Historical Fiction

9 Books Set in Ancient Worlds

Vanessa Diaz

Managing Editor

Book Riot Managing Editor Vanessa Diaz is a writer and former bookseller from San Diego, CA whose Spanish is even faster than her English. When not reading or writing, she enjoys dreaming up travel itineraries and drinking entirely too much tea. She is a regular co-host on the All the Books podcast who especially loves mysteries, gothic lit, mythology/folklore, and all things witchy. Vanessa can be found on Instagram at @BuenosDiazSD or taking pictures of pretty trees in Portland, OR, where she now resides.

RedAdept Publishing

A lonely queen. An orphan girl. A poet. A soldier fallen from honor. They hold a terrible secret. Can they save the kingdom of Ugarit from a mad pretender and hordes of the dispossessed? Only friendship can knit the bonds that will hold firm against the tide of evil.

I’m a big reader of historical fiction, but I have a soft spot for books that go way way back in time. Reading books set in ancient worlds is often purely escapist, but also brings me a specific kind of comfort. This might not make sense to some since the thing about ancient civilizations is that they tend to sort of…collapse. But reading about people living, loving, losing, and ultimately persisting in antiquity helps me make sense of the world I live in now. It reminds me that the problems of my own life mostly aren’t new and that, in general, they too shall pass.

You may be wondering what “ancient worlds” means, exactly. This is where I’ll confess that I’d written half of this post when I second-guessed whether my picks technically made sense or if I’d really just run with “set a long-ass time ago.” The answer is a little bit fluid, but generally, ancient civilization “refers specifically to the first settled and stable communities that became the basis for later states, nations, and empires,” beginning with the invention of writing about 3100 BCE and lasting for more than 35 centuries. And while this definition makes sense since writing made historical record-keeping possible, humans, of course, existed long before writing did.

There are thus many, many ancient civilizations in our global history (this Britannica list is almost 90 entries long ), and it turns out my “long-ass time ago” rubric aligns pretty well with reality. Huzzah! The books I present you with below range from mythology retellings to history-inspired fantasy. They will whisk you off to ancient India, Greece, and Egypt, to the Pre-Columbian Americas, to ancient China, Pompeii, and more.

Books Set in Ancient Worlds

Book cover of Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel, showing the silhouette of a woman in profile. The black silhouette is adorned with jewels and gold

Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel

In this rich retelling of the Hindu epic Ramayana, Vaishnavi Patel does to Kaikeyi what Madeline Miller did for Circe, giving readers a different take on a character known traditionally as a villain. We get to know Kaikeyi from childhood through her ascent to the throne. Kaikeyi possesses a unique ability to see the threads that bind people to one another, and to affect those people’s lives through gentle pulling of said threads. She is forced into a marriage against her will because women = property, but we watch her use her thread magic to become a skilled warrior, a negotiator, a defender of women, and a beloved queen with opinions and agency who challenges societal expectations.

cover of Neferura by Malayna Evans

Neferura by Malayna Evans

In Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, high priestess Neferura, the daughter of female pharaoh Hatshepsut, lives a life ruled by duty. When her (awful) half-brother Thutmose arrives at court, she overhears his plot to end her mother’s rule: he will plant seeds of betrayal by starting a rumor that Hatshepsut poisoned her husband in his sleep. If he goes public with this accusation, it could plunge the kingdom into chaos. Neferura sets out to stop him, partnering with a mysterious tattooed woman and her network of spies to do it. Does she trust this lady all the way? Not really. And did her mother, in fact, poison her father? She’s…not sure, actually, but she is beginning to see that her mother is a lot more ruthless than she realized. High stakes + intrigue + an Egyptian setting = just my cup of tea.

cover of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (Women of Troy #1)

I read a lot of Greek mythology. And I mean A LOT. I could have included Circe, or Song of Achilles, or A Thousand Ships, all beloved reads, but I chose this one by Pat Barker because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the cost of war. The Silence of the Girls is a powerful retelling of the Iliad as told by Briseis, Trojan queen and captive of Achilles. It is a raw and unflinching examination of the cost of war to women specifically that has stayed with me for years. It’s not an easy read, but it’s fantastic.

Book cover of The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin (Dreamblood #1)

You may think of the Broken Earth trilogy when you think of N.K. Jemisin, but don’t sleep on the Dreamblood duology, an epic fantasy series inspired by Egyptian mythology. In a city where the only law is peace and two moons rise in the sky every night, a priesthood of the dream goddess is tasked with walking the dreams of its citizens, harvesting them to ensure that peace is preserved. We get assassin priests, mad kings, and the goddess of death in one helluva fantasy ride.

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse Book Cover

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse (Between Earth and Sky #1)

Inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas, Black Sun opens in the city of Tova during Winter Solstice in what should be a time for celebration and renewal. But this year the solstice coincides with the solar eclipse that is portended by the Sun Priest to signal the unbalancing of the world. Meanwhile, an outcast sailor has been hired to sail a ship into Tova containing a single passenger, a mysterious cloaked man with a thing for crows (#relatable) and a bone to pick with the Sun Priest. Sounds suspish.

The Water Outlaws by S. L. Huang Book Cover

The Water Outlaws by S. L. Huang

This book is from my TBR and comes highly recommended. Set in ancient China, this wuxia-inspired, action-packed fantasy features a corrupt government (what’s that like?) and layered, complex characters. Lin Chong was a highly regarded weapons instructor before a powerful man with a vendetta had her unfairly branded as a criminal and stripped of her position. Now a member of a mostly women gang of badass bandits, Chong and friends must carve out their existence in a society that only wants to hold them down.

cover of The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper (Wolf Den #1)

For years I’ve been saying I needed someone to write me a Silence of the Girls set in Pompeii. Elodie Harper delivered with her Wolf Den trilogy about Amara, a woman who ends up enslaved in Pompeii’s infamous brothel after her father’s death plunged her family into penury. It’s a tough but wonderful read about resilience in the face of so much brutality.

An Ember in the Ashes cover

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (Ember in the Ashes #1)

The Ember in the Ashes series is set in a fantasy world inspired by Ancient Rome in the Juleo-Claudian era. Laia is an orphan enslaved by the Martial Empire, where she goes undercover to help the Scholar resistance and save her brother from execution for treason. Elias is a Mask, a soldier brought up in a brutal academy since childhood who is secretly plotting his freedom from this life. Their paths cross in an unlikely series of events, and that is all I will tell you about this series, except to tell you to brace yourself because Sabaa Tahir does not play.

Book cover of The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

Classicist Natalie Haynes has written some of my favorite works of mythology in both fiction and nonfiction: A Thousand Ships, Stone Blind, Pandora’s Jar, Divine Might. This book, set in ancient Thebes, focuses on Ismene and Jocasta in a reworking of the Oedipus and Antigone tragedies. You’ll go in thinking, “I know how this will go,” and will nonetheless yell, “noooo!” at the pages more than once.

For more historical reads, try these 100 must-reads about ancient history and this list of award-winning historical fiction.