When I was eleven years old, I stole my mother’s copy of Bertrice Small's The Kadin and knew I’d found what I wanted to read and write for the rest of my life. I loved the epic scope of the story, the rich historical detail, the vivid descriptions of foreign lands, and though the more adult aspects of the story were beyond me at that point, what stuck with me most was that this book allowed me to follow a remarkable heroine throughout the events of her life, spanning years as well as continents. Thus began my enduring love affair with Small heroines who lead big, big lives.
Readers looking for shrinking violets won’t find such heroines here; Small heroines know what they want and aren’t afraid to go after it, even if that quest takes them on a rocky road or through more than one book, playing out over years or even decades rather than weeks or months. They’ll go toe to toe with royalty, wage war, take to the high seas, and when life knocks them down, they come up swinging. Some of them even wield magic as strong as their feminine wiles. They may lose in love a time or two, but they are always confident the happily ever after will be theirs eventually. Picking a top ten among these gals is no easy task, but here are ten heroines who have stuck with me long after I’ve turned the last page.
10) Lara, The World of Hetar novels
Half-faerie Lara stars in five out of six of the World of Hetar novels, rising from humble beginnings to pursue an ultimate destiny that includes not one, but three great loves, political machinations both mortal and not, treachery, betrayal, adventure and the destiny of worlds.
9) Maia, The Dragon Lord’s Daughters
Lovers of Arthurian legend may want to meet Maia, the heroine of the second story in this collection. Maia, a descendant of King Arthur, finds her soul mate in Emrys, descended from Lancelot and the Lady of the Lake. Emrys is immortal, Maia is not, and Maia soon finds herself in a face-off with the mother in law from hell, as Emry’s mother removes Emrys and everyone else from Maia’s world. Literally. Mom-in-law may have magic at her disposal, but Emrys has no need to worry. Maia has common sense, heart and the power of love to turn things around in true heroine fashion.
8) Zenobia of Palmyra, Beloved
Based on a real historical figure, Zenobia learns the brutality of war at a very young age, the danger as well as the splendor in the brutal world of desert royalty. Zenobia is married for duty and widowed before meeting the love of her life, and it’s far from smooth sailing before they can reach happily ever after. She not only endures the trials of wars, political machinations and Roman captivity, but triumphs in life and in love. When her Roman captors force her to walk through the streets, stripped bare to show her defeat, Zenobia refuses to take a submissive posture, and holds her head high, determined to show her people she is still their queen.
7) Velvet DeMarisco, This Heart of Mine
Velvet’s trip to visit India after the death of her beloved husband, Alex, goes seriously awry when her parents’ enemy—Velvet is the youngest child of the legendary Skye O’Malley—kidnaps her and delivers her as a gift to the Grand Mughal, Akbar. Velvet and Akbar fall in love, marry, and become doting parents to baby Jasmine. Only problem here is that Alex isn’t as dead as Velvet thought he was; though Velvet is able to return to Alex and Scotland, she cannot take Jasmine with her, and her journey from heartbreak twice over to rekindling the love of a lifetime proves Velvet has the strength one expects of an O’Malley descendant. Velvet grows from pampered child to strong-willed woman through her adventures, romantic and otherwise.
6) Blaze Wyndham, Blaze Wyndham
The beautiful daughter of an impoverished sixteenth century nobleman, Blaze marries to improve her family’s fortune, finding her first love with her older husband, Edmund, until sudden tragedy takes him from her. Blaze plunges into the court of Henry VIII, finding herself in much closer quarters than she’d planned with the monarch. As both mistress and confidante, Blaze gets a front-row seat to Henry’s scandalous divorce and marriage to Anne Boleyn. When Henry orders Blaze to wed her late husband’s nephew, Anthony—the man Blaze blames for Edmund’s death, she faces a new challenge. Her sister, Delight, wants Anthony for herself and concocts a deadly plan to take Blaze out of the picture. Blaze, however, is not one to be easily extinguished (pun unintended.)
5) Miranda Dunham, Unconquered
The lone American Small heroine, Miranda journeys from New York to Regency London with detours through a Russian slaver’s breeding farm and an Eastern prince’s hideaway before she ultimately reunites with true love, Jared and returns to their beloved home. Miranda has some tough battles to fight, and does come away with some emotional scars. She endures a mother’s worst nightmare and learns that her beloved Jared’s duties as a spy involve more than paperwork, up to and including adult situations, an issue that may divide some readers. Miranda’s wardrobe will make devotees of Regency fashion drool, especially her daring all-black ensemble at Almack's.
4) Theadora Cantacuzene, Adora
Another heroine based on an actual historical figure, Adora doesn’t back down from the harsh realities of life in ancient Byzantium and can hold her own against royalty and warriors alike. The child bride of Sultan Orkhan, Adora awaits her husband’s summons in a convent, where she begins clandestine meetings with Murad, her true love…and Orkhan’s son. As the Byzantine Empire crumbles with the rise of the Ottoman Turks, Adora grows from child to woman, and the course of true love is far from smooth, even after Orkhan’s death. Adora has another love, the dashing pirate Alexander, her loss of him as poignant as their love, before she and Murad can reunite. The final scene in the peach orchard, echoing Adora and Murad’s first meeting still makes my heart clench in the best possible way.
3) Catriona Leslie, Love Wild and Fair
Catriona (Cat) Leslie is a survivor. She refuses to actually wed her first husband, Patrick, until he meets her terms, even though this means the wedding ceremony takes place while Cat is in labor with their first child. When Patrick shatters Cat’s trust by not only refusing to protect her when King James wants her for his mistress, but joining in, Cat flees, finding friendship and love with Francis Stewart-Hepburn. After, of course, a sojourn in the harem of a pasha, the small matter of still being married to Patrick, and living in exile in Italy.
2) Janet Leslie/Cyra Hafise, The Kadin
When I asked my mother what this book was about, she hesitated, then said it was about a Scottish girl who was kidnapped, sold into a harem and then returned home forty years later because her daughter-in-law didn’t like her. She had me right there, and I knew I had to read this book. I pilfered my mother’s copy and ensconced myself beneath the bed in the guest bedroom, following Janet Leslie from her beginnings as the daughter of a noble Scottish family, betrayed by the servant who should have protected her and sold as a slave at auction. Janet decides to make the best of her confusing new situation and embrace her new life as Cyra in an Ottoman world that is vastly different from her own. She finds love with Prince Selim as well as enduring friendship with three other women in Selim’s harem. She needs to navigate the intricate world of harem politics, raise and protect her children, all while carrying out the duties of a royal wife. Cyra learns that her station in life not only brings great privilege, but great responsibility and great risk. Great tragedy as well, and she makes yet another difficult decision that brings her life full circle.
1) Skye O’Malley, O’Malley and Skye’s Legacy series
Skye O’Malley O’Flaherty Goya Del Fuentes Southwood Burke DeMarisco cuts a swath through sixteenth century Ireland, England, France, Algiers, and the high seas as well as kicking off not only one book series, but two. Skye is lover, wife, widow, mistress, mother, matriarch, pirate, businesswoman, and both friend and foe to Elizabeth Tudor. She’s had amnesia, worked her way up from the new arrival in an Algerian brothel to wife of a wealthy Spaniard-turned-Algerian, reinvented herself as a noble Spanish widow. She’s held English and Irish titles, sailed the seas as a pirate queen and spent time in the Tower of London at Elizabeth’s command. She’s loved and lost, only to love again. She can be imperious, isn’t a perfect mother at all times, and has a hot temper that wars at times with her practical nature.
I have the final lines of the original Skye O’Malley novel committed to memory. A scene in the final Skye’s Legacy book, Vixens, where Skye’s great-granddaughters go through her wardrobe brought back vivid memories of the scenes where Skye wore each gown. My office companion is a rescue cat named Skye O’Malley, as the name befits a brave and beautiful female who survived many trials to find true love at last.
Who is your favorite Small heroine? And which is her brightest shining moment?
Anna C. Bowling considers writing historical romance the best way to travel through time and make the voices in her head pay rent. She welcomes visitors to her blog, Typing With Wet Nails and to follow her at Twitter.