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Historical Fiction Set Around the World

recommended by Jane Johnson

The Black Crescent by Jane Johnson

OUT NOW in the UK

The Black Crescent
by Jane Johnson


From Africa to the Middle East to Korea and Japan, there are so many countries you can discover by reading a good historical novel. British novelist and publisher Jane Johnson, several of whose books take place in Morocco at different times in the country's history, recommends five of her favourite historical novels set around the world.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Black Crescent by Jane Johnson

OUT NOW in the UK

The Black Crescent
by Jane Johnson

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As a reader, what do you look for in a work of historical fiction?

Whatever I’m reading, I want to be carried away. I read every sort of fiction under the sun. I want to be immersed in it—to trust the writer, so that they’re my traveling companion. I need to feel that they know where we’re going, that they know what they’re talking about, and that I’m not being fed tons of nonsense along the way. I want to feel that I’m inhabiting that world with those characters. That’s the same if I’m reading fantasy fiction or historical fiction.

We all read fiction because it’s a fantastic way to escape from our heads. That’s what I want from my historical fiction. I love learning things along the way as well. I know quite a lot about British history, but I don’t know very much about other cultures’ history. I love having those doors opened to me by people who know about it. It’s a real privilege. If it’s done well, you feel you’ve learned something about the world at the same time. You’re doing several jobs at once when you’re reading a really good book.

Let’s turn to the books you’ve chosen for us. We’re starting in the Middle East in the 4th century BCE. This is The Persian Boy (1972) by one of the greatest historical novelists of the 20th century, Mary Renault.

This may be up there in my top three novels of all time. I read so much, that’s really saying something. Renault wrote a trilogy about Alexander the Great, and The Persian Boy is the second book in the trilogy. It’s told from the point of view of a young boy who is only 16 years old. He’s called Bagoas. He is a courtesan in the Persian court, to King Darius, the hugely powerful leader of the Persian empire at the time. Alexander conquers that great empire and takes Baghdad. Bagoas is now in the hands of the invading army and finds himself having to live with these barbarians.

What I love about it is that I absolutely trust Renault’s historical research, her academic skill with all the facts and culture of the time. The language, the dress, the customs, the food—everything. You trust her on it, and you can feel it, you see it, you smell it.

To use Bagoas as her central character is brilliant because he’s an outsider. Outsider narrators are a wonderful way to bring you, the reader, into the story because they are discovering it on your behalf. He’s been used and abused since he was just a boy. He was sold as a slave. He was castrated. It’s so visceral and so grim. You’re deeply invested in him as a character. You want him to be okay. You want him to be looked after. You don’t want him to have to go through any more grim times. He has considerable antipathy for these people when they first turn up, because he’s been inculcated in the court, but after a while, like the rest of us, he is won over by Alexander’s charisma.

“We all read fiction because it’s a fantastic way to escape from our heads”

You fall in love with Alexander through Bagoas. To write charismatic characters is a really hard thing to do, but my God, she’s good at it. You absolutely feel that Alexander the Great is that incredible, young, charismatic leader that he clearly was. The heartstrings are so pulled when Bagoas falls in love with him. There’s Hephaestion on the scene as well (Alexander’s great love) and his jealousy. Alexander also has to marry in order to keep the succession going. Poor Bagoas. His heart is being pulled all over the place, and he’s being taken on campaign, from one huge battle to another. You get all that amazing, epic scenery, and events, and visceral violence, and then you get all the tender stuff as well. It’s a masterpiece of historical fiction.

Now let’s move to Nigeria in the 1960s and the Biafran War. This is a book called Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. To give a bit of background: half a yellow sun is a symbol on the flag of the Biafran Republic, a part of Nigeria that tried to secede and become independent. Tell me about this novel and what you like about it.

I remember reading Half of a Yellow Sun when I had just moved to Morocco to live with my husband, Abdel. It came out maybe a year after. I met Abdel when I went to do research for the first of my Moroccan novels. We’ve been married for eighteen years now, but at that time I was feeling displaced on the African continent. I thought, ‘I need to know more about Africa.’

This novel came out to a real fanfare of people acclaiming it as a superb piece of fiction. I’d heard a lot of people talk about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and what a brilliant writer she is. I thought, ‘I’ve got to give this a go.’ Oh my goodness! It’s another really big, immersive novel by somebody who really knows their stuff. And because it’s such recent history—late 60s and 1970—she has been able to draw on primary sources. That’s a rare thing when you’re writing historical fiction, that it’s still within living memory. So you know it’s right, that the details are correct. It’s like reading news reports, but in this incredible narrative, in which you’re really bound up with the characters.

I remember reading this book because I wanted to know about the Biafran War. It happened before I was born, but hundreds of thousands of people died. I remember a French journalist who was a bit older than me being absolutely shocked I hadn’t heard of this huge event. 

It was a huge event for Europeans as well because it was very much a European-caused war. It was post-colonial. The whole European colonialism of Africa is still a really sore topic in Europe, even today. The British being in Nigeria caused a lot of problems, but the problem is that when a big colonial power leaves the country, it always leaves a political vacuum. You end up with these warring factions and all these long-buried tribal problems that suddenly rear up again and become hot and painful.

I didn’t know anything about it or the history before I read this book. I still don’t know very much about it, but I can tell you that the characters really made me care about the situation because they were caught up in it. The central character is called Olanna. A lot of the drama is about the tension between her and her sister. They fall out and are estranged for a long time and much of the story is about the way that they are brought back together as sisters, through the war.

You also see things through the eyes of the houseboy, Ugwu, who is working for Olanna and her husband. They’re academics, this privileged Nigerian couple. Ugwu’s a really engaging character. He had a very simple upbringing, and he hasn’t had the education. He gets conscripted into this horrific war and has to undergo terrible things. You see what it’s like from a boy soldier’s point of view. If you stuck with Olanna, you’d never see any of this stuff at all. I thought the author did a really fine job of taking us into the heart of darkness with poor Ugwu, who has the most hellish time.

I think with these big subjects, you need to splinter off your narrative because you can’t show it all from one person’s point of view. It’s very difficult to give a big, rounded picture of your epic subject.

It’s a really immersive book. You feel the landscape, you can smell the food, you can see the war, you can see the people being brutalized, and you can feel the visceral fear. If you were in that situation and there was really no way out of it, what would you do? She did an amazingly powerful job of giving you the novelist’s view of that war, but at the same time, underpinning it with all the historical facts. All the primary sources and people’s oral accounts of what had happened to them has all gone into this book, and you feel the veracity of it. It’s a remarkable piece of work.

Let’s go on to the next historical novel you’ve chosen, which is set in Afghanistan: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

This is an easy read, it’s not heavy, but the subject matter and the themes are pretty tough. Like everyone, I read Hosseini’s debut, The Kite Runner, and I loved it. It’s an incredibly privileged view of somebody else’s culture that you don’t often get. At the time, I knew nothing about Afghanistan, the different castes, and how they all interacted. I absolutely loved The Kite Runner. Then, when I read A Thousand Splendid Suns, because it’s from a female point of view, it really got me. I thought he did an amazing job of writing the female character as a male writer. They don’t always get it right, but I thought Khaled Hosseini did a fantastic job.

I thought Mariam was a very engaging character. Because she’s illegitimate, she has no standing within that society and no say over her own destiny. She’s an embarrassment to the rich man whose child she is. At the age of 15, she is married off to this horrible old shoemaker in Kabul. He’s not that old, and he doesn’t come over as horrible to start with, but the idea of being parceled off like that is really shocking to us in the West. Hosseini gets you into that mindset. You see what Mariam has to go through, you put yourself in her shoes, and think, ‘This is just so wrong, it is so awful.’ Then she goes through all these miscarriages, and she can’t carry a baby to term. He becomes brutal and abusive because he blames her for this. That really gets you in the heart.

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The next thing you know, he’s brought in a very young wife, and you think, ‘Oh my God, is there no end to this poor woman’s suffering?’ The beautiful thing about the book is that the two women, Mariam and Laila, strike up this incredibly heartrending and beautiful relationship. It’s almost a mother-daughter relationship. I thought it was a beautiful way to focus the narrative through these two characters as you see the Taliban come to power, and the horrific situation for women in this new world.

It’s such a powerful book. I’ve heard people say that they didn’t think it was as powerful a book as The Kite Runner, but it got me in an emotional way, much more so. I think that’s because it’s all women. It’s women in Afghanistan now and what they’re going through. It makes me want to weep that we’ve left them to it.

Next, you’ve chosen The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver. Now we’re back in Africa, in the Belgian Congo of 1959.

The Poisonwood Bible blew me away when I read it. Barbara Kingsolver is a magnificent writer. I’ve heard people say she’s a woman’s writer, as if it’s some lesser place in the world of writing. These are huge books that go right to the heart of the human condition. I’m so happy to see her get her Pulitzer. I thought Demon Copperhead was an extraordinary piece of work. It’s not an easy read. None of her books are. This one is the closest to Demon Copperhead, partly because of the Southern voice. She honors that Southern voice in a way no other writer does. You hear those voices, you hear the accents.

This is about a family of Southern Baptists. The father, Nathan, is an egomaniac who is determined to go on this mission, whether it’s wanted or not. He drags his family with him into the heart of the Congo, with this white savior delusion that he is going to save the souls of all these poor, ignorant black people who know nothing and can’t exist in the world. He’s a nightmare. I’ve seen men like this.

All the point-of-view characters are female. It’s brilliant. It’s his wife and his four daughters (aged five through fifteen). I love the way she distinguishes them. The eldest is like Barbie. She’s interested only in the material world, pretty things and being admired. Then there are the fourteen-year-old twins: Leah, who’s close to her father, and Ada, who is the most fascinating character. She’s got hemiplegia, which means that because of brain trauma, only half the brain has developed. It can make people behave in an unusual way and it can make them think in an unusual way. She is physically disabled as well, to a certain extent. She reads sentences and words backward, and she has this secret language of code that permeates the entire novel. This is really clever, because at the heart of the book is a spy plot to bring down the Congolese president at the time.

Kingsolver is also teaching us about what the US/CIA was up to in the Congo, trying to bring down Patrice Lumumba.

Yes, exactly, and I love the way that she comes at it, from the points of view of people who don’t know what’s going on but are putting two and two together. You’re looking at it from this person’s point of view and this other person’s point of view, and you’re able to put those jigsaw pieces together as well. It’s completely fascinating. I absolutely loved it. I thought it was a brilliant book.

You can absolutely feel the heat. You can feel the tension in the house when Nathan loses his temper and people are terrified of catching his eye. As a gardener, I laughed my head off at him trying to introduce American species and gardening styles into the Congo and expecting it to work. I know that some people have said that her symbolism is heavy-handed, I don’t find it so at all; I like a bit of clarity from time to time. It stands in for the whole way that America tries to impose its worldview on countries and cultures that it does not understand. The whole missionary effort was also doing the same thing.

I loved Tata Ndu (the chief of Kilanga) and the native culture, and how they have their ancestors and their witch doctors. I loved the witch doctor. Also, people are very pragmatic. If they think Jesus can help with a certain problem, then they’ll say their prayers and they’ll go to church, but when it’s not really working, they’ll go back to the ancestors again. It’s a very rich tapestry of a book, and I thought it was extraordinary.

The last book you’re recommending is Pachinko (2007) by Min Jin Lee. This takes us to Korea and is one I haven’t yet read.

Oh, you must! This has been quite a recent read for me. I avoided reading it for a while because so many people told me it was brilliant. I wanted to wait till the hype died down. It is fantastic. Again, it does what I like best, which is to immerse you in this world. It really does give you a history of modern Korea, told through the eyes of four generations of this family. You get so caught up in their lives that you really care what’s going to happen to them.

Again, it’s about people with no power being put upon by people with power. The central character you start out with, Sunja, is a woman who is seduced by a Yakuza gangster. He’s rich and powerful. She’s never been treated nicely by anyone, so when he comes by and is very polite and flattering to her, she falls for him completely and has an illegitimate child. He has a family back home, but he’s got Sunja on the side. You expect him to be a complete baddie, but he’s not.

I love the way that Lee weaves the story, so that you are taken from this incredibly poor area of Korea to Japan, which was the colonizing power. The Koreans were regarded as dirt in Japan. They were nothing. They occupied these incredibly poor ghetto areas of Osaka. There was no work for them, and they had to endure horrific bureaucracy and being carded everywhere. They couldn’t do anything, and they couldn’t be anything without the backing of rich Japanese people.

The only jobs that any of them could get were in the pachinko parlors. Pachinko is a gambling pinball machine which, apparently, is a big part of the culture in Korea. There were parlors everywhere, and the Koreans worked in them, and all the poor Koreans would go and lose their money in them. It’s what kept the entire Korean economy going in Japan. It’s quite extraordinary.

“If it’s done well, you feel you’ve learned something about the world at the same time”

As with any illegal or semi-illegal enterprise, drugs and arms and all the rest of it come into it as well. Some of the people who got sucked into this world suddenly found themselves making money that they never expected to make and rising up through society.

It was fascinating because it was a window onto a world that I knew absolutely nothing about. She made me care. I wanted to know what happens to the characters. When someone dies, it’s so heartrending. You think, ‘That’s not right. You can’t do that!’ But it’s life, and it’s what happens.

I’m fascinated by the whole subject of colonialism, and the abuse of power generally—how some people think they’re better than other people and know better what they should have and do, but, at the same time, seem to make a lot of money out of them. It’s a perennial topic, which runs through a number of the books that I’ve picked. As a species, we keep doing this to each other. It’s quite a horrible thing to do to another culture, to try and squash it and impose your own views on somebody else and try and make them part of your world, to profit from.

Before I let you go, tell me about your new book, The Black Crescent, which I really enjoyed. For one thing, it’s interesting to have a historical novel set in Morocco. Maybe there are more in French, but I don’t think there are that many in English.

I don’t think there are. When I wrote my first one, The Tenth Gift, there were almost none. Obviously, there’s Paul Bowles, but he’s writing a very different sort of story to anything that I’m doing. I like big, sprawling, immersive, epic stories, and he is a gloriously spare, sharp, sardonic writer with a very specific view of Morocco. He’s very good, though. He knows his Morocco, and I know my Morocco.

When I started writing, there wasn’t anything in the canon that I could go to. In a way, that was quite liberating. You think, ‘I really am on my own, and I’m really going to have to do the work.’ When I wrote the first of my historical novels, I knew nothing about 17th-century Morocco. You have to put in the yards, and that’s been a good process for me throughout all these books. Every single one of my historical novels starts from a basis of ignorance. I’m amazed by people who can write ten books set in the 15th or 16th century. It requires an amazing depth of knowledge to be able to do that, but I would get bored. I need to learn new things, and I need to tread new ground.

In The Black Crescent, you’re covering Morocco’s war of independence from the French. Tell me a bit about the setting and what was going on in Morocco at that time. 

The Black Crescent is set in 1954-1955. In the early part of the 20th century, the French saw an opportunity to colonize Morocco. They didn’t call it colonialism; they called themselves a protectorate. It’s a nice distinction, but it doesn’t really hold up to any sort of scrutiny. It was quite a forceful colonization, though not as forceful as that of Algeria, which I wrote about in The Sea Gate. That was partly what sparked my interest in the fight for Moroccan independence. It had been rumbling on for a while, obviously interrupted by the Second World War, when there was no chance of trying to get out from under the French because everybody was in a state of chaos.

When the French removed the Moroccan sultan in 1953, a real push for independence started to come from the grassroots. They formed an Independence Party that rose up from the people and started in Casablanca. Casa is a big, sprawling European city that was imposed on the coast of Morocco by the French. They razed what was there and built themselves a second Marseilles. It was a huge port to ship out all the riches of Morocco to France—all the phosphates, all the bauxite.

Meanwhile, all the Moroccans got poorer and poorer, and ended up marginalized and living in shanty towns around the edges of the city because people who came in to work for the French had nowhere else to live. They’re called ‘bidonvilles’ which means ‘tin can cities.’ They’re these shacks literally made of old oil drums, joined together. They’re huge spaces and they’re still there on the outskirts of the main city. Moroccans couldn’t afford to live in the nice, posh apartments that the French built for themselves in the center, the beautiful, towering, white Art Deco architecture.

When you end up with a very rich, occupying power having a lovely time wearing skimpy bikinis in a Muslim country—with huge swimming pools along the Corniche—and the Moroccans are doing all the work and living in incredibly poverty-stricken circumstances, you’re going to get some tensions and friction. Then, if you take the sultan, who is, in Moroccan culture, next to God, and exile him to Madagascar, that’s adding insult to injury. So all the elements are there for an uprising.

Into this tension, I drop my poor protagonist, Hamou, a lad from a village in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, which is the village my husband and I live in for half the year. Hamou is a sweetheart, he’s very kind, he’s empathetic. He doesn’t want to do any hurt to anyone, he wants to do well, he wants to send money back to his family. He’s had an education, he’s done well, he’s a clever boy. But then he finds himself in the French police force, having to enforce their laws against his own people as it gets increasingly violent. I want the reader to stand with Hamou on that crossroads of a moral dilemma, and think, ‘What do I do at this point? My neighbors, I think, are involved with the nationalists. They may even be terrorists. And my employers are monsters.’

Through Hamou, we see the different points of view. We get caught in the middle, thinking, ‘The French have done some very nice things for Morocco, they’ve built schools and hospitals and railways. But they do this, this, and this. There’s the racism, there’s the exploitation, and they’re killing people and torturing them in the basement of the police station.’ Hamou has to make a choice. He can’t just stand on the sidelines because he’s literally being forced into making a choice.

That’s where The Black Crescent comes from. I wouldn’t have been able to write it had it not been for Abdel, who had family members who were involved in the nationalist uprising. He also worked for ten years in Casablanca, so he knows the city like the back of his hand.

The idea for this book came from a black-and-white photo I found online of this incredibly beautiful young woman standing in a clearly Moroccan setting with arches behind her. She’s got her hair up in a headscarf, but her shift dress is incredibly low cut and flimsy. And you think, ‘That’s not right.’ It’s a very modest culture. I dug into the origin of that photo and found out that she was a prostitute in what they called the Bousbir, in Casablanca. It was the new Bousbir that the French had established as a Disneyland of Morocco, where all their bureaucrats and military could go and have sex with local girls, eat, and party. It’s a fantasy Morocco that they made in this walled quarter. They had these women come in and they weren’t allowed out. That, for me, is like The Poisonwood Bible’s gardening metaphor. It’s not subtle, but this is what was going on in Morocco at this time—the country was being screwed.

I was so fascinated by that photo because it’s so evocative and beautiful, and I wanted to know what happened. Nobody talks about prostitution in Morocco. It’s not one of the subjects you can talk about.

Abdel would go and do research with academic papers written in Arabic, which I couldn’t read. Then we’d sit down and talk about it. I’d go through the French sources, and he’d have to help me with some of the translation. It was fascinating, because then we would talk about this and that. I would read the bit I’d written that day, and Abdel would say, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting, because this or because that,’ and that would lead off in another direction. It became quite collaborative, which was a lovely way to write. As a writer, normally you’re on your own. You’re stuck with it, you’re there with your big problem sat in front of you, and you think, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to go with this.’ I could talk it out with somebody, and that was lovely. Also, when you’ve got somebody waiting for the next bit of the story, you get on with it. It makes me write.

I read somewhere—isn’t your protagonist loosely based on him?

A little bit. Abdel grew up in a Berber village, and Hamou comes from that background as well. He was also very naughty. I wanted to take a rebellious lad like that and then squash him, which was basically what happened if you went into the French education system and training for the police. You take that young man who has all this to give, and you squash him into this little box. Because I know Abdel, I know how he would have embraced the education and the training to get on and do all the good things. And then, he would have gotten to a certain point and said, ‘No.’ I think that gives Hamou a source of real authenticity of character, because I know the person that he’s based on, and I know he would not overstep that mark.

historical fiction

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

August 3, 2023

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Jane Johnson

Jane Johnson

Jane Johnson is a British novelist and publisher. She is the UK editor for George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Dean Koontz. She launched the Voyager imprint for HarperCollins and still works with George RR Martin and others. For many years she was the publisher of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. She also worked on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings and wrote the tie-in books.  Married to a Berber chef she met while researching The Tenth Gift, she lives in Mousehole, Cornwall, and Morocco.

Jane Johnson

Jane Johnson

Jane Johnson is a British novelist and publisher. She is the UK editor for George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Dean Koontz. She launched the Voyager imprint for HarperCollins and still works with George RR Martin and others. For many years she was the publisher of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. She also worked on Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings and wrote the tie-in books.  Married to a Berber chef she met while researching The Tenth Gift, she lives in Mousehole, Cornwall, and Morocco.