The best seriously historical historical fiction novels

Who am I?

I'm a retired historian of early Islam and writer of historical fiction set in medieval Iraq, Turkic, and Persian lands. I write and love to read novels that “do history.” In other words, historical fiction that unravels the tangles of history through the lives of its characters, especially when told from the perspectives of those upon whom elite power is wielded. My selections are written by authors who speak from an informed position, either as academic or lay historians, those with a stake in that history, or, like me, both, and include major press, small press, and self-published works and represent the histories of West Africa, Europe, Central and West Asia, and South Asia.

I wrote...

The Unseen: The Sufi Mysteries Quartet Book Three

By Laury Silvers,

Book cover of The Unseen: The Sufi Mysteries Quartet Book Three

What is my book about?

It is 908 CE, the waning days of the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. A body is discovered in Baghdad shot in the exact manner of Shia martyr slain some two hundred years earlier. Many suspect the murder signals a coming attack on the Shia community. The city is on edge as political, religious, and personal factions are exposed, sending the caliph’s army into the streets. Ammar and Tein, detectives with Baghdad’s Grave Crimes Section, and Tein’s sister Zaytuna, have to clear the case one way or another before violence erupts. The investigation offers no easy resolution as the three seek out the killer among those vying to gain power over the meaning of the past for the future, not just caliphal authorities and scholars, but also old women, children, and wayward sons.

The books I picked & why

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By Maryse Conde,

Book cover of Segu

Why this book?

Segu may begin with a lone white explorer gazing across a river at the Bambara people, but this novel turns away from him to those whose world will be irrevocably changed as colonialism and Christianity, Muslim expansionism, and the horrific trade in human beings irrevocably changes the course of African lives. Condé turns an unblinking eye on the Traore family as they break under the weight of these civilizational pressures. Traditional ways of life turn brutal and desperate—women especially feel the brunt of an unstable world—and sons abandon the family for enemies or are kidnapped and enslaved. Each storyline in this famed epic cuts straight into the political and social complexities of that time and exposes its players to uncompromising account.

The Name of the Rose

By Umberto Eco,

Book cover of The Name of the Rose

Why this book?

The inaccessible Secretum at the centre of the novel is not simply a repository for the most important manuscripts in Christendom. It is a maze shaped in the order of creation and an argument for how the world should be by controlling what people know. Knowledge has always been curated and does not require banning books or even book burnings to do the work of shaping minds, cultures, and empires towards a desired end. People at every level of society—not just elite scholarly, religious, and political powers—make direct but also unintentional decisions about what may be considered worthy resources for thought. This celebrated mystery asks us to consider and acknowledge the choices, majestic and banal, that lead to such ends.

Of Battles Past

By Bryn Hammond,

Book cover of Of Battles Past

Why this book?

The magnificence of the first in the Amalgant series is the immersive reconstruction of Mongol social, political, and religious worlds, as well as the lives of its people. Hammond resistantly reads histories produced by hostile cultures, instead privileging the earliest and most comprehensive Mongol tellings of their own lives, The Secret History of the Mongols. This is no dry historical account of cultural norms, steppe relations, or material artifacts, but an intimate and humane telling of the personal tragedies and struggles that would change the world as the war-orphaned Temujin grows to be the man we know as Chenggiz Khan.

A Tudor Turk: The Chronicles of Will Ryde & Awa Maryam Al-Jameel

By Rehan Khan,

Book cover of A Tudor Turk: The Chronicles of Will Ryde & Awa Maryam Al-Jameel

Why this book?

This riveting Young Adult novel sets the action on a stage in which “East” and “West” are not divided as typically imagined, but intertwined economically, politically, and culturally. Moses’ staff has been stolen from Topkapi Place and a team of Ottoman janissaries is sent on a mission through Italy and England to recover it. The team is made of free and formerly enslaved men and women hailing from rising empires and those lost. Their struggles offer a searing account of the Ottoman, West and North African, and European dependence on the trade of enslaved human beings. And while the theft of the staff of Moses may seem fanciful, its possession confers imperial power and thus is the perfect object to ask from who was it truly stolen and to whom should it be returned.

Murder at the Mushaira

By Raza Mir,

Book cover of Murder at the Mushaira

Why this book?

Set in Delhi on the eve of the first battle for Indian independence in 1857 that would be so brutally put down by the British, ending with Delhi in flames and India coming under direct British rule, our detective, the poet laureate Mirza Ghalib investigates a murder. The investigation reveals the myriad of personalities, pressures, and allegiances from every corner of Indian and British society that led to the uprising and all that has come after. This finely wrought novel begins and ends with death at a Mushaira—a poetry recitation, public, private, or intimate for just two, that typically drew from every level of society—sounding the loss of India as it was before colonization, and then partition, when religious and social boundaries were not as starkly defined and policed as they are now.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle Ages, Mongols, and 16th century?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle Ages, Mongols, and 16th century.

The Middle Ages Explore 245 books about the Middle Ages
Mongols Explore 7 books about Mongols
16th Century Explore 46 books about 16th century

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Winter King, The Mists of Avalon, and The Book on the Bookshelf if you like this list.