The best historical books that aren’t about kings, queens, or regents-in-between

Who am I?

I am a librarian and a writer with a passion for history and challenging the narrative, because sometimes, the things the history books tell us aren’t the whole story. After all, history belongs to the victor, doesn’t it? Finding and writing stories that explore historical lives beyond royals and the wealthy is what I love, and I’m always looking for more books that do this. I started reading historical fiction as a child, delving into things like the Dear America and American Girl series, that told the stories of everyday people in these grand moments of history, and reading those books inspired me to write my own.

I wrote...

Sailing by Orion's Star

By Katie Crabb,

Book cover of Sailing by Orion's Star

What is my book about?

East India Company sailor Nicholas Jerome has no patience for pirates, determined to leave his father's thieving past behind. After a convict and an enslaved woman escape his grasp with the aid of an aristocrat’s mysterious wife, he faces one last chance to save his career. Finding an unexpected home with a new crew, he gains a chosen younger brother in René Delacroix, the son of his wealthy captain and the grandson of Jamaica’s cruel governor.

But there’s a storm brewing in the Delacroix household. For René and his best friend Frantz, the Robin Hood tales about legendary pirate Ajani Danso and his famed female quartermaster are a lifeline amidst the governor’s abuse. Danso robs greedy merchants, frees slaves, and shelters queer sailors, inspiring the downtrodden across the New World.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nottingham: The True Story of Robyn Hood

Katie Crabb Why did I love this book?

A queer and gender-bent retelling of Robin Hood, this book swept me off my feet. Combining the origins of Robin Hood, the repression of the poor and working class in this period in England, deep friendships, and a romance full of yearning, this story made me feel deeply. I felt Robyn’s desperation to feed her family and take on the Sheriff of Nottingham for destroying someone she loved. I felt Maid Marian’s struggle with her realization that she is, indeed, a lesbian in love with Robyn. I felt it all in my bones. The book takes what people love about a Robin Hood story and makes it even more radical with its inclusion of lesbian and trans characters, and doesn’t shy away from the realities of rebelling against power.

By Anna Burke,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

After a fateful hunting accident sends her on the run from the law, Robyn finds herself deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest. All she really wants to do is provide for her family and stay out of trouble, but when the damnable Sheriff of Nottingham levies the largest tax in the history of England, she's forced to take matters into her own hands. Relying on the help of her merry band of misfits and the Sheriff’s intriguing—and off-limits—daughter, Marian, Robyn must find a way to pull off the biggest heist Sherwood has ever seen.

With both heart and freedom…

Book cover of Tipping the Velvet

Katie Crabb Why did I love this book?

A queer historical fiction classic, this Sarah Waters gem focuses on Nan, a working-class girl who works in her family’s oyster restaurant. The story follows her travels—and her heartbreak—when she falls in love watching Kitty Butler, a local actress. This book gives a beautifully vivid portrayal of a character at the intersection of womanhood, queerness, and the working class, and also has interesting things to say about gender. You grow up with Nan as you read, you cry when she cries, you get frustrated with her when she makes mistakes, and you cheer for her when she finally learns to value herself. Digging in to the beginnings of the socialist movement in London, this book explores something more than so many other Victorian-era novels.

By Sarah Waters,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Tipping the Velvet as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Piercing the shadows of the naked stage was a single shaft of rosy limelight, and in the centre of this was a girl: the most marvellous girl - I knew it at once! - that I had ever seen.'

A saucy, sensuous and multi-layered historical romance set in the 'roaring' 1890s, Tipping the Velvet follows the glittering career of Nan King on her journey from Whitstable oyster-girl to music-hall star to cross-dressing rentboy to East End 'tom'.

Book cover of The Golem and the Jinni

Katie Crabb Why did I love this book?

This historical novel intertwined with beautiful elements of fantasy, tells the story of Chava, a golem created by a Rabbi, and Ahmad, a Jinn born in the Syrian desert, both of whom find themselves in turn of the century New York. This book is gorgeously written and has such a marvelous foundation of characters and their relationships with one another that it has become one of my favorites. As Chava and Ahmad slowly become friends and form an unbreakable connection, we also get a deep dive into the chaotic beauty of immigrant neighborhoods in this period, and the people who live in them. A truly spellbinding look at friendship, building family, and making a home for yourself. 

By Helene Wecker,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Golem and the Jinni as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'One of only two novels I've ever loved whose main characters are not human' BARBARA KINGSOLVER

For fans of The Essex Serpent and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock.

'By far my favourite book of of the year' Guardian

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899.

Ahmad is a djinni, a being of fire, born in…

Book cover of A Tip for the Hangman

Katie Crabb Why did I love this book?

This book, set during the Elizabethan period, tells the intrigue-filled story of Christopher (or Kit) Marlowe as he agrees to be a spy for the Queen of England in order to make the money he needs to become a playwright. I know what you’re thinking. This does involve a monarch, but it’s very much about what happens when a desperate man makes a deal with powerful people to achieve his dreams, and ends up in trouble. If you know what happened to the famous playwright who was Shakespeare’s peer before his death (or what likely happened to him), you know what I mean. This book is a thriller, but is at its heart a love story about a man in love with his art and his best friend, and his struggle to choose between them. 

By Allison Epstein,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Tip for the Hangman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An Elizabethan espionage thriller in which playwright Christopher Marlowe spies on Mary, Queen of Scots while navigating the perils of politics, theater, romance—and murder.

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe's last year at Cambridge, he is approached by Queen Elizabeth's spymaster offering an unorthodox career opportunity: going undercover to intercept a Catholic plot to put Mary, Queen of Scots on Elizabeth's throne. Spying on Queen Mary turns out to be more than Kit bargained for, but his salary allows him to mount his first play, and over the following years he becomes the toast of London's raucous theater scene. But when…

Book cover of Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Katie Crabb Why did I love this book?

This is my nonfiction pick for this list, and one of my favorite books on any historical period, ever. This was a foundational text for my own trilogy set in the golden age of piracy, and at least half of it is underlined and filled with my excited notes. This book takes on the period through what Rediker calls “history from below” exploring the lives of pirates, sailors, enslaved people, and those fighting against empires and the damaging effects of colonization in the 18th century. It stands against the depiction of pirates as lazy thieves, and instead paints a picture of social and economic rebellion. The pirates weren’t perfect, but they were building something of their own in juxtaposition to the rampant abuses of the era. 

By Marcus Rediker,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Villains of All Nations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pirates have long been stock figures in popular culture, from Treasure Island to the more recent antics of Jack Sparrow. Villains of all Nations unearths the thrilling historical truth behind such fictional characters and rediscovers their radical democratic challenge to the established powers of the day.

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The Ninja's Oath

By Tori Eldridge,

Book cover of The Ninja's Oath

Tori Eldridge Author Of The Ninja Daughter

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Ninja Hiker Love Boat Mermaid Mom

Tori's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Chinese-Norwegian modern-day ninja, Lily Wong travels to Shanghai in an explosive joint mission with her father’s former-triad cook, Lee Chang, and the infuriatingly alluring assassin J Tran.

As this uneasy trio hunts for Chang’s kidnapped twelve-year-old niece, they must also move Chang’s family out of their condemned home, a task complicated by the feud between brothers and the old resentments and intrigues entwined with the stunning history of Shanghai. Meanwhile, back home in Los Angeles, Lily’s father is hospitalized with an unknown disease, and Lily is shocked by the true identity of her ninja teacher, known only as Sensei, and the truth behind why he left Japan. Although fourth in the series, it can be read as a standalone thriller or introduction to Lily Wong.

The Ninja's Oath

By Tori Eldridge,

What is this book about?

The Ninja's Oath takes Chinese-Norwegian modern-day ninja, Lily Wong, to Shanghai in an explosive joint mission with her father's former-triad cook and the assassin J Tran. Get ready for the riveting next book in Tori Eldridge's bestselling Lily Wong series!

International action adventure ensues when Lily Wong—a Chinese-Norwegian modern-day ninja—travels from Shanghai to Japan to help family friend and former triad enforcer, Lee Chang, locate and rescue his kidnapped twelve-year-old niece while, back home in Los Angeles, her father’s health wanes.

Their mission is aided and complicated by an enigmatic assassin with a discomforting fascination for Lily. When the hunt…

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