysteries surrounding the last Romanovs. Book Bub named her debut novel The Secret Daughter of the Tsar one of  "12 Books to Read if You Love Anastasia." She has three books published with St. Martin's Griffin, all focusing on an aspect of Russian history.


I wrote...

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar: A Novel of the Romanovs

By Jennifer Laam,

Book cover of The Secret Daughter of the Tsar: A Novel of the Romanovs

What is my book about?

A compelling alternate history of the Romanov family in which a secret fifth daughter--smuggled out of Russia before the revolution--continues the royal lineage to dramatic consequences

In her riveting debut novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her.

Catherine the Great

By Robert K. Massie,

Book cover of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

I was once casually asked, “Who is Sophie Frederikke Auguste, Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst?" Curious, shortly thereafter I discovered her identity in Robert Massie’s extraordinary biography of her whom history remembers as Catherine the Great, the last Empress Regnant of Russia. Daughter of an obscure German prince, through the tireless efforts of her mother Sophie, arrived in Russia in her early teens with a prospect of marriage to the then heir to the throne.

I find Massie a brilliant chronicler; he fascinates me – almost as much as does Catherine herself. He effortlessly writes non-fiction as were he a novelist, telling a lush, colourful – and frequently violent – story of an extraordinary, near-singular woman. Catherine is a perfect subject for him – dazzling, intricate, contradictory, and ferocious in her own way.


Who am I?

Whilst I was born in America, growing up in an old Irish family with a long history and a powerful sense of its past, I learnt a great deal of Irish, British, and European (especially French) history from an early age – proving valuable in both of my careers – one, as an international business lawyer, the other as a full-time writer of historical fiction. As a result of a “very Irish” numinous connection with the Gaelic poet, Eileen O’Connell, I frequently find myself drawn to books about strong, courageous, and memorable women – particularly those who lived in interesting times, such as the tumultuous days of Sixteenth and Eighteenth-Century Europe.  

I wrote...

Bittersweet Tapestry: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe

By Kevin O'Connell,

Book cover of Bittersweet Tapestry: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe

What is my book about?

As Bittersweet Tapestry, the third volume of Kevin O’Connell’s continuing Derrynane Saga opens, Eileen O’Connell and her husband, Arthur O’Leary, an officer of the Hungarian Hussars, have departed Vienna – where she served for almost a decade as governess to Maria Theresa’s youngest daughter, now Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France. 

Their life in Ascendancy-ruled Ireland is in stark contrast to what they left behind, as well as to that of Eileen’s brothers, officers in the Irish Brigade of France, her youngest one, Hugh, now wed to the French Princess Royal. The Irish story evolves into a dark, violent, and bloody tale...ultimately involving an epic tragedy – which results in what has been called, “The greatest poem written in (Ireland and Britain) in the whole Eighteenth Century.”

Catherine the Great

By Isabel de Madariaga,

Book cover of Catherine the Great: A Short History

British historian Madariaga, an expert in the field of eighteenth-century Russia, gives the reader a balanced, up-to-date, and insightful, multi-faceted yet concise, description of the vast empire that constituted Catherine’s Russia.  The author describes how a minor German princess seized the Romanov throne, how she contrived to become an autocrat ruling over all the Russias, and, how during her thirty-four-year reign, Catherine guided her country into becoming a major player in international power politics.


Who am I?

I’ve always been captivated by stories about powerful women. After a corporate career as one of the first female executives in the international world of Wall Street, while raising two children as a single working parent, I returned to academia. I am a magna cum laude graduate of Smith College, hold a doctorate in modern European history, with academic distinction, from New York University. I wanted to ascertain whether the mostly male writers of history were correct in attributing the success of exceptional women to the bedroom. Meticulous research yielded a different narrative, one I delight in sharing.


I wrote...

Florence Nightingale, Feminist

By Judith Lissauer Cromwell,

Book cover of Florence Nightingale, Feminist

What is my book about?

The first, full-length biography told from a post-feminist perspective. Born into Victorian Britain’s elite, a brilliant, magnetic teenager decided to devote her life to the indigent sick by becoming a nurse. Her family opposed. Catapulted into the Crimean War, Nightingale brought order to the chaos of British military hospitals, but never forgot her patients.

Despite debilitating illness, she focused on preventing another Crimean catastrophe -- the death of thousands due to avoidable causes. Hygienic army installations, sanitation for India, and the creation of modern nursing owe much to Nightingale. Victorians saw her as the ideal nurturing female. Hindsight provides a wider perspective. By conceiving a career for women that empowered them with economic independence, Florence Nightingale stands among the founders of modern feminism.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

By Nghi Vo,

Book cover of The Empress of Salt and Fortune

This novella packs in more memorable moments than many much longer books. Like The Once and Future Witches, it’s also a work of speculation that addresses history. But mainly, it’s a fantastic story that happens to dance with big questions like: Who gets to write history? Who do we remember and why? What artifacts matter? Nghi Vo subtly addresses these questions while spinning a tale of an Asian empire, its rulers, and its inhabitants. The cleric Chih, their remarkable bird Almost Brilliant, and the elderly woman Rabbit together create a compelling, grand tale of world-building. It’s beautiful to read, and it’s been nominated for several awards including the prestigious Hugo.


Who am I?

I’m now a historian, and I focus on gender, race, and technology. But before that, I worked in education and the tech industry. I have firsthand experience with how people and technologies shape each other, often in ways that reinforce existing systems of racism and misogyny. Now, in my research, writing, and teaching as a historian, I think a lot about how to make manifest the structures of power, supremacy, and inequity that shape our lives. I’ve found that fiction is a powerful way to understand and analyze them, and to see them in our own lives. That’s why four of these five books are novels.


I wrote...

A People's History of Computing in the United States

By Joy Lisi Rankin,

Book cover of A People's History of Computing in the United States

What is my book about?

My work in the tech and education industries inspired A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Our popular American origins stories around contemporary digital culture center on what I call the “Silicon Valley mythology” – the idea that tech had “Founding Fathers” like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. Instead, my book argues that 1960s and 1970s American students and educators created personal computing and social networking on academic networks.

At their most idealistic, these networks aimed to be communities that fostered creativity, collaboration, and connection; however, because tech can never be separated from the societies in which it operates, these networks fostered macho computing culture.

Empress Dowager Cixi

By Jung Chang,

Book cover of Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China

Jung Chang, best known as the author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, here turns her considerable creative skill to the story of the woman who rose to the height of power in one of the world’s most important empires. Cixi’s trajectory from concubine to mother of the Tongzhi Emperor reminds us how sexual and reproductive labour are often critical to women’s access to power. 

Chang locates Cixi’s personal experiences, enjoying extreme luxury in secluded palaces yet displaying keen interest in the outside world that China was forced to confront, against a grand narrative of extraordinary changes to the empire Cixi was charged to safeguard. Chang presents a strongly sympathetic analysis of Cixi but the complex ambitions, many contradictions and perceived failures of this powerful woman ensure that she will remain the subject of continued debate.


Who am I?

I'm Professor and Director of the Gender and Women’s History Research Centre at the Australian Catholic University. I've always been interested in the power of ideologies about gender to shape people’s lives, and in the experiences of women in times past. I started off exploring these topics in early modern Europe and then looked at how women, and ideas about gender, shaped the ways European peoples engaged in the world at this period. This has helped me to see the very significant ways that the lives of women and men are always shaped by gender ideologies across the globe and across time, and the innovative ways that people respond to the challenges and opportunities that they encounter.


I wrote...

The Identities of Catherine de’ Medici

By Susan Broomhall,

Book cover of The Identities of Catherine de’ Medici

What is my book about?

In this book, I explore how the character of this famous sixteenth-century queen of France and influential mother of three French kings has been represented in different, sometimes contrasting, ways as people have tried to make sense of her behaviour and motivations, in her own time and since. I look at how Catherine de’ Medici herself, along with her allies, supporters, and clients, tried to project a particular story about who she was and why she acted as she did and how her contemporaries responded to this. Some did so positively, but others were deeply hostile to the queen and circulated their own, alternative, ideas about who Catherine was.

The legacy of this deeply contested woman who operated at the heart of French political life can only be understood if we can make sense of how her identity was ‘produced’ in writing, artworks, architecture, fashion, and ceremonies and how these forms had consequences for which aspects of Catherine de’ Medici’s identity have been remembered and reproduced right down to the present day.

Empress of Forever

By Max Gladstone,

Book cover of Empress of Forever

This book is an epic fantasy novel masquerading as science fiction. Viv (think female Elon Musk) is on the cusp of changing the world with her tech company when she’s kidnapped by an Empress sitting at the end of Time who rules most of the universe and is bent on conquering or destroying the rest. Forced to team up with a space pirate queen, warrior monk, newb pilot, and a machine virus (yes, really--and it's awesome) that used to serve the Empress, Viv traverses the universe to do what no one has ever attempted: rebel. It’s a ragtag Guardians of the Galaxy with loads more twists and turns that will have you reaching for your space sick bag trying to figure out if Viv and team will make it to the end alive.


Who am I?

Fantasy hooked me as a child with tales of Narnia and Harry Potter, transporting me to wondrous new worlds and possibilities. That sense of adventure got into my blood and I’ve traveled the world from the eastern edges of Afghanistan to wandering Caribbean haunts, exploring cathedrals of Europe, and hiking the jungles of Southeast Asia. Through it all, I’ve never stopped reading, chasing after the next adventure. Quite simply: I love the sense of discovery and pure wonder fantasy novels can offer. This list has some of my favorites and I hope you’ll take the journey there and back again. If you do, I bet you’ll find yourself transformed on the other side. 


I wrote...

The Sin in the Steel

By Ryan Van Loan,

Book cover of The Sin in the Steel

What is my book about?

The Sin in the Steel is the story of Sambuciña ‘Buc’ Alhurra, an autodidact street rat who is part Sherlock Holmes, part young Indiana Jones, and all herself. Buc’s too smart for her own good with a razor-sharp blade hidden up her sleeve and an even sharper tongue. She and her swordsman partner-in-crime-solving, Eld, are the first private investigators in a world controlled by trading companies and empires and Gods caught in an endless war. Determined to upend their corrupt society, Buc and Eld take on a mission that has them facing off against pirate queens, mages, and uncharted seas to solve a mystery empires have failed to uncover.

Unfortunately for Buc, the Gods have other plans. Unfortunately for the Gods, so does Buc.

Dragon Lady

By Sterling Seagrave,

Book cover of Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China

This book takes what you think you know about China’s Last Empress, Cixi, and turns it upside down. Far from the monster created by puerile Western conquerors to justify their imperial domination over China, this historical account uncovers the reality behind the woman who held great power in China. This reality is core to the destruction of the Dragon Lady stereotype in Western culture that I lay out in my book.


Who am I?

I have specialized in writing about Asia since first moving to Hong Kong as a journalist in 1989, and spent the past three decades trying to improve understandings between East and West. My Asian women friends repeatedly asked me why Western men expected them to pour their drinks and serve them food. I answered “because that’s what they saw in the movies.” The James Bond films perpetuating these images of servile Asian women scrubbing white mens’ backs in the bathtub were pervasive when they were growing up. I decided to uncover and explain where this history of imagery and the stereotypes they result in come from – and, as someone with an anthropological background, also explain cultural practices that foster misunderstandings. 


I wrote...

The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient

By Sheridan Prasso,

Book cover of The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient

What is my book about?

Why do stereotypes about Asian women persist in Western culture: as submissive and servile, or the opposite – as kick-ass, kung-fu Dragon Lady dominatrix? Despite recent progress in Hollywood, these images remain pervasive in film, TV, advertising, and other imagery. Where do they come from, and what are the realities behind them?

This important, acclaimed book tackles the perceptions and the realities, recounting the history of East-West interaction that led to these images and their persistence, and the cultural factors and market forces that help them persist. It is ideal for people looking for understanding, and for people looking to help others  – like guys with an Asian fetish– understand.

Empress Orchid

By Anchee Min,

Book cover of Empress Orchid

Empress Wu, the protagonist of my historical duology The Empress of Bright Moon, was often mistaken for the Empress Cixi in this novel, which often prompted me to explain that Empress Wu lived in the seventh century and she was the only female who ruled China in her name. But Empress Cixi, perhaps, was the only equivalent to her, as Cixi wielded great power and ruled the country from behind a thick, embroidered curtain in the late nineteenth century. Well-researched, the novel chronicled the rise of a cunning concubine, a woman of the reigning ethnic group over the Han people, and offered a rare insight into the journey of the indomitable woman and China at the end of the nineteenth century. 


Who am I?

I was born and raised in China; at twenty-four, I immigrated to the US and switched to English, my second language, to write historical fiction featuring Chinese women. I published The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, a historical novel series about Empress Wu, the first and only female ruler in China, in 2016. The Moon in the Palace won the RWA RITA Award, and the series has been translated into seven languages. I love writing novels with rich historical details, compelling descriptions of culture, and strong but flawed Chinese women who are not afraid to defy tradition to pursue their dreams.


I wrote...

The Last Rose of Shanghai

By Weina Dai Randel,

Book cover of The Last Rose of Shanghai

What is my book about?

The novel, set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during WWII, tells an impossible love story between a wealthy Chinese woman, Aiyi Shao, and a penniless German Jew who fled to Shanghai from Nazi Germany, Ernest Reismann. When Aiyi, a woman from a well-bred family in Shanghai, hired Ernest to play the piano in her nightclub, the two forge an unbreakable bond that transcends race, class, and war. The novel reveals a little-known segment of history, the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, and the resilience of both Chinese and Jewish people during WWII.

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