The best historical novels that demonstrate the fallout of religious conflict

The Books I Picked & Why

An Instance of the Fingerpost

By Iain Pears

Book cover of An Instance of the Fingerpost

Why this book?

Oxford, 1663: a servant girl confesses to a murder and is sentenced to hang. But four witnesses each have a theory about who actually committed the crime. Initially, I took each narrator’s account at face value, but the more pages I turned, the more I questioned the reliability of each testimony. The novel involved me in the investigation, further engaging my imagination. While An Instance of the Fingerpost is set one hundred years after my book, it also demonstrates how intensely religion infused every aspect of society and how religious conviction often shaped academic, medical, and scientific “facts.” How, whether by genuine oversight or intentional deception, unwavering faith leaves innocent victims in its wake. I read Fingerpost as I slogged through my first manuscript. Iain Pears’ skilled combination of rich historical detail, deft characterization, sly humour, theological disputation, stifling orthodoxy, and religious rebellion inspired (and intimidated!) me. A refined and intellectual yet raw and gritty work—qualities I’d hoped my writing might also reflect.

Side note, Iain Pears introduced me to the term “dandy,” a gentleman who is particularly fastidious about his appearance and places tremendous importance on fashion and style. In thanks, a dandy or two make an appearance in my novels.

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A Thousand Splendid Suns

By Khaled Hosseini

Book cover of A Thousand Splendid Suns

Why this book?

This tragic but beautiful novel is a gut punch from which I needed time to recover. Through the interchanging perspectives of two female protagonists, A Thousand Splendid Suns unpacks thirty years of Afghan history. Throughout the novel, religious fundamentalism is used to validate brutality, violence, patriarchy, and discrimination. Separate family tragedies bring Mariam and Laila together, two women a generation apart. In a world utterly bereft of women’s rights, they suffer ineffable abuse at the hand of the same husband. Mariam and Laila develop a deep friendship, united by shared suffering. Through their lens, I experienced the staggering toll religious oppression takes on individuals. This novel gives faces to the women behind the veils. I could relate to both Mariam and Laila on many levels—hopes, dreams, ambitions, aspirations—the difference being that I have the freedom to pursue mine. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a deeply moving read made all the more heartrending by the current crisis in Afghanistan.

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Empires of Sand: A Novel

By David W. Ball

Book cover of Empires of Sand: A Novel

Why this book?

Empires of Sand embodies the grandest tradition of historical fiction—an epic, intricate tale that sweeps from European chateaus to North African dunes. In the late nineteenth century, the French Empire stands on the precipice of collapse and attempts to colonize the Sahara. Cultures collide, the consequences deadly. Cousins Moussa and Paul are raised as brothers in Paris until harrowing events separate them, and they find themselves on opposing sides as battle lines are drawn. I read this novel at a measured pace, partly to absorb the nuances of every scene, partly because I did not want it to end. Empires of Sand captivated me to the point that I missed subway stops during my commute. I reread passages to ingrain them in my mind. David Ball’s mesmerizing, poetic prose serves as evidence that he truly views the world with wonder. The sands of the Sahara beckoned as the story unfolded—so much so, I visited Morocco soon after.

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The Pride of Baghdad

By Brian K. Vaughan, Niko Henrichon, Todd Klein

Book cover of The Pride of Baghdad

Why this book?

This powerful graphic novel illustrates—literally and figuratively—the many casualties of religious conflict. Set in Baghdad in 2003 and told from the perspective of a pride of lions, this book captures the struggle for survival, the loss of innocence, and the collateral damage inflicted by war. A clear allegory, this book has proven an excellent teaching tool. The Pride of Baghdad raises important questions about clashing viewpoints, loyalty, sectarian violence, the true price of war, and who, ultimately, pays it. Although narrated by four lions, the story offers a heartbreakingly realistic glimpse into Iraq during the US-led invasion, the consequences of which reverberate still. As I watch the terrible events playing out daily in Ukraine, my mind drifts back to this book, and I am reminded that past is prologue. We are witnesses right now. And may we all be on the right side of history.

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The Cellist of Sarajevo

By Steven Galloway

Book cover of The Cellist of Sarajevo

Why this book?

Ethnic and religious conflicts pitted Orthodox Serbians, Catholic Croatians, and Muslim Bosnians against each other and sparked the siege of Sarajevo. Set in the 1990s during the war, The Cellist of Sarajevo plunges the reader into the perspectives of three characters trying to survive ineffable violence in a city crippled by fear. A shell kills twenty-two civilians standing in a bread line. A cellist risks his life to sit in the crater forged by the mortar and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for twenty-two days. This novel demonstrates how dehumanization is used as a means to justify killing those on opposing sides. I visited the region a few years ago, and during a drive across Bosnia to visit Međugorje, a sense of deep sadness struck. The fallout of the war remains visible—weariness etched in people’s faces, bullet-riddled apartment blocks. But the sadness did make some room for hope. During my brief time in Bosnia, I also saw bustling cafés, droves of laughing teenagers, businesspeople rushing to their offices rather than ducking bullets. The air now carries optimism on its currents—with time, perhaps it will push off the lingering sorrow.

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