The history, culture and geography of Asia is a perfect backdrop for gripping historical fiction. Here is our collection of expert recommended historical fiction set in Asian locations, including Jing-Jing Lee's How We Disappeared—a historical novel about the Japanese occupation of Singapore—and Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace, which follows the life of the last Burmese king and his family.
The Bronze Sword of Tengphakhri Tehsildar
by Indira Goswami, translated by Aruni Kashyap
“This novel is Goswami’s last work of fiction. Set in late 19th century Assam, it follows the life of Thengphakhri, a Bodo freedom fighter who has been immortalized in Assamese folklore, songs, and stories. She was employed by the British colonial administration in the Bijni kingdom in lower Assam as a revenue or tax collector, the eponymous ‘tehsildar’—perhaps the first woman in that post. At that time, educated Indians and the British government were both trying to bring about reform in the country by working to eliminate patriarchal and misogynistic practices like sati, child marriage, the purdah system, etc. and encourage widow remarriage. Alongside all of that, we have this swashbuckling protagonist, where she’s boldly riding horses, wearing hats over flying knee-length black hair. Eventually, she rebels against the British” Read more...
The Best South Asian Novels in Translation
Jenny Bhatt, Translator
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
***Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction***
“It’s a historical novel that reads like a gripping political thriller. She takes on a controversial subject: the inner circle of Ho Chi Minh, president of North Vietnam from 1945 until his death in 1969, and hero of Vietnamese independence. He was beloved by millions in communist North Vietnam but vilified by the South. “ Read more...
Sherry Buchanan, Journalist
Peach Blossom Paradise
by Canaan Morse (translator) & Ge Fei
***Shortlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Translated Literature***
“How We Disappeared is a historical novel about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. It’s a sweeping epic and tells the tragic story of a young girl who gets taken as a comfort woman. This is an essential read. It’s a wonderful introduction to Singaporean literature and where Singaporean literature is headed. It’s incredibly beautifully written and very understated.” Read more...
Sharlene Teo, Novelist
“With ancient Indonesia as its setting, fuelled with Yusi’s explosive—verging to chaotic, unapologetic, humorous style of writing—I’m interested to see if this book will get translated. It would be an interesting and refreshing window to peek into the richness of Indonesian literature.” Read more...
The Best Contemporary Indonesian Literature
Dee Lestari, Musicians, Music Critics & Scholar
“Julie Otsuka’s novel is an amazing first-person plural account of the mass migration of what were called Japanese ‘picture brides’ in the years leading up to, and during, World War II.” Read more...
The Best Transnational Literature
Mohsin Hamid, Novelist
“This is the story of a guy and a girl from different ethnic and religious groups falling in love, and the surroundings give this depth. Tbilisi now seems completely Georgian, but 100 years ago there were more Armenians than Georgians.” Read more...
The best books on Georgia and the Caucasus
Per Gahrton, Politician
by James Clavell
The story told in Shogun, the 1975 blockbuster by James Clavell about an English sailor who ends up living in the Japan of 1600, was based on a real person: Will Adams of Gillingham in Kent. The book was recommended to us by historian Ian Mortimer, in his interview on Life in the Tudor Era. “I was so entranced by the world of the 16th century he created that I’ve really had a fascination for it all my life,” he said.
“The Romance of the Three Kingdoms only became a book a thousand years after the events which it describes. You could say that its story is the story of all China, passed down from father to son. It is one of China’s four great classical novels, which also include the Journey to the West. But only with Romance of the Three Kingdoms did old Chinese stories really become Chinese literature. It’s also beautifully written. A reader can harvest a lot of history and knowledge from this book, because it chronicles all aspects of China. You can discover in it the entirety of the Chinese character, ancient and modern. All Chinese people today can find themselves in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, whether you are rich or poor, old or young.” Read more...
Ma Jian on Chinese Dissident Literature
Ma Jian, Novelist
“What I really liked about this novel is the way it describes an individual’s place in history. It’s not so much that Ghosh makes a judgement on whether we are agents or victims of history, but he explores the different ways in which individuals react to particular incidents, and how some manage to overcome adversity. The Glass Palace follows the life of the last Burmese king and his family. It begins shortly before the king was deposed and sent into exile by the British army.” Read more...
Ahmede Hussain, Journalist
“To me Wild Swans is one of those iconic books for understanding the generations of Chinese women. She is from this amazing intellectual family and it’s about what happens to them. The book just has this tremendous power. It’s an amazing journey. It’s about what women do to survive and also how they suffer…. The thing about Wild Swans is that it’s just so poignantly written. I’m partial to these kinds of personalised stories that also suggest a much bigger, grander narrative about women. “ Read more...
Vishakha Desai, Political Scientist