For a show that spent much of its first few seasons focused on a bevy of male kings (and wannabe kings), Game of Thrones has taken a turn toward its women. If you haven’t yet watched Sunday’s season 6 finale yet, we won’t spoil it here, except to say that it’s the ladies who rule the day.
Leading the pack, of course, is Daenerys Stormborn, the Targaryen queen who has been working her way, ever so slowly, across the sea to Westeros, toward that cursed Iron Throne. Dany has been a fan favorite from the beginning because of her ferocity as a ruler, tempered by her compassion, and, well, the dragons who call her mother. But you don’t have to look solely to fiction to find similarly badass women who’ve ruled kingdoms. Here are a few picks to catch you up on the real-life figures who proved as tough and commanding as Daenerys. (Sorry, no dragons, though.)
The Life of Elizabeth I, by Alison Weir
Perhaps no ruler draws quite as many comparisons to Dany as the first Queen Elizabeth. Given her track record with the men in her life, Daenerys can’t be blamed for questioning who she trusts. Similarly, Elizabeth was born the daughter of a lecherous royal tyrant, a path that led her to keep her own counsel and become the woman we know as the Virgin Queen. Of course, Elizabeth and all of Tudor England have been dissected to the nth degree, but Weir’s biography manages to cut through the myths and imbue this famous queen with a personality that leaps off the page.
Hild, by Nicola Griffith
Though it’s firmly rooted in historical fact, the 7th-century Britain of Hild smacks as much of fantasy as any of the A Song of Ice and Fire books. The central figure of the novel, the young woman who would become St. Hilda of Whitby, isn’t the named ruler of her kingdom, but she’s responsible for much of the power behind the throne. (As Cersei and Margaery know, this is no small feat.) Hild’s curiosity and intellect lead her to the role of the king’s seer, where her powers are more rooted in logic than the supernatural. In a time of epic turbulence, Hild proved being bright and willful were assets—even for girls.
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
Her skill with strategy and high-stakes diplomacy ensured Cleopatra would be written about and remembered far beyond her short time on earth. While we at Barnes & Noble can’t condone all of Cleopatra’s actions (there is the matter of her two dead brother-husbands), we have to admit she got things done, including the reshaping of an empire. Clever beyond measure and more than willing to do what she had to, she was a woman with no peers in her own time, and few since. Schiff’s historical fiction offering reconstructs Cleopatra’s life in a way that minimizes her notorious love affairs and shines a light on the bold personality that changed the world forever.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie
In 34 years of ruling Russia, there’s little Catherine didn’t have to contend with, from war and internal rebellion to the upheaval spawned by the French Revolution. It takes a steady hand to guide a nation through such turbulent waters, and to come out of it with moniker like her. She yearned to be the theoretical “benevolent despot,” and to some, she achieved it. Massie won a Pulitzer for his peek into the lives of the last of the Romanovs, and his characteristic historical precision and empathy are on display in this biography of one of the pillars of Russia, and one of the most important rulers—male or female—in history.
The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, by Adrienne Mayor
It can be hard to separate fact from fiction, particularly when history was written largely by men concentrated in a small pocket of the ancient world. Mayor attempts to sort through the myth to uncover the truth about the legendary Amazons, the warrior women who so vexed the rulers of ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia. Were they real? Mayor presents a compelling case that at the root of the mythology, there very much were women dotting the landscape of the ancient world who delighted in their own autonomy and ferocity. In more than one sense, the Amazons were real, and their route to becoming mythic figures has much to teach us.