As an avid reader and reviewer of the latest and greatest in historical fiction, this historian dishes up novel recommendations like the ancient Romans did fried dormice. Here are five new books set in the ancient world that will transport you, dear reader, back thousands of years in the most delightful way.
1. The Graveyard of the Hesperides (Flavia Albia, Book #4) by Lindsey Davis
A master of the historical mystery genre, Lindsey Davis returns to the celebrated world of her super-sleuth, Marcus Didius Falco, and his adopted daughter, Flavia Albia. While spinoff books featuring Albia lacks the comedic punch and razor-sharp insights that made the Falco series such a winner, Davis still recreates the seedy underbelly of first-century Rome the way no one else can. Albia is an engaging heroine who's striking out on her own as an informer (a.k.a. private detective), just like her dad, and her wry voice and cleverness mark her as a heroine to watch.
Graveyard of the Hesperides (buy it here) is out on July 12 from Minotaur Books.
2. The Moon in the Palace/The Empress of Bright Moon (Empress Wu Duet) by Weina Dei Randel
Debut author Weina Dei Randel brings Tang Dynasty China to electrifying life in this duology outlining the rise to power of a woman named Mei; this brilliant young lady later became Empress Wu, the sole empress regnant in Chinese history. Combining her facile grasp of court politics with a penchant for creating heart-rending emotional stakes, Randel marks herself as an author to watch. She also shines an important light on an incredible female figure in non-Western European history, making this reviewer want to return again and again to her beautifully constructed version of ancient China.
Empress Wu Zetian, who was beautifully portrayed in Weina Dei Randel's duet. Image via Totally History.
3. Vita Brevis (Gaius Petreius Ruso, Book #7) by Ruth Downie
Since Lindsey Davis first began her Falco series, a number of authors have attempted to infiltrate the ancient Roman mystery subgenre...but only Ruth Downie has managed it with her own distinctive panache. Meet Gaius Petreius Ruso, an intelligent, yet often hapless, army doctor stationed in Roman Britain. Saddled with circumstances beyond his control - and a wonderfully frustrating love interest in native Briton Tilla - Ruso carves out his own lane as an entertaining amateur detective. And, perhaps most importantly, he continues to grow as a hero with each story.
Vita Brevis (purchase here) is out on July 12 from Bloomsbury.
4. Cleopatra's Shadows by Emily Holleman
With Cleopatra's Shadows, Emily Holleman took on a brave task, venturing where few historical fiction authors have gone before. She chose to profile not Cleopatra, last pharaoh of Egypt, but her often-ignored siblings, starting with her little sister, Arsinoe. Holleman's goal? "To place Cleopatra in context," she told this reviewer in an interview.
Is this the tomb of Cleopatra's little sister Arsinoe? Image via Ephesus.us.
And she succeeds admirably, creating a real sense of the tumultous times in which Arsinoe lived: the downfall of her family's reign in Egypt and the slow, insidious encroachment of rival Romans into the land she loves. The other Ptolemaic princess profiled in this story, Berenice, often steals the limelight from Arsinoe, becoming a truly magnetic heroine in her own right. Readers will want to follow Cleopatra's siblings far and wide after diving into this emotionally evocative tale.
Cleopatra's Shadows is available in paperback (purchase here) on July 5 from Back Bay Books.
5. The Secret Book of Kings by Yochi Brandes
The Secret Book of Kings is a slightly different narrative than those previously mentioned: It isn't centered around one particularly famous historical figure, but dips its elegantly written toes into those waves. Author Yochi Brandes, aided by translator Yardenne Greenspan, offers up the scintillating adventures of Shlom'am, a young man in ancient Israel whose entire family is plagued by secrets.
As he ventures forth to uncover what his parents so desperately tried to keep hidden, Shlom'am will find himself haunted by the specters of biblical kings past and future. Brandes's prose is engaging, her characters well-built, and her plot an exciting one.
The Secret Book of Kings is out on August 23 (buy it here!) from St. Martin's Press.
Feature image via AudiobookStore.