There’s a tendency sometimes for historical novels to be set in very similar time periods – Henry VIII, the English Civil War, Victorian Britain. So it’s a breath of fresh air to discover books set in some much more unusual times and places that you might not otherwise have come across. Here’s a handful I’ve read over the years.
Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
Beautiful, lyrical and incredibly authentic story set in medieval Japan, with all the elements of Japanese literature including romance, destruction and tragedy. I believe it’s actually a YA title, but really doesn’t read like it and tackles some amazingly adult themes.
As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann
This is actually set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, but stands out for two reasons. One is the sheer sensory overload of sights, smells and sounds of the time, which gives it a strong sense of authenticity. The other is that the main character is a gay man. The romance is affecting, the characters strongly drawn, and I found it hard to put down.
Death of a Monk by Alon Hilu
A simply extraordinary book written by an Israeli author and translated into English in a volume I found in a second hand book store in London. The story involves another gay man struggling to cope with marriage, relationships and life in 1840s Damascus, when the city was subdivided into a number of racially divided but surprisingly well integrated quarters. A unique and mesmerising book.
People’s Act of Love by James Meek
A searing romance-cum-historical-cum mystery set against the wilderness backdrop of early twentieth century Siberia during the early years of the Revolution. At times brutal, but also imbued with a mischievous sense of humour – and the final revelation is almost literally to die for!
The Sleeper in the Sands by Tom Holland
A sort of ‘thousand and one nights’ for ancient Egypt, with a storyline that moves from Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb to a series of ancient myths and legends that form a story within a story within a story. Slightly confusing at times and I’d have like more about Carter, but it was gripping and unusual.