(Cover picture courtesy of Syracuse University Press.)
Zenobia was the third-century Syrian queen who rebelled against Roman rule. Before Emperor Aurelian prevailed against her forces, she had seized almost one-third of the Roman Empire. Today, her legend attracts thousands of visitors to her capital, Palmyra, one of the great ruined cities of the ancient world.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the time of Ottoman rule, travel to the Middle East was almost impossible for Westerners. That did not stop five daring women from abandoning their conventional lives and venturing into the heart of this inhospitable region. Improbable Women explores the lives of Hester Stanhope, Jane Digby, Isabel Burton, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark, narrating the story of each woman’s pilgrimage to Palmyra to pay homage to the warrior queen. Although the women lived in different time periods, ranging from the eighteenth century to the mid–twentieth century, they all came from middle to upper-class British backgrounds and overcame great societal pressures to pursue their independence.
Cotterman situates their lives against a backdrop of the Middle Eastern history that was the setting for their adventures. Divided into six sections, one devoted to Zenobia and one focused on each of the five women, Improbable Women is a fascinating glimpse into the experiences and characters of these intelligent, open-minded, and free-spirited explorers.
[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]
As someone who personally admires Zenobia, I knew I just had to pick up Improbable Women. A biography of one of my favourite heroines as well as five other incredible women? How could could I not read it?
I was slightly disappointed in the level of detail in the biographies, but I’m fully aware that including enough details to satisfy me would have meant a separate book for each woman. If you haven’t heard anything about these women the information could be a little overwhelming at first, but William Woods Cotterman has a great writing style to help you along. It’s actually easier to read Improbable Women if you read one biography and then pause to reflect before going onto the next one, but it’s not a requirement.
Improbable Women was actually broken up into logical segments which seems to be rare in the nonfiction books I’ve read through NetGalley. Each section is clearly labelled and the order the biographies are in actually make sense. Some of the women profiled in here were inspired by other women in the book, so I liked how that was mentioned and the similarities between each the two were pointed out. At the same time, readers are never spoken down to when these similarities are drawn.
Overall, Improbable Women is a great read for anyone who loves reading about women who were ahead of their time. Every single woman in this collection of biographies from Zenobia to Freya Stark was ahead of her time and lived a fascinating life. Some were more interesting than others, but that’s a matter of personal preference than anything. I would highly recommend Improbable Women to people who love history when it comes out on October 15 or 16 (it says 15 on Goodreads, 16 on NetGalley) of this year.
I give this book 5/5 stars.