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

The Books I Picked & Why

Dissolution: A Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery

By C. J. Sansom

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.


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The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession

By Charlie Lovett

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.


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The Religion

By Tim Willocks

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.


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Q

By Luther Blissett

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.


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Shakespeare's Dog: A Novel

By Leon Rooke

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.


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