The best historical fiction novels in lesser-known settings

Who am I?

I’ve been a history nerd all my life. Historical fiction chap books were my entrance to reading, and my copy of Little Women fell apart from excessive re-reads. (It also taught me the word “abridged.” I was very upset to find out I hadn’t been given the full book!) I love how novels can pull you into a time on such a personal level. That immersion is part of what made me so interested in books set in lesser-known eras. I mean, I love a good Tudor court drama or WWII novel as much as the next reader. There is just something extra special about learning about a brand-new time. 


I wrote...

The Stars of Heaven

By Jessica Dall,

Book cover of The Stars of Heaven

What is my book about?

When one of the largest earthquakes in history hits Lisbon on All Saints’ Day 1755, Cecília de Santa Rita e Durante’s life is turned upside down. With her family possibly dead, she must wade through the ruins that were once her home with the help of John Bates. The English Protestant represents everything she was taught to hate, but he is her only hope of making it through the newly destroyed Lisbon. Faced with both unspeakable tragedy and an unexpected miracle at home, Cecília is cast into a web of deception, religious upheaval, and political intrigue that leaves her on even shakier ground.

The books I picked & why

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Bird in a Snare

By N. L. Holmes,

Book cover of Bird in a Snare

Why this book?

N. L. Holmes is my absolute favorite “under the radar” historical fiction author writing today. She has a number of wonderful books out there, but if I had to suggest one to new readers, I would pick Bird in a Snare, the first book of the Lord Hani Mystery series. Set in Ancient Egypt under the reign of Akhenaten, the series is an amazing insight into a tumultuous part of ancient history I knew next to nothing about when I first picked up the book and a great mystery series. Throw in awesome prose and a wonderful cast of characters, and I recommend this one whenever I get the chance.

Bird in a Snare

By N. L. Holmes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bird in a Snare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When Hani, an Egyptian diplomat under Akhenaten, is sent to investigate the murder of a useful bandit leader in Syria, he encounters corruption, tangled relationships, and yet more murder. His investigation is complicated by the new king’s religious reforms, which have struck Hani’s own family to the core. Hani’s mission is to amass enough evidence for his superiors to prosecute the wrongdoers despite the king’s protection—but not just every superior can be trusted. And maybe not even the king!


The Twentieth Wife

By Indu Sundaresan,

Book cover of The Twentieth Wife

Why this book?

Going back for a reread of this one now, I know there are some issues (as far as the historical record goes) in this book, but I still find the descriptions of Mughal India stunning… and I’ve always had a weak spot for the beautiful, ambitious woman uses the power of social climbing to succeed in a “man’s world” sort of narratives. And The Twentieth Wife has definitely got that in spades. 

The Twentieth Wife

By Indu Sundaresan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An enchanting seventeenth-century epic of grand passion and adventure, this debut novel tells the captivating story of one of India's most legendary and controversial empresses -- a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal empire.
She came into the world in the year 1577, to the howling accompaniment of a ferocious winter storm. As the daughter of starving refugees fleeing violent persecution in Persia, her fateful birth in a roadside tent sparked a miraculous reversal of family fortune, culminating in her father's introduction to the court of Emperor Akbar. She…


When You See Her

By Barbara Boehm Miller,

Book cover of When You See Her

Why this book?

Set in the US in the late 70s, this book was one I went back and forth on if it fit my criteria of being a lesser-known locale (or possibly even historical fiction, since the 60s and 70s are just now starting to hit that cut-off). The world it presents—life in a traveling carnival during the tail end of the freakshow era—was so interesting, though, I felt I had to slip it in. On the run from a terrible secret, the protagonist joins the carnival as their “fat lady” act in the freakshow… and things are just as crazy (and yet somehow so emotionally grounded?) as that premise makes it sound. I’d definitely suggest giving it a read. 

When You See Her

By Barbara Boehm Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When You See Her as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Trapped and isolated in small-town Wisconsin, Sarah wants nothing more than to blend in and lead a normal life away from her abusive brother. Weighing five hundred pounds and having no job or formal education, however, makes this almost impossible.


When Sarah commits an unthinkable act, she seizes the only opportunity available to escape the consequences of her actions. She contacts the carnival man who previously offered her a job as a sideshow act. Burying her guilt, Sarah leaves home and begins performing under the stage name Lola Rolls.

Traveling from town to town, Lola wonders if it's possible to…


Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South, Southern China, A.D. 531

By Laurence Yep,

Book cover of Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South, Southern China, A.D. 531

Why this book?

Is this a children’s book? Yes. Yes, it is. Since ten-year-old me can still remember reading it, however, (particularly a paragraph about how special it was to be able to read and write in sixth-century China—which blew ten-year-old me’s mind) it’s still going on the list. Lady of Ch’iao Kuo is also one of the Scholastic Royal Diaries series, which I devoured as a younger reader, and is fabulous as a whole. It includes both well-known (another Elizabeth I book? Yep) and more obscure historical figures, all written about in a way that allows children to connect to them. Highly recommended for both the young and young at heart!

Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South, Southern China, A.D. 531

By Laurence Yep,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lady of Ch'iao Kuo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Readers can embark on an extraordinary journey to Southern China in the 6th century A.D. where they will meet sixteen-year-old Ch'iao Kuo, a born leader called Red Bird, whose bravery and brilliance is unrivaled.


Baltasar and Blimunda

By José Saramago, Giovanni Pontiero (translator),

Book cover of Baltasar and Blimunda

Why this book?

I admit, Baltasar and Blimunda is not the type of historical fiction I generally pick up (a more distanced narrative voice plus magical realism doesn’t tend to be my normal pick for pleasure reading) but I felt I needed to read at least one novel set in 18th century Portugal before trying to write my own set there. Something by a Portuguese author as well seemed entirely the way to go. So, I picked this up, and am really glad I did. 

Baltasar and Blimunda

By José Saramago, Giovanni Pontiero (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In eighteenth-century Portugal, fifty thousand laborers carry stones on their backs across mountains to build the king's convent, a heretical priest devises a magic flying machine--the Passarola--and two lovers' dream of flight sets them apart.


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