This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
William Dalrymple and Anita Anand’s Empire podcast is a revelation. In just over a year, historians Anand and Dalrymple have released over 80 episodes exploring different empires and structures of empire throughout the world and history. They started with the history and repercussions of British imperialism in India; then, they explored the impact of the Ottoman Empire. Season three focused on the institution of slavery, held up by imperialism. Currently, they are investigating the Russian empire. Both historians make sure to connect past events to the present day.
The entire series has been mind-blowing, with deep dives into topics like the Partition of India and Pakistan, the Kor-I-Noor diamond, the First Afghanistan War, and Tacky’s Rebellion on Jamaica. While my husband and I have backgrounds in history, we are surprised and illuminated by every episode. So, if you are interested in learning about empires, check out Empire — the fourth season just started on August 14, 2023.
For people who want to know more about empire, here are some lists of books to add to your knowledge on these topics. I included both history books by the hosts of the podcast as well as novels about India and the Ottoman Empire to get you to think about this topic in a new way.
The Hosts’ History Books About Empire
The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple
Many of us may be familiar with the East India Company from the Pirates of the Caribbean series, but this book shows that the Company is more than a movie villain. Dalrymple outlines how the East India Company took over parts of Asia and established itself as a ruling power. It’s a tale of how a company became a government and how it extracted and despoiled the lands, notably India, under its control.
Koh-I-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand
In the period after Queen Elizabeth II’s death, there was discussion of whether the coronation of Charles would include the Koh-I-Noor diamond, with increasing calls by India for the UK to give the diamond back. This book provides a full history of this diamond and makes the case that repatriating the diamond to India is not a simple one. The diamond was a spoil of many wars over its bloody history, with claims from not only India but also Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. It’s a fascinating look at the empire through the reflection of a diamond.
The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India’s Quest for Independence by Anita Anand
We may be familiar with the Boston Massacre or the 1968 Chicago Riots, but I’ll admit that I had never heard of the devastating Jallianwallah Bagh massacre in 1919, where the British soldiers fired on a crowd of people who had gathered illegally in the space. From this horrifying action, one survivor makes it his life mission to assassinate the commander, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, behind the event. Anand tracks the story of that survivor Udham Singh from his work and travels across the world to the pivotal moment where he shot the commander in 1940.
Novels About India and the Ottoman Empire
We know there have been many works of fiction about India and the Ottoman Empire from Western perspectives, so I wanted to focus on non-Western narratives.
Raj by Gita Mehta
Part of this list was inspired by the passing of Gita Mehta on September 16, 2023. In this work, you get a snapshot of British rule in India, focusing on the life of Jaya, a princess of the fictional kingdom of Balmer. Through her eyes, we see how India was changing through the 20th century as India strives for freedom. She struggles with her own place in the world as she becomes the Regent Maharani of Sirpur at the death of her husband.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
This thrice Booker Prize award-winning novel is both a family saga and a historical text starting at the moment of India’s Independence and Partition. Saleem Sinai, along with thousands of children who were also born at the stroke of midnight on 8/15/1947, have special powers; Saleem can speak telepathically to his fellow “midnight’s children.” This story tracks Saleem’s successes and failures, just as the state around him rises and falls with the harsh growing pains of independence.
The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
This one was recommended to me by the podcast hosts themselves! In 1885, Rajkumar, a poor orphan, witnesses the British army’s incursion into Mandalay, Burma, and falls in love with a handmaiden named Dolly as she flees the palace to exile in India. Rajkumar seizes the opportunity to get involved in the teak trade and eventually becomes a wealthy man. He decides to set out to find Dolly despite the passage of 20 years. It’s a story that covers the histories of Burma (now Myanmar), India, and Malaya.
The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak
This is the story of an animal trainer, Jahan, who helped construct some of the most beautiful buildings in Istanbul in the 16th century. Jahan takes care of the sultan’s animals, including the elephant Chota, who is used to help with construction. He strikes up a friendship with chief Ottoman Architect Sinan, who decides to educate Jahan in architecture. But can Jahan navigate the venomous politics and contradictions of the Ottoman court?
The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Victoria Rowe Holbrook
This book will fit well with both the Ottoman Empire and Slavery themes of the podcast. Told as a long-lost “forgotten tale,” it focuses on the story of a young Venetian scholar who is captured at sea and sold to a man named Hoca in Istanbul. Hoca asks the scholar to teach him everything that he knows. They develop an unusual friendship and work together to fulfill the desires of the sultan. It’s a story exploring the natures of two men, seemingly trapped by the structures of society and empire.
That’s just a start! There are so many books to read from the podcast, just from their guests themselves. Want more historical fiction set in India? Check out this list! Or if you want to learn more about Partition, check out this critical article.