As people living in the 21st century, we have thousands of stories at our fingertips. Yet we keep returning to tales of our past — the allure of historical fiction speaks to us, showing us a window into a time far before our own that still seems familiar to us.

Despite the centuries between the setting and modern day, so many experiences in historical fiction are all too recognizable. Whether you lived in ancient Egypt, Tudor England or 16th century India, times of social and political unrest made the future seem uncertain. These books center stories around turmoil and high stakes — themes that stand the test of time, no matter how old the source material.

We’ve selected 8 globetrotting thrillers set back in time that still feature the danger of a modern-day suspense novel. Filled with political intrigue and deadly consequences, these books are sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Bird in a Snare
N.L. Holmes
Circa 1300 B.C.E., Ancient Egypt

Under the jurisdiction of Pharaoh Amen-hotep III, Hani is a devoted scribe and diplomat. When he’s sent to Syria to inquire about a crime ring leader’s untimely death, he does his due diligence and performs a full investigation. By the time Hani returns to Egypt with his findings, however, he learns that the pharaoh is dead and has been succeeded by his son, Akhenaten. The new regime makes sweeping religious reforms, shocking much of the nation. Some people, however, are intrigued by the radical new changes — and Hani’s son is among them.

Even as the religious schism is tearing his family apart, Hani yearns to keep them together. Yet he’s equally devoted to his world as a scribe for the imperial family and must follow his orders and examine the death of the crime boss. The investigation is easier said than done, however; the further Hani looks into the case, the clearer it becomes that the suspects are some of the most powerful men in the nation. Worse, it seems that one of the top suspects might even be the new Pharaoh himself.

To read our full review of Bird in a Snare, click here.

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The Course of Honour
by Lindsey Davis
Circa 44 B.C.E, Ancient Rome

In Ancient Rome, the Senate was the perfect place for ambitious young men to cast the die of fate. With the right drive and the right connections, a senator could find himself rising in the ranks, gaining unimaginable wealth and power. There was just one catch — the “Course of Honor,” the rule every senator had to follow which decree that they could never marry a slave.

Vespasian, a young soldier back from the war, has no intentions of breaking the code. When he’s invited to visit Marc Antony and the rest of the imperial family, he meets Caenis, a mysterious girl who lives at the palace. Little does Vespasian know that Caenis is a slave in the household of Marc Antony’s daughter.

Yet even though this union could destroy Vespasian’s future, he can’t let go of Caenis. The two of them hatch an ambitious plan — to aspire not just for a seat in the Senate, but for the seat of Rome itself. After all, the Emperor gets to play by his own rules.

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Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
15th century England

Before there were Henry VIII’s infamous six wives, there was just one — Catherine of Aragon, his wife of over twenty years. Respected by the court and the English people, she still fell from favor in her husband’s eyes. Her crime was committing the cardinal sin for all queens; failing to provide a male heir.

In the year 1526, Henry begins to pursue Anne Boleyn, and is looking for a way to escape his marriage. The Catholic church is unsympathetic, and talks have reached a standstill. The tension is palpable as England careens towards uncertainty.

Out of the crucible steps Thomas Cromwell, a self-made man in a time of aristocratic nepotism. His ambition and drive propel him to power and soon Cromwell finds himself at the king’s right hand. He’s even able to take Henry’s marital crisis and create an opportunity, approaching his king with radical new ideas that will bypass the Catholic church entirely.

Even as he succeeds, however, Cromwell still has to watch his step. With a temper as infamous as the king’s to deal with, things are never stable in the court of Henry VIII.

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Nights of the Moonless Sky: A Tale from the Vijayanagara Empire
by N.S. Vishwanath
16th century South India

N.S. Vishwanath’s captivating tale transports you to South India in the 16th century, where the Vijayanagara Empire is teetering on the edge of disaster. As chaos breaks out in the capital, the palatial estate of Madhuvana is embroiled in a different crisis. Rajanna, the elderly head of the household, has just died. His death causes a power vacuum at Madhuvana, and leaves the estate and its citizens vulnerable.

Three key players stand out in the wake of Rajanna’s death. The first is Aadarshini, the man’s 22-year-old widow, his third wife and the mother of his heir. The next is Azam Khan, the devoted former bodyguard of Rajanna. Finally, there is Prabhakara Swami: a temple priest who now wields considerable power after the patriarch’s death.

When the elders invoke an ancient ritual and decree that Rajanna’s widows are to be cremated alive to serve their husband in the afterlife, Aadarshini must act fast to save herself. As the capital’s unrest spreads to Madhuvana’s door, she makes her escape and begins her journey of survival, her worldview maturing along the way. Nights of the Moonless Sky will keep you turning page after page, following its heart-pounding story of resilience and inner strength.

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Hour of the Witch
by Chris Bohjalian
17th century America

Mary Deerfield always knew that life in the Massachusetts colony would be difficult. Between the bitterly cold winters and the rocky soil, colonists expected — and accepted — their lives to be brutal and short. It was a pillar of their Puritan faith, that their earthly hardship would lead them to salvation.

Still, Mary was unprepared for the suffering she’d encounter. At the mercy of her cruel husband Thomas Deerfield, Mary is trapped in an abusive marriage with no way out. Even as she seeks a divorce, she knows that as a woman in Puritan society she has a hard road ahead of her.

Soon, though, her marriage is only one of her concerns. When strange objects are dug up in Mary’s garden and a young child dies under her care, Mary’s labelled as every colonist’s worst nightmare — a witch. Now Mary must fight for her chance at freedom, not only from her husband but from Puritan society itself.

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The Way of the Traitor
by Laura Joh Rowland
17th century Japan

The third book in the Sano Ichiro series, The Way of the Traitor ratchets up the tension with an international crisis. As both a samurai and shogun-appointed peacekeeper, Sano Ichiro has seen a fair share of violence — but this new case may be his most challenging yet.

Banished from court by a vengeful courtier, Sano has been sent to Nagasaki, a town infamous for its crime and complicated network of spies. Things only get worse from there when the murdered body of a Dutch trader washes ashore. For decades now, Japan has operated under a system of sakoku, a policy of strict isolation that bars nearly all foreigners from entering Japanese territory. Now that isolation is in jeopardy, and the incident could lead to war.

Sano Ichiro must tread very carefully; if he fails at his investigation, the Dutch sailors will blame the Japanese and be hungry for revenge. If the murderer isn’t proven guilty fast, spies will quickly send word back to the palace — and the shogun may have Sano’s head before the Dutch get a chance.

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City of Silver
by Annamaria Alfieri
17th century Andes region

In the Spanish colonies of Latin America, the city of Potosí is hailed as the treasury of the empire. Its silver reserves are legendary throughout the rest of the kingdom and help bankroll the crown’s expansion. That is, until word gets out that the silver coins coming from Potosí aren’t as pure as previously claimed. As the Grand Inquisitor sails from Spain to investigate the fraud, another crisis erupts in Potosí’s convent.

Inez de la Morada, the daughter of Potosí’s influential mayor, has been found dead on the convent’s property. Most people suspect the girl committed suicide — but not Mother Abbess Maria Santa Hilda. She insists that Inez is buried on sacred ground, despite the traditional teachings of the church.

Now along with the Grand Inquisitor closing in on the city, the commissioner of the Spanish Inquisition is breathing down Maria Santa Hilda’s neck. The Abbess finds herself in a race against time to prove her innocence, along with the truth about what happened to Inez — and the possibility that the silver industry of Potosí has far darker secrets than anyone suspected.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
by Lisa See
19th century China

In the secluded households of the Hunan province, women created a system for maintaining friendships despite being cloistered in their own homes. The art of nu shu, or ‘women’s writing,’ became a way for women to communicate by writing on fans, handkerchiefs or even bits of paper. That way, a pair of women could become laotongs, or ‘old sames’ — friends for life, without ever having to meet face to face.

At only seven years old, Snow Flower and Lily are paired together as laotongs. Though Lily is a farmer’s daughter and Snow Flower is a child of wealth, the two still share a powerful bond.

They confide in each other all the way through adulthood, sharing stories of the traumatic experience of foot binding, of their arranged marriages and the difficulties of motherhood.

Their bond as laotongs means everything to Lily and Snow Flower; but when a misunderstanding emerges, their whole friendship is put in jeopardy. After a lifetime of communicating solely through writing, the two women must find a way to each other, to speak their truth.

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