The best fiction books set in the 16th century

Theodore Irvin Silar Author Of Lady Grace's Revels: A Tale of Elizabethan England
By Theodore Irvin Silar

Who am I?

I have a Ph.D. in English from Lehigh University, and I have taught English for 30 years. I have studied and taught Shakespeare, Tudor drama, English linguistics, the Reformation, and various other aspects in the literary and cultural history of the 16th century. The 16th century is a time of great upheaval and the more I study it, the more I am fascinated by how pivotal this epoch is in the creation of the modern world, for better and for worse. I seek out books that chart, from grandest to most intimate, this momentous time’s transformations.


I wrote...

Lady Grace's Revels: A Tale of Elizabethan England

By Theodore Irvin Silar,

Book cover of Lady Grace's Revels: A Tale of Elizabethan England

What is my book about?

It is Michaelmas in rural Renaissance England, and Thomas Smith and William Philpott, scriveners, cannot believe their luck. They have been invited to revels at the manor house of Lady Grace Atwater, Countess of Burnham. There will be food, drink, dancing, and gracious company culled from a diverse assortment of county societies. Thomas has even written a poem for the occasion. All goes well until a certain Sir John, a master swordsman out to better himself by whatever means, makes an entrance. Soon, all is not well, and a cascade of revelations lays open the decadent underside of the glamourous aristocratic life. 

The books I picked & why

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Dissolution: A Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery

By C.J. Sansom,

Book cover of Dissolution: A Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery

Why this book?

The hero of Dissolution is Matthew Shardlake, a hunch-backed lawyer commissioned by Thomas Cromwell, Henry XIII’s enforcer, to investigate a murder in an opulent monastery, meanwhile pressuring its monks to “dissolve” their institution.

Dissolution is set during Henry XIII’s ransacking of the Roman church’s English holdings. Shardlake wrestles with his conscience. A true-believer at the start, he uncovers unsettling truths. Shardlake’s equivocalness is increased by such sights as beggars barefooted in the snow, the immolation of great artworks. A detective mystery with lagniappe, where its setting is not just a picturesque backdrop, addressing the issues without platitudes or easy answers.

Dissolution: A Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery

By C.J. Sansom,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Dissolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Awarded the CWA Diamond Dagger - the highest honor in British crime writing

From the bestselling author of Winter in Madrid and Dominion comes the exciting and elegantly written first novel in the Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery series

Dissolution is an utterly riveting portrayal of Tudor England. The year is 1537, and the country is divided between those faithful to the Catholic Church and those loyal to the king and the newly established Church of England. When a royal commissioner is brutally murdered in a monastery on the south coast of England, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's feared vicar general, summons…


The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession

By Charlie Lovett,

Book cover of The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession

Why this book?

Antiquarian Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale is informed by his expertise. TBT is a paean to books, their production, archival, transmission, forgery. This book should appeal to readers who love books. The story of Peter, a present-day apprentice rare books dealer, alternates with that of Bartholomew Harbottle, a crooked Elizabethan book dealer, a friend of William Shakespeare. 

The book follows a Shakespearean document as it passes from hand to hand over time. At first, the document appears real. Then forged. Then partially forged. Then perhaps real. Then a perfect copy shows up. Which one is real? Which one is fake? Are both fake? Therein lies a tale.

The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession

By Charlie Lovett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bookman's Tale as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A mysterious portrait ignites an antiquarian bookseller's search through time and the works of Shakespeare for his lost love. Charlie Lovett's new book, The Lost Book of the Grail, is now available.

Guaranteed to capture the hearts of everyone who truly loves books, The Bookman's Tale is a former bookseller's sparkling novel and a delightful exploration of one of literature's most tantalizing mysteries with echoes of Shadow of the Wind and A.S. Byatt's Possession.

Nine months after the death of his beloved wife Amanda left him shattered, Peter Byerly, a young antiquarian bookseller, relocates from North Carolina to the English…


The Religion

By Tim Willocks,

Book cover of The Religion

Why this book?

The Religion is a harrowing, jaw-dropping narrative I think everybody should read. That the 1565 Great Siege of Malta that stopped the Ottomans in the West is so unknown is unwarranted. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sends an army to conquer Malta, an island owned by the Knights Hospitaller, a Catholic military order.

Mattias Tannhauser, a former janissary, ends up fighting with the Maltese Knights, against former comrades, for a Hospitaller leader he must murder, while the Inquisition welcomes the Hospitallers’ downfall: a glorious mess of cross-purposes for those who like plot twists. The Religion delivers an overwhelming immersion in a momentous event described in colorful, dramatic prose.

The Religion

By Tim Willocks,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Their god is War. And every god needs his Devil. THE RELIGION

Malta, 1565. The greatest war the world has ever seen is unleashed on the doomed island as the Turks do battle with the Knights. The Knights call themselves The Religion. The Turks call them the Hounds of Hell.

Back in Sicily, the beautiful, rich Carla pines for her bastard son, lost in the bloody inferno across the water.

Enter Mattias Tannhauser - warrior, hero and double agent. Under Carla's command, he embarks on a death-defying mission to save her son. But can he evade the Inquisition and escape…


Q

By Luther Blissett,

Book cover of Q

Why this book?

Q takes place in strife-ridden 1500s central Europe. At the center is an Anabaptist revolutionary, of many names, hunted by a Papal spy, Q. Identities mutate in Q. Thus, Q is an espionage novel, with disguises, code, counterfeiting. Commoners build egalitarian communities in Q. But rulers cannot tolerate egalitarianism. It might be catching. Thus, Q is also a war novel, with battles, skirmishes, narrow escapes. 

Is Q an allegory for modern revolution? The take-away seems to be, “Use the new technology and dissimulate.” A seems self-evident. But B? Would I even know, if they’re dissimulating? An idea-filled, engrossing, wide-ranging, tragi-comic read.

Q

By Luther Blissett,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1517, Martin Luther nails his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral, and a dance of death begins between a radical Anabaptist with many names and a loyal papal spy known mysteriously as "Q." In this brilliantly conceived literary thriller set in the chaos of the Reformation-an age devastated by wars of religion-a young theology student adopts the cause of heretics and the disinherited and finds himself pursued by a relentless papal informer and heretic hunter. What begins as a personal struggle to reveal each other's identity becomes a mission that can only end in death.


Shakespeare's Dog: A Novel

By Leon Rooke,

Book cover of Shakespeare's Dog: A Novel

Why this book?

Shakespeare’s Dog is the craziest Shakespearean book I’ve ever read. Not only is the young Stratford Shakespeare’s tale told by his dog, Hooker ̶ the dog speaks a kind of faux-Shakespearean: full of Elizabethan-esque vocabulary and syntax, Anglo-Saxon bawdry, new-coined usages of common words (“the wind flummoxed”; “I knelled the truth”).  Moreover, Rooke must really know his dogs. Because the dog-viewpoint (a frustrated Shakespeare “bites his toenails”) seems right on the money. The struggle of a prodigy youth and his prodigy dog to escape the tawdry, shallow, raucous banality of provincial small-town life is told with vividness, wit, and pathos.

Shakespeare's Dog: A Novel

By Leon Rooke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shakespeare's Dog as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Will Shakespeare's dog, named Hooker, reports on the young poet and playwright's tumultuous Stratford household and on his and his master's shared and growing desire to be away to London


5 book lists we think you will like!

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