The best historical novels that demonstrate the fallout of religious conflict

Why am I passionate about this?

Frequent visits to my parents’ Maltese homeland from the time I was very young piqued my interest in the island’s opulent history. Life under the rule of the Knights of St John fascinated me most. The Maltese Islands lend themselves very well to literary descriptions—gifted with four compass points of natural beauty, the smell of the sea constant no matter how far inland one might venture, ancient temples that predate the pyramids of Egypt. It was during a pre-college trip to Malta in July 2000 that the idea to write a novel based on the Siege of 1565 took root, thanks to a visit to the Malta Experience in Valletta.

I wrote...

Eight Pointed Cross

By Marthese Fenech,

Book cover of Eight Pointed Cross

What is my book about?

The violent clash between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St John on the island fortress Malta serves as the backdrop to Eight Pointed Cross. Siblings Domenicus and Katrina Montesa live under threat of raids by corsairs loyal to the Ottoman Sultan. Hundreds of leagues away in Istanbul, Demir’s dream of becoming a horseman in the Sultan’s cavalry is his only salvation against torment by his cruel brother.

The 1551 Turkish invasion of Malta and the island’s bloody defence will change the lives of the three protagonists, whose fates are intertwined not only with each other, but with nobles and peasants, knights and corsairs, on both sides of the conflict as the novel sweeps across the Mediterranean. Surviving this battle-soaked world of swords and scimitars will test the limits of every character’s courage, loyalty, and love.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of An Instance of the Fingerpost

Marthese Fenech Why did I love 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.

By Iain Pears,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked An Instance of the Fingerpost as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A fictional tour de force which combines erudition with mystery' PD James

Set in Oxford in the 1660s - a time and place of great intellectual, religious, scientific and political ferment - this remarkable novel centres around a young woman, Sarah Blundy, who stands accused of the murder of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College. Four witnesses describe the events surrounding his death: Marco da Cola, a Venetian Catholic intent on claiming credit for the invention of blood transfusion;Jack Prescott, the son of a supposed traitor to the Royalist cause, determined to vindicate his father; John Wallis, chief cryptographer…

Book cover of A Thousand Splendid Suns

Marthese Fenech Why did I love 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.

By Khaled Hosseini,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked A Thousand Splendid Suns as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'A suspenseful epic' Daily Telegraph

'A triumph' Financial Times

'Heartbreaking' Mail on Sunday

'Deeply moving' Sunday Times

Mariam is only fifteen when she is sent to Kabul to marry Rasheed. Nearly two decades later, a friendship grows between Mariam and a local teenager, Laila, as strong as the ties between mother and daughter. When the Taliban take over, life becomes a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear. Yet love can move a person to act in unexpected ways, and lead them to overcome the most daunting obstacles with a startling heroism.

Book cover of Empires of Sand: A Novel

Marthese Fenech Why did I love 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.

By David W. Ball,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Empires of Sand as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the mysteriously beautiful, richly hued landscape of the Saharan mountains to the sumptuous splendor of nineteenth-century Paris, Empires of Sand is a novel that takes us on an extraordinary, powerfully emotional journey In a clash between two civilizations, two men of common blood discover that in war, love, and even family, they are both destined to be outsiders....

The year is 1870. The proud Republic of France is crumbling under the onslaught of the Prussian army. Paris is under siege. Too young to understand the shifting fortunes of the empire, two boys forge a bond with their breathless adventures…

Book cover of The Pride of Baghdad

Marthese Fenech Why did I love 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.

By Brian K. Vaughan, Niko Henrichon (illustrator), Todd Klein (illustrator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Pride of Baghdad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

Written by Brian K. Vaughn Art by Niko Henrichon In the spring of 2003, a pride of lions escapes from the Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing raid. Lost and confused, hungry but finally free, the four lions roamed the decimated streets of Baghdad in a desperate struggle for their lives. In documenting the plight of the lions, PRIDE OF BAGHDAD raises questions about the true meaning of liberation - can it be given, or is it earned only through self-determination and sacrifice? And in the end, is it truly better to die free than to live in captivity?

Book cover of The Cellist of Sarajevo

Marthese Fenech Why did I love 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.

By Steven Galloway,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cellist of Sarajevo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A universal story, and a testimony to the struggle to find meaning, grace, and humanity, even amid the most unimaginable horrors.' Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner

Snipers in the hills overlook the shattered streets of Sarajevo. Knowing that the next bullet could strike at any moment, the ordinary men and women below strive to go about their daily lives as best they can. Kenan faces the agonizing dilemma of crossing the city to get water for his family. Dragan, gripped by fear, does not know who among his friends he can trust. And Arrow, a young woman counter-sniper…

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American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

Book cover of American Flygirl

Susan Tate Ankeny Author Of The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Susan Tate Ankeny left a career in teaching to write the story of her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France. In 2011, after being led on his path through France by the same Resistance fighters who guided him in 1944, she felt inspired to tell the story of these brave French patriots, especially the 17-year-old- girl who risked her own life to save her father’s. Susan is a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, the Air Force Escape and Evasion Society, and the Association des Sauveteurs d’Aviateurs Alliés. 

Susan's book list on women during WW2

What is my book about?

The first and only full-length biography of Hazel Ying Lee, an unrecognized pioneer and unsung World War II hero who fought for a country that actively discriminated against her gender, race, and ambition.

This unique hidden figure defied countless stereotypes to become the first Asian American woman in United States history to earn a pilot's license, and the first female Asian American pilot to fly for the military.

Her achievements, passionate drive, and resistance in the face of oppression as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a female aviator changed the course of history. Now the remarkable story of a fearless underdog finally surfaces to inspire anyone to reach toward the sky.

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

What is this book about?

One of WWII’s most uniquely hidden figures, Hazel Ying Lee was the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot’s license, join the WASPs, and fly for the United States military amid widespread anti-Asian sentiment and policies.

Her singular story of patriotism, barrier breaking, and fearless sacrifice is told for the first time in full for readers of The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia, Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown and all Asian American, women’s and WWII history books.…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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