We may not always look to the past when looking for women that inspire us in the now, but when it comes to historical novels, the leading ladies of literature may want to watch out. Fierce women come in all kinds throughout historical fiction through those who stand up for what’s right, to the ones willing to risk anything for their family and the people they love.
Here are some of my favorite historical fiction novels featuring badass women!
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
Female spies always hold their own in historical fiction for being absolutely inspiring as well as badass wherever their story takes them. Following Eve Gardiner recruited to work as a spy in World War I France as a part of the real-life Alice Network. Sent into small occupied territory to relay information from the enemy under their noses working as a waitress while during the aftermath of World War II, Eve is also tossed into the mystery of American college girl Charlie St. Clair who is pregnant and searching for her beloved cousin who disappeared in occupied France during the war.
Starting as a young woman unsure of herself, Eve doesn’t disappoint in making sure she has done everything in order to do right by those she cares about past and present.
An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
Though she’ known for her popular Reluctant Royals series, Alyssa Cole also writes historical fiction. Featuring Elle Burns, a former slave turned spy for the Union Army, she is smart, passionate and has an eidetic memory to boot. When she comes to join forces with another undercover detective, Malcolm McCall, both share a common cause as well as an undeniable attraction to one another. As they make a discovery that could turn the war into the Confederacy’s favor, Elle’s undercover position to fight for justice turns into romance and making the most difficult decisions in order to preserve the union even if it means losing the person she has come to love.
Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris
18-year-old Cilka Klein knows what it means to survive after making it to the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, her means of survival was not taken kindly by the Soviets who liberated her, sentencing her to another 15-years in a Siberian gulag for her crimes of coercing with the enemy. Cilka uses her wits, charm, and beauty to survive as well as her intelligence as she trains as a camp nurse to keep those safe around her as well as herself in order to one day hopefully return home.
Conjure Women by Afia Atakora
Spanning eras and generations in the South before and after the Civil War, three lives of women are brought to the forefront. Miss May Belle, is a wise healing woman. Her daughter, Rue, is unsure whether she wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a midwife, and their master’s daughter, Varina. Secrets and passion creates strong bonds between women and the community, though nothing is concrete when these relationships come to a head at the beginning of the war and when an accursed child is born, superstition threatens their freedom and shows how far they are willing to go to save themselves and those they love.
The Girls With No Names by Serena Burdick
Though not your average cut-throat historical fiction heroine, Effie Tildon is willing to risk everything in order to find and save her sister from the formidable House of Mercy, a workhouse for wayward girls, positioned near her wealthy family’s home. When it turns out that Effie may not have been correct in her courageous attempt, risking her own poor health due a heart condition, she comes to rely on friendship with the mysterious yet trustworthy, Mable. Together they must find a way to escape while shedding light on the horrors of the House of Mercy and what befell the girls who stayed in residence.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters during World War II France. One rebellious, searching for purpose during uncertain times within the underground resistance, and the other is trying to survive and protect her daughter while living with the enemy in an Nazi occupied village. Each of the sisters embark on her side of the women’s war as they follow dangerous paths toward survival, love, and freedom leading them back together in a journey that would be remembered for years to come.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Telling the stories and history of the all-female De La Garza family in Mexico During the Pancho Villa Years, Tita, the youngest daughter has been forbidden to marry due to looking after her mother until she dies. Unable to live the life she desires, Tita can’t help but fall in love with Pedro, a man who is seduced by her magical dishes infused with Tita’s emotions . In order to stay close to her while still abiding with the tradition Tita must follow, Pedro marries her sister in order to stay close to her, causing a star-crossed lovers scenario that leads them to only be reunited after a series of tragedies and fate.
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
Following three women through World War II, the Lilac Girls are nothing but strong. Caroline, a New York socialite is busy at work at the French Consulate to connect with those struggling with the war. Kasia is a Polish teenager turned secret courier for the resistance before being sentenced to an all women concentration camp where she fights for her life. And finally, Herta is a young german doctor who struggles to stay in charge in the male-dominated Nazi camp she hoped would be her ticket out from a less than life. Lilac Girls follows these three diverse points of views to see how women empower other women and vice versa.
Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma
Set in 1796 Trinidad and eventually 1830 Crow Nation, Montana, young Rosa Rendón quietly rebels against the life set out for her, wanting to tend the farm rather than a household. When her homeland is turned over from Spanish to British rule however, it is unclear whether its free black property owners–Rosa’s family among them–will be allowed to keep their assets, their land, and ultimately, their freedom.
Spanning over thirty years, Rose refuses to give up when her world is threatened, even when it comes time to finally tell her son, Victor, the secrets she has kept from him for all these years. Rosa retraces her own roots and painful events that forced her so far away from the land she once referred to as home.
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
This magically transcendent epic tells the story of Lilliet Berne, a renowned opera singer in Paris. Lilliet, however, has hidden past a new show on her radar plans to portray. Struggling through her life as an orphan, circus act, courtesan of Second Empire Paris, and an empress’s maid to finally, debut singer with a tragically beautiful soprano. The Lilliet Berne’s life is not without romance, and twists of fate leading her to the glamorous lifestyle she holds dear and was inspired by singer Jenny Lind.
Who’s your favorite woman from historical fiction?