The best novels about the 16th century that don’t involve Tudors

Who am I?

I fell in love with Russian history as a college sophomore, when I realized the place was like a movie series, all drama and extremes. I completed a doctorate at Stanford in early modern Russia and later published The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. Because so few people in the West know about the contemporaries of the Tudors and Borgias, I set out to write a set of novels, published under a pseudonym, aimed at a general audience, and set in sixteenth-century Russia. I interview authors for the New Books Network, where I favor well-written books set in unfamiliar times and places.

I wrote...

The Golden Lynx

By C.P. Lesley,

Book cover of The Golden Lynx

What is my book about?

Russia, 1534. Elite clans battle for control of the toddler who will become their first tsar, Ivan the Terrible. Amid the chaos and upheaval, a masked man mysteriously appears night after night to aid the desperate people. Or is he a man? 

Sixteen-year-old Nasan Kolychev is trapped in a loveless marriage. To escape her misery, she dons boys’ clothes and slips away under cover of night to help those in need. Before long, she finds herself caught up in events that will decide the future of Russia. And so, a girl who has become the greatest hero of her time must decide whether to save a baby destined to become the greatest villain of his.

The books I picked & why

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Silent Water

By P.K. Adams,

Book cover of Silent Water

Why this book?

One lingering effect of the Cold War is that many people in Europe and North America have little sense of the close ties that linked all parts of Europe in the sixteenth century. This well-written mystery set during the Polish Renaissance begins with the wedding of Bona Sforza to King Zygmunt of Poland and is told by Lady Caterina Sanseverino, a widow from Bari charged with keeping Bona’s ladies-in-waiting in line. A courtier is murdered at the royal family’s Christmas feast in 1519, and as the bodies pile up, Caterina becomes increasingly drawn into the hunt for the perpetrator. The mystery is well handled, but what sets this novel apart is the author’s gift for recreating a long-ago and little-known world. 

The Ringed Castle: Book Five in the Legendary Lymond Chronicles

By Dorothy Dunnett,

Book cover of The Ringed Castle: Book Five in the Legendary Lymond Chronicles

Why this book?

This book was my introduction to Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I picked it up at a library sale and was immediately caught up in its portrayal of Francis Crawford, a Scottish adventurer who ends up at the court of Ivan the Terrible. Based loosely on the diary of Sir Jerome Horsey, it represents an older understanding of how Muscovite Russia operated, but it’s a great adventure told with vivid details and remarkable characters, still my favorite among the six books in this series.

Faint Promise of Rain

By Anjali Mitter Duva,

Book cover of Faint Promise of Rain

Why this book?

If Eastern and Central Europe are often ignored in historical fiction in the sixteenth century, that’s even more true of lands east of the Ural Mountains. This gorgeous study of Mughal India in the reigns of Emperor Humayun and his son Akbar charts the story of Adhira, a temple dancer in Rajasthan. Born during one of her homeland’s rare rainstorms, Adhira bears the weight of her father’s expectation that she will carry on the kathak tradition to which he has devoted his life. Through the story of Adhira and her brother Mahendra, Duva—herself a practitioner of kathak—plunges us into the highs and lows of temple life and reveals a deep understanding of the religious dance she portrays.

The Gondola Maker

By Laura Morelli,

Book cover of The Gondola Maker

Why this book?

This novel, set in sixteenth-century Venice, reminds us that the Italian Renaissance was a great time to be a devotee of the pictorial arts. And it does so without getting caught up in the scandals surrounding the Borgias, who are almost as overdone as the Tudors. Luca Vianello is the heir to Venice’s premier gondola maker, until tragedy sends him off on a journey through poverty and hard work that ends when he becomes the personal boatman of the painter Trevisan. Morelli, who trained as an art historian, is intimately acquainted with the former Italian city-states, and like the other novels on my list, hers immerses you in Renaissance everyday life at a very personal level.

Voyage to Muscovy

By Ann Swinfen,

Book cover of Voyage to Muscovy

Why this book?

This is the sixth book in a series that mostly does take place in Tudor England and even includes occasional glimpses of Elizabeth I and Will Shakespeare. But it mainly focuses on Christoval (Caterina, nicknamed Kit) Alvarez, the daughter of a Portuguese Jewish medical doctor who masquerades as a man so that she can practice medicine. In this adventure, set in 1590, Kit accompanies a group of English merchants to the court of Boris Godunov in Moscow and treats Prince Dmitry Ivanovich—the last son of Ivan the Terrible, who died suddenly at the age of nine, reputedly on Boris’s orders. I acted as historical consultant for this novel, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly as an engaging, well-written tale that can be enjoyed as a stand-alone.

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