Read Harder

Read Harder 2023 Task #15: Read a Historical Fiction Book Set in an Eastern Country

Ever since a little before middle school, historical fiction has been one of my favorite genres. Back when I was a little one —which wasn’t that long ago *ahem* — I remembered that most of my historical fiction reading was set in Medieval Europe, usually England, and sometimes China.

Even though the libraries I had access to at the time didn’t have much in the way of variety concerning historical fiction, I gobbled the books up nonetheless. I found tales of court intrigue and betrothals, quests for jewels and the occasional dragon gripping and they actually made me more interested in school work — suddenly the chapter we’d covered on whichever Medieval queen became that much more interesting since I’d just read a historical fiction novel that imagined her, immersing me in her life as a teenager.

As much as I had enjoyed these books, I’d always wished there was more variety concerning setting. I wanted to read about what it was like to have lived in places like ancient Egypt and India,1800s Polynesia, and other parts and times of the world I’d never been. As my love for historical fiction has traveled with me into adulthood, I still feel the same way. Luckily, with increased diversity efforts (although they’re not enough, let’s be real), there have been many more books published that are set in different times and in different places all over the world.

This challenge will get you started with some of these historical fiction novels based in the eastern world, and includes everything from historical mystery to historical fantasy.

The Red Palace Book Cover

The Red Palace by June Hur

With lots of hard work and studying, 18-year-old Hyeon has overcome the disadvantages that come with being an illegitimate daughter in 1758 Joseon (Korea). As a palace nurse, she hopes to eke out a living and maybe even gain favor with her estranged father. These hopes are interrupted, though, when four women are killed in the palace in a single night and her mentor and friend stands accused. To prove her friend’s innocence, she starts her own investigation where she meets young inspector Eojin. The two work together to find out the murderer in this YA historical mystery.

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel cover

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

Here, one of the most loathed queens in Indian mythology, and a character in the epic poem Ramayana, is granted her origin story. While Kaikeyi is raised on tales of the grandeur and omnipotence of the gods, she begins to doubt them as she sees the unfairness of how women are treated. After her mother is banished, she discovers a power particular to her and begins to carve out a space for herself, despite the constricting world around her. But to do so comes at a price.

Bonus points for R.F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War and Babel saying that this is “One of my favorite books of 2022 so far!”

Beasts of a Little Land Book Cover

Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim

The intricately woven events of this novel are set in motion in 1917 when a starving Korean hunter saves a young Japanese officer from a tiger…

Following that, Jade is sold as a young girl to a courtesan school and eventually meets the orphan JungHo, who begs on the streets of Seoul. Jade goes on to become a well-known performer and JungHo gets entangled in the fight for independence. As battles wage on and Korea modernizes, Jade must decide which is more important to her — a higher social standing or the sincerity of a long-time friend.

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur cover

The Secret Keeper of Jaipur by Alka Joshi

In 1969, Malik is fresh out of private school and headed to apprentice at the Jaipur Royal Palace. The balcony of the palace’s new cinema collapses on opening night, but the explanation doesn’t make sense to Malik. His intuition, no doubt well-developed from having lived on the streets as a child, is telling him something more sinister is afoot, and he sets out to prove it.

The Mountains Sing cover

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

This follows several generations of the Trần family as Việt Nam struggles through war. When Trần Diệu Lan fled with her six children, it was to escape the Communist Land grab. Then, in Hà Nội, the family she fought so hard to keep together — as well as the country — becomes splintered by the war. This shows the horrors of war, but it also has moments of hope and tenderness.

The Map of Salt and Stars cover

The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar

Once Nour’s father dies of cancer in 2011, her mother, a cartographer, wants to be closer to family. She moves Nour and her sisters from New York City to Syria, but the country feels differently compared to how it was when Nour’s mother lived there as a girl. Soon violence breaks out and Nour’s house is destroyed. Now her and her family must travel across several Middle Eastern and North African countries seeking a new home.

More than 800 years before Nour, Rawiya is a teen girl set on improving living conditions for her and her mother. She disguises herself as a boy and becomes an apprentice to a map maker. While helping to construct the map commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily, she will travel across the Middle East and North Africa, coming across beasts of mythology and historical figures.

As Nour and Rawiya’s paths run parallel to each other hundreds of years apart, we see the young women braving the unknown in search of a new place to belong.

Golden Kamuy cover

Golden Kamuy by Satoru Noda

This historical manga would be a great choice if you’re also trying to knock out Read Harder challenge #8 (Read a Manga You Haven’t Before). Following the end of the Russo-Japanese War in the early 1900s, veteran Saichi Sugimoto struggles to survive in the Hokkaido wilderness. When he finds a map that leads to a bounty of Ainu gold, he sets off to find it. But he’s not the only one trying to get their hands on the treasure, and to improve his chances against the likes of harsh wilderness, soldiers, and criminals, he’ll need the help of Ainu girl Asirpa.

Note: if you’re unfamiliar, the Ainu are a group of Indigenous people from the northern region of Japan.

cover of Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth

Alharthi was the first female author from Oman to be translated into English, and this book won her the 2019 International Man Booker Prize. In it, we follow three Omani sisters, each with their own idea of marriage. Through them and their families, we see the history and culture of Oman as it shifts from a slave-owning patriarchy to its present-day iteration.

If you want more historical fiction options, which, of course you do, check out our list of Japanese historical fiction or 10 of the best historical fiction books from 2022. For a constant stream of books by and about people of color, sign up for the newsletter In Reading Color.

Click here for the full Read Harder 2023 task list, and for previous recommendations, click here.