Beth Harmon playing chess in The Queen's Gambit

8 Books with Clever Heroines to Rival The Queen’s Gambit

Sara Roncero-Menendez
December 18 2020

If you haven’t noticed, everyone’s been talking about, reading about, or actively playing chess—and it’s all to do with The Queen’s Gambit. Netflix’s adaptation of the book by Walter Tevis follows Beth Harmon, an orphan who learns how to play chess in the 1950s. From there, we watch her meteoric rise to chess infamy as she tackles some of the best players, including the Soviet champion. It’s a thrilling tale of a woman, ahead of her time, who wouldn’t let social conventions or other people’s expectations stop her from dominating in the one thing she loved. But Beth also struggles with addiction, grief, and her inability to connect with others, adding complicated layers to her brilliance.

If you’ve already powered through the entire series, you might be looking for more stories of sharp and inventive women who will inspire and entertain you. Well, fear not! Here are eight reads that are sure to engage your imagination and remind you of everyone’s new chess queen.

And if the show inspired you to improve your own chess skills, check out Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess by Bruce Pandolfini, a chess strategist for The Queen’s Gambit and America’s foremost chess coach!

The Queen of Katwe
by Tim Crothers

Looking for a real-life Beth Harmon? Meet Phiona Mutesi, a teenaged chess master who grew up in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. Mutesi learned the game from missionary Robert Katende, who offered the hungry children a free bowl of porridge to learn to play chess. She soon proves to be an unstoppable talent, attending tournaments and testing her wit and skills against players all around the world. THE QUEEN OF KATWE proves that greatness can be found anywhere and within anyone if they’re given the opportunity.

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The Queen of Katwe
Tim Crothers

Now a major motion picture starring Academy Award winner Lupita Nyongo and David Oyelowo, directed by Mira Nair.

The “astonishing” (The New York Times Book Review) and “inspirational” (Shelf Awareness) true story of Phiona Mutesi—a teenage chess prodigy from the slums of Uganda.

One day in 2005 while searching for food, nine-year-old Ugandan Phiona Mutesi followed her brother to a dusty veranda where she met Robert Katende.

Katende, a war refugee turned missionary, had an improbable dream: to empower kids in the Katwe slum through chess—a game so foreign there is no word for it in their native language. Laying a chess­board in the dirt, Robert began to teach. At first children came for a free bowl of porridge, but many grew to love the game that—like their daily lives—requires persevering against great obstacles. Of these kids, one girl stood out as an immense talent: Phiona.

By the age of eleven Phiona was her country’s junior champion, and at fifteen, the national champion. Now a Woman Candidate Master—the first female titled player in her country’s history—Phiona dreams of becoming a Grandmaster, the most elite level in chess. But to reach that goal, she must grapple with everyday life in one of the world’s most unstable countries. The Queen of Katwe is a “remarkable” (NPR) and “riveting” (New York Post) book that shows how “Phiona’s story transcends the limitations of the chessboard” (Robert Hess, US Grandmaster).

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The Visibles
by Sara Shepard

Summer Davis has a lot in common with our new favorite chess prodigy: abandoned by one parent, the other suffering from mental illness, and caught in uncertainty that even science can’t seem to answer. But Summer begins to find herself after leaving her work as a scientist to take care of both her father and her great-aunt Stella. THE VISIBLES highlights that who we are is more than just our genetic code, and that our story is still firmly in our hands.

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The Visibles
Sara Shepard

This #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “spine-chilling thriller that blurs the lines of fact and fiction” (Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author) The Elizas weaves a compelling novel that follows a young woman as she explores how much our genetics influence our future.

Summer Davis’s deep love for science is the only thing that helps her get through her turbulent journey from adolescent to adulthood. Her mother has abandoned her family, her father’s mental illness has overwhelmed him, and her older brother fluctuates between sudden rage and unpredictable tenderness. Summer can’t help but question the role of genetics in her life and if she is destined to continue her family’s legacy of mental instability.

But when she decides to put off a promising science career to take care of her great-aunt Stella—the bedrock of the family and bastion of folksy wisdom, irreverent insight, and Sinatra memorabilia in a less-than-scenic part of the Pennsylvanian countryside—she begins to learn that maybe her DNA doesn’t have to define her and that her future belongs to her alone.

From the backwoods of Pennsylvania to the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, The Visibles investigates the secrets of the past, and the hidden corners of our own hearts, to find out whether real happiness is a gift or a choice.

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The Tournament
by Matthew Reilly

The Queen’s Gambit is excellent at making chess, a game that is quiet and precise, thrilling and engaging. Author Matthew Reilly similarly ups the emotional and political stakes in THE TOURNAMENT. In the year 1546, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the head of a vast and prosperous empire, decides to host a world chess tournament, to which he invites all the monarchs of Europe to send their best players. Following the perspective of young Princess Elizabeth, soon to be Queen Elizabeth I, the novel deals with big themes (and a big murder mystery) through the conflicts on a little chessboard.

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The Tournament
Matthew Reilly

“A complete success…action fans and PBS types can share their enthusiasm” (Booklist, starred review) when a young Queen Elizabeth I is thrust into a gripping game of deception and lust at the height of the Ottoman Empire in this edge-of-your-seat historical thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Great Zoo of China and Temple.

The year is 1546, and Suleiman the Magnificent, the feared Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, issues an invitation to every king in Europe: You are invited to send your finest player to compete in a chess tournament to determine the champion of the known world.

Thousands converge on Constantinople, including the English court’s champion and his guide, the esteemed scholar Roger Ascham. Seeing a chance to enlighten the mind of a student, Ascham brings along Elizabeth Tudor, a brilliant young woman not yet consumed by royal duties in Henry VIII’s court.

Yet on the opening night of the tournament, a powerful guest of the Sultan is murdered. Soon, barbaric deaths, diplomatic corruption, and unimaginable depravity—sexual and otherwise—unfold before Elizabeth’s and Ascham’s eyes. The pair soon realizes that the real chess game is being played within the court itself…and its most treacherous element is that a stranger in a strange land is only as safe as her host is gracious.

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In the Midnight Room
by Laura McBride

Beth Harmon uses chess as a way out of her tragic childhood, lifting herself from potential poverty through winning tournaments. June Stein of IN THE MIDNIGHT ROOM, on the other hand, grew up in safe New Jersey and, in the 1950s, threw it all away for a life of adventure in Las Vegas. But despite being on opposite ends narratively, both Beth and June spend their years connecting with people, maturing through compassion, grief, and camaraderie, and live as they see fit. June’s story takes a lot of surprising twists and turns, and appealing characters, to weave a complex and compelling tapestry of a rich life.

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In the Midnight Room
Laura McBride

“If McBride is trying to prove—that if you change one life, you change the world—she succeeds magnificently.”—Booklist

From the author of the acclaimed novel We Are Called to Rise comes a “jewel of a novel” (BookPage) about four vivid and complicated women in Las Vegas whose lives become connected by secrets, courage, tragedies, and small acts of kindness.

Fun-loving and rebellious, twenty-one-year-old June Stein abandons the safe world of her New Jersey childhood for edgy 1950s Las Vegas. For the next 60 years, June will dare to live boldly. She will upend conventions, risk her heart and her life, rear a child, lose a child, love more than one man, and stand up for more than one woman.

June’s story will intertwine with those of three unlikely strangers: a one-time mail order bride from the Philippines, a high school music teacher, and a young mother from Mexico working as a hotel maid. Knit together around June’s explosive secret, they forge a future that none of them foresee.

This jubilant, compassionate novel explores the unexpected ways that life connects us, changes us, and even perfects us. A powerful story of lust and of hope, of redemption and of compassion, In the Midnight Room is a smart, sagacious novel about womanhood, family bonds, and how we live in America now.

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The Helpline
by Katherine Collette

People can be complicated, which can lead some to find solace in more structured entertainments. For Beth Harmon, it’s chess, but for Germaine Johnson, it’s math. Unfortunately, she has trouble finding work that will let her indulge in numbers rather than humans, which is why she ends up working for the Senior Citizens Helpline. But the rowdy elders are more than they seem, pulling Germaine out of her shell and proving that people aren’t quite so hard to understand. THE HELPLINE is witty, endearing, and a downright heartwarming tale of misfits.

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The Helpline
Katherine Collette

An eccentric woman who is great with numbers—but not so great with people—realizes it’s up to her to pull a community together in this charming, big-hearted, “fun read, full of unique characters” (Associated Press)—perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Rosie Project.

Germaine Johnson doesn’t need friends. She has her work and her Sudoku puzzles. Until, that is, an incident at her insurance company leaves her jobless—and it turns out that there are very few openings these days for senior mathematicians with zero people skills.

Desperate, Germaine manages to secure a position at City Hall answering calls on the Senior Citizens Helpline. But it turns out that the mayor has something else in mind for Germaine: a secret project involving the troublemakers at the senior citizens center and their feud with the neighboring golf club—which happens to be run by the dashing yet disgraced national Sudoku champion, Don Thomas.

Don and the mayor want the senior center closed down and at first, Germaine is dedicated to helping them out—it makes sense mathematically, after all. But when Germaine actually gets to know the group of elderly rebels at the senior center, they open her eyes to a life outside of boxes and numbers and for the first time ever, Germaine realizes she may have miscalculated.

Filled with a unique and (occasionally) cranky cast of characters you can’t help but love, The Helpline is “delightful feel-good fun” (Toni Jordan, author of Addition) that is bound to capture your heart.

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The Truth About Melody Browne
by Lisa Jewell

Melody Browne is an orphan like Beth, both losing their families in horrific accidents. But Melody has the blessing (and curse) of not remembering the accident, or her life before it. More than twenty years later, after attending a hypnotist show with a date, her memories start flooding back, but they’re not what she expected. From thriller master Lisa Jewell, THE TRUTH ABOUT MELODY BROWNE is a mystery of the mind, which asks how well we can even know ourselves.

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The Truth About Melody Browne
Lisa Jewell

This “touching, insightful, and gripping story” (Sophie Kinsella, #1 New York Times bestselling author) from the instant New York Times bestselling author of Then She Was Gone follows a young woman searching for answers about her unknown past and the mysterious fire that irrevocably changed her life.

When she was a child, Melody Browne’s house burned down, destroying all her family’s possessions and her memories. Ever since this tragic event, Melody Browne has had no recollection of her life before she was rescued from the flames.

Now in her early thirties, Melody is a single mother, living in the middle of London with her teenaged son. She hasn’t seen her parents since she left home at fifteen, but Melody has no desire to reconnect until one night, while attending a hypnotist show with a date, she faints. When she comes around, she is suddenly overwhelmed with fragmented memories of her life before that fateful fire.

Slowly, she begins the arduous process of piecing together the real story of her childhood. Her journey takes her up and down the countryside, to seaside towns to the back streets of London, where she meets strangers who seem to love her like their own. But the more answers she uncovers, the more questions she is left with, and Melody can’t help but wonder if she’ll ever know the whole truth about her past.

“An absolute must-read” (Cosmopolitan, UK), The Truth About Melody Browne “will make you laugh, cry—then tell all your friends about it” (Daily Record).

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MENTIONED IN:

8 Books with Clever Heroines to Rival The Queen’s Gambit

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | December 18, 2020

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Lea
by Pascal Mercier

Beth’s passion for chess elevates her out of her depressing life in the orphanage. Lea does the same by picking up the violin. Devastated by the death of her mother, Lea finds herself entranced by a violin-playing busker in the street, vowing to learn how to play herself. But as her musical talent grows, the rest of her life slowly begins to spiral, leading her father to commit a heinous act that will change the course of their lives. If you were drawn to The Queen’s Gambit for its portrayal of obsession, LEA will scratch that same itch.

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Lea
Pascal Mercier

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8 Books with Clever Heroines to Rival The Queen’s Gambit

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | December 18, 2020

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Therese Anne Fowler

Z: A NOVEL is another historical tale about a woman ahead of her time. Zelda is a wild young woman when she meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, the promising writer and army vet who can get her out of the South and into the glittering world of 1920s New York. As this unforgettable woman steps out of her sheltered upbringing and straight into history, you’ll be glued to the twists and turns in her life and in her marriage.

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
Therese Anne Fowler

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MENTIONED IN:

8 Books with Clever Heroines to Rival The Queen’s Gambit

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | December 18, 2020

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Photo credit: PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

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