15 Must-Read Novels Featuring Intrepid Heroines and a Strong Sense of Place

15 Must-Read Novels Featuring Intrepid Heroines and a Strong Sense of Place

Tuesday, 25 May, 2021

Plucky. Feisty. Determined. Indomitable. Resolute. Gritty. Courageous. Scrappy. These are some of our favorite adjectives, especially when they’re used to describe the heroine of a novel that whisks away.

These books will take you to Mexico, Paris, the Middle East, New Zealand, London, Edinburgh, Florence, and more in the company of remarkable women. They live through different eras and come from radically different circumstances, but they share a crucial characteristic: No matter the difficulties they face, they rally their internal resources and come out swinging. They fight — for themselves, for the downtrodden, for the truth, for what’s right — often putting themselves in harm’s way and bearing heavy emotional burdens. And they do it all with aplomb, a sense of humor, and, sometimes, devastating personal style.


Meet Casiopea from Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods of Jade and Shadow
> Silvia Moreno-Garcia

What would you do if your daydreams suddenly came true, but not at all in the way you imagined? That’s just what happens to our heroine — 18-year-old Casiopea Tun — when the Mayan god of death appears to her unexpectedly and, in exchange for a favor, promises her everything her heart desires.

Intelligent, scrappy, and courageous, poor Casiopea is also put upon. When her story begins, she’s a cosmic cousin to Jane Eyre or Cinderella, doomed to fetch, carry, and clean for her domineering grandfather. She dreams of escaping the dusty drudgery of her hometown of Uukumil: ‘It was 1927, but it might as well have been 1807. The revolution passed through it, yet it remained what it had been.’ She yearns to see the sparkling Pacific, to dance to jazz music, and to drive an automobile with the wind in her hair.

One afternoon, left at home alone as punishment while the rest of the household enjoys a family outing, she accidentally awakens the spirit of Hun-Kamé, the Mayan god of death. Before she quite understands what’s happening, she’s agreed to help him on his quest to reclaim his throne from his villainous brother. An unlikely pair, Casiopea and Hun-Kamé have a massive adventure and finally become the people they were meant to be. {more}

Somewhere, far from the bothersome grandfather and impertinent coterie of relatives, there would be sleek automobiles (she wished to drive one), daring pretty dresses (which she’d spotted in newspapers), dances (the faster, the better), and a view of the Pacific sea at night (she knew it courtesy of a stolen postcard). She had cut out photos of all these items and placed them under her pillow, and when she dreamed, she dreamed of night swimming, of dresses with sequins, and of a clear, starlit sky. — Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Meet Patience Portefeux from The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre

The Godmother
> Hannelore Cayre

Say bonjour to Patience Portefeux, the 53-year-old heroine of this punchy contemporary crime novel set in the North African community of Paris. She’s bilingual, a good listener, and probably really sick of your sh*t.

Working for the Ministry of Justice as a translator isn’t the job of Patience’s dreams. Her specialty is translating wiretap recordings, mostly conversations between drug dealers — from Arabic to French. As time passes, she’s no longer sure that her sympathies lie with the police. Hours of the suspects’ conversations have humanized them in her ears — and she knows what it’s like to be in tight spots. Which leads Patience to make a shocking, life-changing decision.

Written like a memoir, this novel is cinematic and darkly comic without being cynical. An astute and entertaining look at life in modern Paris. It may be the City of Lights, but bright lights also cast dark shadows, especially for women of a certain age and citizens from somewhere else. {more}

I had been planning to get rid of that revolver – not only because I find weapons hideously ugly, but because this particular one had killed people whose bodies had been buried on The Estate. After all, if one day somebody stumbled upon those remains, it would inevitably lead back to me; and then if they were to find the weapon that had been used to bump off all those people, I would find myself having to offer all sorts of exhausting explanations. But getting rid of a gun is the sort of job you never get around to doing, always putting it off to tomorrow. — Hannelore Cayre

Meet (imagined) Agatha Christie from The Woman on the Orient Express by Lindsay Jayne Ashford

The Woman on the Orient Express
> Lindsay Jayne Ashford

You’re surely aware that Agatha Christie wrote the mystery classic Murder on the Orient Express, but did you know she had her own real-life adventure aboard the legendary train? This is the fictionalized story of Dame Agatha’s epic journey from London to Baghdad in 1928.

In real life, in 1926, Agatha Christie’s husband Archie admitted he was in love with another woman. Reeling from that betrayal and needing a break from the London scene (and publicity), Agatha planned a Caribbean trip. But a dinner-party conversation about Baghdad changed her mind, and she booked herself aboard the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express.

From this truth, author Lindsay Jayne Ashford weaves Christie’s real-life events and friends into a speculative story about what was happening in their hearts and minds aboard the luxury train.

This is a grand adventure story with three strong women at its heart who chafe and rebel against the expectations of women at the time. In their fight to be true to themselves, they endure affairs of the heart, betrayals, self-doubt, and physical danger. When the train pulls into the station for the final time, the ending is very satisfying and a bit wistful. Which seems about right. {more}

The excitement of boarding the train gave way to exquisite relief as she climbed up a tapestry-covered ladder and slipped between damask sheets… she lay in her bunk without pulling down the blind, watching the darkening landscape as the train rolled through the field of Normandy. Past black fingers of tress newly stripped of their apples, past silhouettes of horses startled to life by the snort of the engine. It looked so tranquil, so untouched by time. — Lindsay Jayne Ashford

Meet Kahu from The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

The Whale Rider
> Witi Ihimaera

In the Māori village of Whangara on New Zealand’s North Island, a male heir has inherited the title of chief in every generation. It’s a proud tradition in a people descended from Kahutian Te Rangi, the legendary Whale Rider. This is how it’s always been. This is how it must be.

But there’s a ripple in the calm surface of village life: The elderly chief must name his successor, and there is no male heir. The only descendant in the line of succession is a girl. And tradition has no use for a girl.

Meet Kahu, an 8-year-old firecracker who’s about to change everything.

This story is based on the Maori whale rider mythology. It unfolds like a fairy tale with high stakes and beautiful, quiet moments. The tale is told through two alternating points of view: from Kahu’s uncle, who takes us into everyday life in the village and recaps the extraordinary events that occur, and from the perspective of an ancient whale. We’re taken inside the mythology and the minds of peaceful, powerful, ancient creatures that shape the Māori worldview. {more}

I suppose that if this story has a beginning, it is with Kahu. After all, it was Kahu who was there at the end, and it was Kahu’s intervention which perhaps saved us all. We always knew there would be such a child, but when Kahu was born, well, we were looking the other way, really. — Witi Ihimaera

Meet Marie from Little by Edward Carey

> Edward Carey

This is the (mostly) true story of a tiny girl who grew up to be the diminutive but fierce Madame Tussaud, she of wax museum fame. Her story begins in a Swiss village and takes us to the Monkey House in Paris, the Palace of Versailles, and a prison during the French Revolution — all in the company of uncanny figures made of wax.

We know from the start that this put-upon child (think Jane Eyre or Anne Shirley: bright, downtrodden, afraid, but fiery) will find fame and success. So this darkly humorous, almost-fairy tale is a twisty exploration of the why and the how.

After her parents’ deaths, Marie, a.k.a., Little, is apprenticed to a wax sculptor in Paris. The streets are muddy. The house creeks and is always cold. And her adopted ‘family’ is dominated by a tyrannical widow determined to exclude Little from all human comforts and affection.

Like an Edward Gorey illustration transformed into a novel, this is a delightfully macabre romp through 18th-century Paris. What else could it be when severed heads, both waxen and fleshy, play such a prominent role in the plot? {more}

She was always struggling over what was the best way to react. There were so many contradictions between what she was told and what she saw that she could only hesitatingly move forward, lacking, as she did, power and knowledge. She was a girl trying to make her way. — Edward Carey

Meet Veronica Speedwell from A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

A Curious Beginning
> Deanna Raybourn

Our heroine Veronica Speedwell (secret and semi-legitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales) is a handful and a half. And we wouldn’t want her any other way.

She’s a lepidopterist — that’s a butterfly hunter — with an affinity for adventure, and she’s armed with a tongue that’s as finely honed as the hatpin she wields as a weapon.

Through a series of misadventures — including an attack at her home during her aunt’s funeral… how rude! — she finds herself in the company of Stoker. Officially known as the Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, he’s a surly, handsome naturalist with his own troubled past and a surprising (and endearing) feminist streak.

The banter between our two antiheroes adds the right touch of levity to the peril, and there are plenty of moments that skewer the prim social mores of Victorian England. {more}

I shall not see you again. I am off this very afternoon upon my next adventure. — Deanna Raybourn

Meet Livy Nash from Spitfire by M.L. Huie

> M.L. Huie

Livy Nash spent the war fighting in the French resistance. It gave her purpose and the love of her life — until betrayal left her with nothing except a hardened heart. Now she’s alone and jaded, left behind by the more respectable war heroes and doomed to a life of… what? A single woman in a world that wants her to return to her pre-war, lady-like situation of looking pretty and doing as she’s told.

Then Ian Fleming buys her a drink and throws her a lifeline that proves to be more complicated than it seems: He offers her a job as a foreign correspondent, but Livy soon realizes that typing stories is not what he has in mind. Fleming is recruiting an espionage unit to fight ‘the next war’ which ‘began before the last even ended.’ He sends Livy to Paris on a mission to track down a traitor and, perhaps, find the fierce version of herself that she lost.

In the post-war days, Paris and London are glamorous and treacherous; champagne and threats flow with equal abandon. As Livy meets with contacts and follows clues, we traverse the streets of Paris with her, dashing under bridges, drinking wine, eating chocolate pastries by the Seine, and outrunning Russian agents in dark alleys. {more}

Tonight at the French Embassy, there’s a soiree, and you are cordially invited… I trust you’ll keep that Lancashire sass under wraps. You enter the party as Mademoiselle Bélanger and you leave the party as the same. It’s a simple assignment. Maintain your cover at all costs. Like falling off a log for you, darling. Oh, and you’ll be receiving microfilm from an operative at the party. Only trouble is, we’ve no idea who it is. — M.L. Huie

Meet Marjane from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

The Complete Persepolis
> Marjane Satrapi

Intelligent and outspoken, Marjane is both the author and our heroine — a fierce 10-year-old when the story opens, grappling with figuring out herself while the world outside her door explodes with violence. One day, life was the ‘normal’ that she knew. And the next, veils were required at school. She was separated from her male classmates. The simple act of leaving the house became fraught.

As Marjane’s story unfolds, we meet the other remarkable people in her life: The uncle who was a political prisoner and exile. The loving grandmother who tried to guide Marjane without scaring her. Her mother — rebellious, brave — forced to dye her hair and wear dark glasses after being photographed without a veil.

As Marjane gets older and is self-exiled to Vienna, she faces the events of her adolescence and the effect those trials have on her young adult life. She’s coming to terms with her past, and she misses her home – but is there any future for her in Iran? {more}

The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself: Are my trousers long enough? Is my veil in place? Can my make-up be seen? Are they going to whip me?

No longer asks herself: Where is my freedom of thought? Where is my freedom of speech? My life, is it liveable? What’s going on in the political prisons? — Marjane Satrapi

Meet Lucy Honeychurch from A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

A Room with a View
> E.M. Forster

The story opens in the Pension Bertolini in Florence, an inn for traveling English gentlefolk. We meet Miss Charlotte Bartlett — chaperone, stifled, judgmental, lonely — and Miss Lucy Honeychurch, her niece, on a trip abroad for finishing. The inn and their rooms — significantly, without a view — are a disappointment to both Charlotte and Lucy.

Despite Lucy’s intentions to be good — that is, to be quiet and humble and respectable — our heroine is almost always in a muddle. She lives a tidy, ordered existence, but she’s naturally curious and, deep down, wants to fight against a society that labels overt kindness as indelicate. When she plays Beethoven on the piano with passion, it inspires another character to remark: ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting both for us and for her.’

But nothing — not a scrape with death, nor a stolen kiss in a field of wildflowers on an outing to an Italian village — gives Lucy the courage she needs to defy convention. But books are powerful things, and the chance reading of a passage in a scandalous novel jolts Lucy out of her muddle. What she does next beautifully unbalances her and everyone around her in the best way possible. {more}

It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road. — E. M. Forster

Meet Cassidy Blake from City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

City of Ghosts
> Victoria Schwab

Cassidy Blake is a relatively normal 12-year-old — except for the fact that she can move through the Veil between this world and the next, and her best friend Jacob is a ghost.

Her parents are on a quest to visit the world’s most haunted places for their reality TV show Inspectres. They can’t see the ghosts, but unbeknownst to them, Cassidy can. When they visit Edinburgh, Cass and Jacob experience strange happenings and are soon face to face with an evil spirit known as the Raven in Red.

From Greyfriars Kirkyard to the White Hart Inn, and up the Royal Mile to Mary King’s Close and Edinburgh Castle, Cass, Jacob, and the TV crew tour all of the best historical sights — and confront the supernatural and bloody history of the Scottish capital. {more}

People think that ghosts only come out at night, or on Halloween, when the world is dark and the walls are thin. But the truth is, ghosts are everywhere. In the bread aisle at your grocery store, in the middle of you grandmother’s garden, in the front seat on your bus. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. — Victoria Schwab

Meet the Athena Club from The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Words like rollicking, escapade, romp, and caper exist to describe books like this one. But don’t underestimate it. With not one but FIVE plucky heroines, it’s frothy and fun, yes, but it’s grounded in a bedrock of genuine feeling and harrowing backstories.

This is the first book in the series, set in an alternate version of Victorian London where the offspring of classic literary characters are flesh-and-blood girls. First, we meet Mary Jekyll, daughter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous bipolar villain. We won’t give away the fun surprises by divulging the other members of the Athena Club, but you will recognize their names.

The girls, all technically monsters in their own way, struggle with their humanity and wrestle with what it means to do the right thing, trying to balance between tough and tender, while making peace with who they are. This first book is a romp through the British capital, where they join forces with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to solve a series of gruesome murders — and to learn the truth of their own mysterious origins. {more}

No wonder men did not want women to wear bloomers. What could women accomplish if they did not have to continually mind their skirts, keep them from dragging in the mud or getting trampled on the steps of an omnibus? If they had pockets! With pockets, women could conquer the world! — Theodora Goss

Meet Smilla Jasperson from Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg

Smilla's Sense of Snow
> Peter Høeg

Grab a blanket and add a slug of whiskey to your tea: This immigrant story — masquerading as a breathless thriller — is set in the bone-chilling cold of Copenhagen and Greenland.

Our (anti)hero Smilla Jasperson is an Inuit who spent her childhood in Greenland, and she possesses an innate ‘feeling for snow.’ A little prickly and a lot introverted, she’s much more comfortable with mathematics and solitude than she is with people and feelings.

But her 6-year-old neighbor has made small cracks in her icy resolve, beginning to thaw her defenses and create fissures in her heart that she thought were permanently closed. When the boy is found dead — presumably from a fall from the roof of their Copenhagen apartment building — she’s convinced that something more sinister is going on.

This black-as-pitch mystery moves at a good clip, and its atmosphere seeps into your bones like an imperceptible draft under the door. The foreboding location is another character in the story, reflecting both Smilla’s peril and the ache she carries alongside her fortitude. {more}

Do you know what the mathematical expression is for longing? … The negative numbers. The formalization of the feeling that you are missing something. — Peter Høeg

Meet Phyne Fisher from Urn Burial by Kerry Greenwood

Urn Burial
> Kerry Greenwood

The Phryne Fisher mysteries — both in print and in the TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries — are a bracing combination of cozy-mystery tropes and brazen feminism set in 1928 Melbourne. Phyrne is all about women’s rights and is firmly anti-discrimination, making her an equal-opportunity lover. This openness leads to all kinds of romantic entanglements. Plus, she’s a glamour girl with a champagne glass in one hand and a lady-like revolver in the other.

In this installment, Phryne and her lover Lin Chung join a house party at an old friend’s estate, a Gothic mansion called Cave House. Soon, she’s investigating death threats against their host and dealing with a housemaid’s murder — as well as combatting the other guests’ prejudice against her Chinese paramour.

Phyrne’s search for answers takes her into the dungeons of the house and the nearby limestone Buchan caves — with some quality time for romance with the soigné Lin Chun along the way. As only Phryne can, she gets her culprit and her man. {more}

It took determination to be really strange. That, or absinthe before breakfast every day.” — Kerry Greenwood

Meet Jane from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre
> Charlotte Brontë

Poor Jane! She’s routinely oppressed, thwarted, belittled, and tortured for our reading pleasure. To start, she’s orphaned and sentenced to live at the luxurious Gateshead Hall with an aunt and cousins who literally wish she were dead. They remind her every day that the books, the velveteen window seats, the pretty china plates are not hers, and she is forbidden to take pleasure in them. Then she’s locked in the red-room — a chamber little Jane is sure must be haunted — for a crime she did not commit. It’s a dark moment for our heroine, and it’s a relief (for all of us) when she’s sent to Lowood School.

Sure, it’s a barren, drafty, hard-edged old pile governed by draconian rules and inhabited by half-starved urchins from equally unwelcoming homes. But Jane’s tenacity and belief in her own inherent value help her survive the icy winters and meager meals of Lowood for nearly a decade. Ready to rise above her circumstances, she’s hired as a 19-year-old governess at Thornfield Hall; at last, Jane begins to feel at home — but this is a 19th-century novel, so her tranquility is not meant to be.

At Thornfield, love is found and lost, damaging secrets are kept and revealed, and Jane is forced, again, to comfort herself and find the strength to stand on her own. Only then can she find her true home. {more}

It was a fine autumn morning; the early sun shone serenely on embrowned groves and still green fields; advancing on to the lawn, I looked up and surveyed the front of the mansion. It was three storeys high, of proportions not vast, though considerable: a gentleman’s manor-house, not a nobleman’s seat: battlements round the top gave it a picturesque look. Its grey front stood out well from the background of a rookery, whose cawing tenants were now on the wing: they flew over the lawn and grounds to alight in a great meadow, from which these were separated by a sunk fence, and where an array of mighty old thorn trees, strong, knotty, and broad as oaks, at once explained the etymology of the mansion’s designation. — Charlotte Brontë

Meet Bianca LaBelle Valentino Will Die by Donis Casey

Valentino Will Die
> Donis Casey

Our heroine Bianca, née Blanche Tucker, was born in ‘duller than dull’ Boynton, Oklahoma. Now she’s made it big in Hollywood, and the lines between the real woman and her beloved character Bianca Dangereuse have become irrevocably blurred.

She and Rudy Valentino are best friends — platonic best friends. In the summer of 1926, they’re starring in their first film together. It’s all swell, until one night, after a few drinks, Rudy confesses that he’s been receiving death threats and he fears for his life. Then he falls mysteriously ill.

After a middle-of-the-night dash to the hospital, Bianca swears that she’ll find out who’s behind this nasty plot. Is it one of his lovers? A delusional fan? Mobsters? The only way to find out is for Bianca to team up with a PI and investigate, much like her onscreen counterpart Bianca Dangereuse. And that’s where the adventure begins. {more}

Oliver was riveted by the scene. It took him a moment to realize that Bianca had dropped down beside him from the walkway above. She was in her stocking feet, and as she crouched down, the slit in her skirt parted, baring one leg all the way up to her garter, from the top of which glinted the handle of a small Browning pistol. She slipped Fairbanks’s knife out of her décolletage and cut through the cord that bound Oliver’s hands. Oliver was in danger of his life, and all he could think about was that Bianca was armed to the teeth in the sexiest possible way. — Donis Casey

Who’s your favorite literary heroine with moxie?

Top image courtesy of Everett Collection/Shutterstock.

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