The best bubonic plague books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about the bubonic plague and why they recommend each book.

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By Sherryl Jordan,

Book cover of Rocco

I loved this book when it came out in 1990 and I still love it. Rocco has disturbing dreams of being in a primitive, cave-dwelling society then shockingly the dreams become reality. He must learn to live with the people who struggle to survive in a harsh landscape. He learns to hunt with primitive weapons just as he must learn how to live with the people he’s found himself amongst. But why has he ended up here? There’s something amiss with this life and the wise woman seems to hold the key but she won’t tell him. When he finds himself back home recovering from bubonic plague he has to find the answer.

Rocco is a book I wished I’d written! The story is fascinating with its well-researched depiction of surviving in a harsh environment without modern technology or tools. Also, the plot is clever – how is it that…

Who am I?

I’m a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand and I’ve always been drawn to stories of struggle, especially where a character fights against outside control. I started writing for the high school students I was teaching and got hooked on the YA genre. I love it partly because it crosses all genres – I can write about a 14-year-old girl trying to live in a repressive religious cult but I can also write about a 15-year-old boy who’s a champion kart driver. Karting at top level takes enormous skill as I discovered, but it also has room for dirty tricks.

I wrote...

Juno of Taris

By Fleur Beale,

Book cover of Juno of Taris

What is my book about?

I visited the Eden Project in the UK and got to wondering what life would be like under a protective dome. In Juno of Taris, Juno is one of 500 who lives under a dome on the island Taris that protects them from the ravages of climate change. The rules are strict and they have to be if the community is to survive – however Juno begins to question whether they need to be as strict as they are. But questions are dangerous on Taris. The first question Juno and her classmates want answered is why they must submit to having their heads shaved regularly. They rebel incurring the wrath of the leaders. Danger lurks.

Year of Wonders

By Geraldine Brooks,

Book cover of Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

A personal narrative set in a fearsome historical event is an unbeatable combination for any fiction lover. Anna Firth, a housemaid and an unlikely heroine narrates the course of sickness to inevitable death in 1666. Village religious leaders, resigned to sacrifice the village to end the Plague, self-quarantine the village. We see through Anna’s eyes the despair of giving care when superstition outweighs science. In such chaos, Anna struggles with the temptation of an illicit love. As the plague invades every household, her neighbors turn from prayer to superstition. Especially fascinating is Anna’s role changing from caregiver to suspected witch. Anna struggles to survive and hope as a year of catastrophe becomes annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders."

Who am I?

I divide my reading between works of imagination and historical nonfiction. All good fiction requires research to enhance it’s authenticity. Several years ago, I published a story set in the 1918 influenza epidemic. The research for the story was fascinating, and led me to John M. Barry’s book included in my recommendations. After editing a memoir for retired screenwriter and film director, Gerald Schnitzer (sadly now deceased), he invited me to co-author a novel set in the Four Corners featuring a virologist who combines science and spirituality to find a cure for a pandemic, which became Blood of the White Bear

I wrote...

Blood of the White Bear

By Marcia Calhoun Forecki, Gerald Schnitzer,

Book cover of Blood of the White Bear

What is my book about?

Images of White Bear Kachinas erupt from the dreams of virologist Dr. Rachel Bisette and invade her consciousness. Kachina calls for relief from a hantavirus epidemic in the Four Corners. Rachel rushes to the Southwest to lead the search for a vaccine. Only one survivor of the virus is known, but she is elusive. Eva Yellow Horn, an indigenous healer, carries the gift of immunity. As Rachel searches for Eva, she discovers this healer’s gift of healing beyond science. Eva also knows the truth about the deaths of Rachel’s parents years earlier, when her father investigated the Church Rock spill of radioactive waste. The pandemic is fiction, but the spill and its consequences are historical facts.  

The Medical Detectives

By Berton Roueché,

Book cover of The Medical Detectives: The Classic Collection of Award-Winning Medical Investigative Reporting

Ever since my seventh-grade science teacher used my flyaway hair to demonstrate static electricity, I have loved science, and I also like mystery stories. This classic collection of short pieces is a favorite in both arenas. It is like a true crime series in which the villains are microorganisms and molecules. Unraveling puzzles involving all manner of medical issues, from rabies to toxic chemicals, these case-study stories kept me riveted from beginning to end. Mostly written from the 1940s to the 1960s, they also touch on some shocking medical practices that one hopes are now outdated.

Who am I?

As a novelist, I am endlessly curious about people and like hearing their stories. As an erstwhile computer programmer and farmer, I also have a lifelong interest in science and natural history. When I find those two divergent interests have cross-pollinated in a single gracefully-written book, I am a very happy reader. I love books that weave together an intriguing scientific question with the human story of the scientists pursuing an answer to that question.

I wrote...

Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS

By Edith Forbes,

Book cover of Tracking a Shadow: My Lived Experiment with MS

What is my book about?

When I experienced my first episode of multiple sclerosis in 1993, no treatments existed. The doctors said there was nothing to be done. I was raised by a mother whose early widowhood had left her with seven young children, a ranch in Wyoming, and an ambition to change the world.  She did not like the phrase “nothing to be done” and neither did I.

I immersed myself in the medical literature, and thanks to my background in agriculture, I noticed a possible dietary factor in MS that was not being talked about. That observation launched me on a self-designed experiment that continues to this day. Tracking a Shadow tells the story of that experiment and the mother who taught me to ask questions.  

A Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel Defoe,

Book cover of A Journal of the Plague Year

This so-called ‘journal’ was an account of the Great Plague of London of 1665, 57 years later in 1722. The style of writing is graphic, detailed, and visual which is why it comes over as an accurate account; you feel as if you are wandering the streets of plague-infested London, watching as plague-infested houses are nailed up with their occupants inside and watchmen placed on the street outside. While the narrative voice is that of another time, the observation and perceptiveness give the book a contemporary feel so that I felt comforted knowing that at least people in distant times had actually experienced a pandemic. 

Who am I?

I founded Critical Metaphor Analysis, an approach that has become well known in English language studies. My books Corpus Approaches to Critical Metaphor Analysis, Politicians and Rhetoric: The persuasive power of metaphor, and Analysing Political Speeches have over 5,000 citations. I am also ranked first on Google Scholar on political rhetoric. I have always tried (though not always successfully) to write in an accessible style to reach out to audiences beyond academia. As well as lecturing, I assist in the training of Westminster speechwriters. I love languages and speak French, Spanish, Moroccan Arabic, and Malay with varying degrees of incompetence; I have rediscovered the pleasure of watercolour painting.

I wrote...

Metaphors of Coronavirus: Invisible Enemy or Zombie Apocalypse?

By Jonathan Charteris-Black,

Book cover of Metaphors of Coronavirus: Invisible Enemy or Zombie Apocalypse?

What is my book about?

This book explores the metaphors used by the media and by politicians during the Covid-19 era to understand how language shapes our moral reasoning and the role of language in policy formation and communication during a period of crisis. It analyses metaphors, metonyms, allegories, and symbols to gain insight into the moral basis for the decisions that people made during the pandemic. It draws on cognitive linguistics, history, social psychology, and literature for a multi-layered interpretation of the language of the pandemic and its social and political consequences. 


By Joshua Loomis,

Book cover of Epidemics: The Impact of Germs and Their Power over Humanity

This is a sweeping study of disease in human history written by a scientist who describes both the biological and historical trajectory of ten infectious diseases that have afflicted human society, from bubonic plague to HIV/Aids. While science and medicine continue to find ways to control individual diseases, new infections and parasites continue to emerge to sicken, disable and kill. Loomis concludes with a thoughtful discussion about the future of epidemic disease as we continue to alter our global environment.

Who am I?

Carol R. Byerly is a historian specializing in the history of military medicine. She has taught American history and the history of medicine history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was a contract historian for the U.S. Army Office of the Surgeon General, Office of History, and has also worked for the U.S. Congress and the American Red Cross. Byerly’s publications include Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I and Good Tuberculosis Men: The Army Medical Department’s Struggle with Tuberculosis. She is currently working on a biography of Army medical officer William C. Gorgas, (1854-1920), whose public health measures, including clearing yellow fever from Panama, enabled the United States to construct the canal across the Isthmus.

I wrote...

Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During World War I

By Carol R. Byerly,

Book cover of Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During World War I

What is my book about?

The startling impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on the American army, its medical officers, and their profession, a story which has long been silenced. The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more people in one year than the Great War killed in four, sickening at least one-quarter of the world's population. In Fever of War, Carol R. Byerly uncovers medical officers' memoirs and diaries, official reports, scientific articles, and other original sources, to tell a grave tale about the limits of modern medicine and warfare.

Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England

By Sara M. Butler,

Book cover of Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England

This book overturns a long-held notion that the English were slow to adopt forensic practices in death investigations, by showing just what medieval people did when a body turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. The records created by coroners’ inquests reveal the rather impressive thoroughness of this key element of late medieval law enforcement, including the regular presence of medical professionals on inquest juries.  

Who am I?

I work on topics where medicine, crime, and the law intersect, aided by an undergraduate degree in chemistry and stimulated by my fascination with how criminal justice systems work. I have published on the history of poisoning, vitriol attacks, assault, child murder, and the role of scientific expertise in criminal investigations and trials, focusing on Britain since the seventeenth century. I’ve contributed to many TV documentaries over the years, and enjoy the opportunity to explain just why the history of crime is about so much more than individual criminals: it shows us how people in the past lived their lives and helps explain how we got where we are today.  

I wrote...

Medicine and Justice: Medico-Legal Practice in England and Wales, 1700-1914

By Katherine D. Watson,

Book cover of Medicine and Justice: Medico-Legal Practice in England and Wales, 1700-1914

What is my book about?

This study uses 2,600 cases of murder and sexual assault to answer two central questions: what did doctors contribute to the investigation of serious violent crime in the period 1700 to 1914, and what impact did this have?

It shows that medico-legal work — that is, what doctors actually did when they were faced with a body that had become the victim of violence — developed in tandem with and was shaped by the needs of two evolving practices: pre-trial investigative procedures dominated successively by coroners, magistrates and the police; and criminal trials in which lawyers gradually assumed a central role. Doctors were therefore key contributors to the processes that shaped the modern criminal justice system in England and Wales.

Plagues and Peoples - Central Role Infectious Disease Plays in World History

By William H. McNeill,

Book cover of Plagues and Peoples - Central Role Infectious Disease Plays in World History

McNeill presents challenging historical concepts for the role of viruses, bacteria, and parasites in altering the history of civilization. The book is remarkable, informative, and sophisticated account of selected diseases on human history. Provided is an integration of infection with politics and culture. Of interest is McNeill’s book was among the first to dissect the role infectious agents played in altering civilizations 

Who am I?

Michael B.A. Oldstone was head of the Viral-Immunobiology Laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute, devoting his career to understanding viruses, the diseases they cause, and the host’s immune response to control these infections. His work led to numerous national and international awards, election to the National Academy of Science and the National Academy of Medicine. Oldstone served on the SAGE executive board of the World Health Organization and as a WHO consultant for the eradication of polio and measles.

I wrote...

Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present, and Future

By Michael B.A. Oldstone,

Book cover of Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Present, and Future

What is my book about?

More people were killed by smallpox during the twentieth century--over 300 million--than by all of the wars of that period combined. In 1918 and 1919, the influenza virus claimed over 50 million lives. A century later, influenza is poised to return, ongoing plagues of HIV/AIDS, COVID, and hepatitis infect millions, and Ebola, Zika, and West Nile viruses cause new concern and panic.

The overlapping histories of humans and viruses are ancient. Earliest cities became both the cradle of civilization and breeding grounds for the first viral epidemics. Michael Oldstone explains the principles of viruses and epidemics while recounting stories of viruses and their impact on human history. This fully updated second edition includes new chapters on hepatitis, Zika, and contemporary threats such as the impact of fear of autism on vaccination efforts.

The Venetian Bargain

By Marina Fiorato,

Book cover of The Venetian Bargain

While not as famous as Thomas Mann or Anne Rice, Marina Fiorato well deserves her place on this list with The Venetian Bargain. It’s another superbly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction set in 1576 during the plague. Grounded in fact, it follows a young Turkish girl, scorned in her homeland, who sneaks aboard a boat bound for Venice. She soon discovers the ship's illicit cargo in the hold—and the sultan’s horrific plan—a man infected with bubonic plague. The man infects the entire city within days. This book is much more than a historical account. It’s a gripping story with compelling characters. What’s more, much of what the world has gone through with Covid-19, from masks to quarantine, was invented by the Venetians and it's covered in The Venetian Bargain through the eyes of wonderful characters.

Who am I?

As an author of a dual-timeline thriller series set in Venice in the present-day and 16th century, I’ve spent countless hours researching the world’s most mesmerizing city. I’ve been there three times, including on a research trip. I’ve worked with historians and experts on various aspects and have explored the ancient streets and buildings first-hand. I’ve also read dozens of books set in Venice.

I wrote...

The Prisoner of Paradise

By Rob Samborn,

Book cover of The Prisoner of Paradise

What is my book about?

The Prisoner of Paradise is a dual-timeline thriller about Nick & Julia O'Connor, an American couple who travel to Venice, Italy on vacation. After a head injury, Nick comes to believe he can hear a woman speaking to him from Tintoretto's 'Paradise,' located in the Doge's Palace. Though Julia thinks he's suffering from delusions, Nick is adamant the voice was real. He believes it belongs to Isabella Scalfini, a woman who was murdered in 1589. 

On a quest to learn the truth, Nick discovers an ancient religious order that has developed a method of extracting people's souls from their bodies. They imprison those souls in Paradise--the world's largest oil painting--and claim that the thousands of people in it are all evil.

The Plague

By Albert Camus,

Book cover of The Plague

Dark, sweet, intense perfumes of North Africa emanate from the bitter-sweet semi-autobiographical story of doctor Rieux, monsieur Tarrou, and the rich constellation of characters involved in the tragic events, culminating in a deadly outbreak, set in post-war Algeria.

Glorified by the French liberal intelligentsia, today perhaps slightly passé but still vibrating and proud, Camus’ masterpiece is austere and overwhelming like a tango dancer.

Who are we?

We have always been fascinated by literary masterworks that stage the plague as a pivotal factor in the plot. We added the next ingredients: a whodunnit with a claustrophobic setting, the Baroque Age, a (real) financial thriller between Rome and London, and an unusual protagonist. Rita is a historian of religions, Francesco is a musicologist. After working as journalists, meeting in a newspaper bureau, and getting happily married, we started a writing career publishing 11 novels translated into 26 languages and 60 countries with more than 2 million copies sold. Our novels are a mix of literary creativity and meticulous research, characters and settings are strictly based on original documents and eyewitness accounts. 

We wrote...


By Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, Peter Burnett Colquhoun (translator),

Book cover of Imprimatur

What is our book about?

September 11, 1683, Rome. In a tavern, the sudden death of an old traveller arouses suspicions. An outbreak of plague causes all the guests to be placed under quarantine. Among them is the mysterious Abbott Atto Melani, castrato and spy of the Sun King. Accompanied by the tavern’s young serving boy, Melani evades the quarantine at night to shed light on the murder case. His investigation brings to light a gigantic plot that involves the truth about a double-faced Pope and the destiny of the English Crown.

Based on original papers of the Vatican secret archives and first published in Italy to great controversy in 2002, Imprimatur became an international bestseller but soon disappeared from the Italian bookstores. Only in 2015 the novel was available again in original language.

Doomsday Book

By Connie Willis,

Book cover of Doomsday Book

This is one of my favourite time-slips ever! Oxford University 2054CE, and historians are now travelling back in time to study seminal moments in history. Post-graduate student, Kivrin, goes through the Net to observe life in medieval time, but the coordinates are wrong and instead, she finds herself in a small village at the time of plague, not knowing that she herself is already carrying a virulent form of a flu-like plague sweeping through the History Department. Desperately ill, Kirvrin has no hope of rescue unless she can identify the ‘saviour’ who found her out in the woods and brought her back to the manor house to be nursed. While her supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, and student Colin, try to locate her, Kivrin becomes involved with the family at the manor house, and the village priest, Father Roche, who is trying to save his flock with only limited medical knowledge and…

Who am I?

I write novels for children, YA, and adults, most of which reflect my fascination with history, mystery, crime, and fantasy. I particularly enjoy writing timeslip novels, exploring how the past can inform the present and vice versa. I recently updated and revised my award-winning Shalott trilogy, which visits both the historical past and also the quasi-medieval world of Camelot in a reinterpretation of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and with reference also to The Lady of Shalott, the wonderful and mysterious poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. (A reviewer recently compared my Shalott trilogy with the novels of Diana Gabaldon = wow!)

I wrote...

Shalott: Into the Unknown

By Felicity Pulman,

Book cover of Shalott: Into the Unknown

What is my book about?

Through magic and a VR program, five teenagers set out into the unknown to change the legend of Camelot. Instead, they find they are rewriting their own lives and destiny as their true quest is revealed and they become caught up in the illicit love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, the intrigues of the court, and the deadly magic of the ambitious Morgan le Fay and her nephew, Mordred. Are the teenagers replaying the legend—or creating it? What Callie finds in Camelot will break her heart, while her quest will change all of their lives forever.

Shalott: Into the Unknown is Book 1 of the Shalott trilogy.

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