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My Historical Fiction Essentials

Reposting with cover images added.


Finally getting around to this -- as per Chris's invitation, here's my list (in no particular order, and with major reliance on Chris's dictum that it's "fine to list a whole author's work or series and have it count as one entry"):



Hillary Mantel's historical fiction

I've yet to try her contemporary writing, but both her Cromwell duology (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies -- hopefully soon to be a trilogy) and A Place of Greater Safety (based on the real life story of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins) are absolutely magnificent.  I'd never have thought anybody could make me genuinely care about Thomas Cromwell, but Mantel managed to do just that, and she also brings a fresh perspective to a topic seemingly as worn out (in literary terms) as the French Revolution.



C.J. Sansom: Shardlake series

Ditto C.J. Sansom's Tudor mysteries.  I've just finished the most recent entry, and all I'll say is, I hope Sansom himself won't tire of Master Shardlake and his adventures any time soon. -- Also, if nonfiction isn't your kind of thing and you still want to learn about the Tudor Age, you can't possibly go wrong with Mantel and Sansom combined -- both their books are meticulously researched, with detailed historical notes (particularly Sansom's: the one concluding his most recent book, Tombland, alone makes for almost 1/10 of that 866-page monster's total length).



Sharon Kay Penman: Plantagenet series

Others have already mentioned her Welsh Princes trilogy and The Sunne in Splendour (her very first book), all of which I completely second; given my particular fondness for the Plantagenet power couple, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their "devil's brood", though, I'm going to also have to add Penman's Plantagenet series to the lot (by which I don't just mean the first three books, which focus on Henry and Eleanor, but the whole series, including its current extension into the life and times of Richard the Lionheart).


Ellis Peters: The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael

My interest in Plantagenet England began with this series, and Brother Cadfael is still one of my all-time favorite characters (and detectives).  I can no longer even count the numbers of times I have read and reread these books.  Well-researched, written with a big heart, and somehow managing to condense the various stages of the tortured history of England's first Civil War in easy to digest 200-page installments, all seen from the perspective of the Welsh borderland.  And I really, really also love the TV adaptations starring Derek Jacobi.



Samantha Wilcoxson: Plantagenet Embers series, especially Faithful Traitor

A recent discovery, thanks to BookLikes!  The series focuses on a number of personalities who played important roles in the transition from the Plantagenet to the Tudor regime, but who are less well known today:  Elizabeth of York (daughter of the last York Plantagenet king Edward IV and wife of the first Tudor king Henry VII), Margaret Pole (Elizabeth of York's cousin, daughter of Edward IV's brother, the Duke of Clarence, and while in Henry VIII's good graces, governess to his daughter Mary, the future queen), Mary I, the queen herself; as well as Elizabeth of York's mother -- Elizabeth Woodville --, Henry VII's mother Margaret Beaufort, and Mary I's favorite cousin and Archbishop of Canterbury, Margaret Pole's son Richard Pole.  (The first three are novels, the last three novellas.)  By far my favorite entry in the series is the second novel, Faithful Traitor, the story of Margaret Pole -- what a woman.  My heart totally goes out to her.



Tony Riches - Tudor Trilogy

In a way, the complementary series to Samantha Wilcoxson's: the stories of the three men who laid the foundations for the Tudors' rise to power and their elevation from an impoverished minor Welsh line to becoming heirs of the Lancastrians and victors over the House of York): Owen Tudor (second husband of Henry V's widow, Queen Catherine of Valois), his and Catherine's son Jasper, and Owen's grandson / Jasper's nephew and ward Henry, the future king Henry VII. -- Both Samantha Wilcoxson's and Tony Riches's books are self-published, and proof positive that self-publishing has nothing whatsoever to do with (allegedly inferior) quality but, rather, everything with how much you care for (and want to retain full control over) your writing, your characters, your chosen topic, your research ... and everything else associated with your books.


Edward Rutherfurd: London

Rutherfurd has elevated the technique of telling the history of a place through the interwoven histories of representative families to a fine art, and if you only read one of his books, let that book be his history of London from before the Roman age to the present day.  (Though I confess that his first book, Sarum, is still on my TBR; I think it's entirely possible that I'd extend the recommendation to it, as well, if I had already read it at this point.)


Walter Scott: Ivanhoe

Scott, Stevenson and Dumas between the three of them pretty much created historical fiction as a genre, and while Scott could at times be either a bit long-winded or melodramatic, when he was good, he was very good, and nowhere more so than in Ivanhoe.  It may not be the most realistic of his tales, but never since the actual medieval legends and epics has chivalry been epitomized literarily the way it is in this one book.


Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped

The teenage adventure to end all teenage adventures (also one of the first adventure novels I ever read).  Seriously, though, who wouldn't want to be David Balfour, meet, be mentored by and share the exploits of someone as cool as Alan Breck Stewart, and finish off by giving his just deserts to a mean, avaricous old uncle (named Ebenezer, to boot -- like Dickens's Scrooge)?


Alexandre Dumas (père): The Three Musketeers

Swashbuckling wisecracks were never again as cool, and intrigue never as poisonous as here. -- For clarification's sake: I love The Count of Monte Cristo just as much as The Three Musketeers, but from the POV of Dumas's life Monte Cristo was contemporary writing (beginning in the 1810s -- Dumas was born in 1802), whereas the adventures of D'Artagnan and his best buddies are set in the 17th century, roughly 200 years before Dumas's own lifetime.


Emmuska Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel

Sir Percy Blakeney and I had already met in various screen adaptations of this novel by the time I read the book for the very first time, and I have to admit my fondness for his assorted screen incarnations is a tiny bit more pronounced than that for the persona originally created by Baroness Orczy (and this is even more true for his wife Marguerite).  But let's face it -- without this book, none of the screen versions would ever have come into existence in the first place, and from the dual character with his interminable masquerades, the league, "that demmed Pimpernel" and of course Chauvelin's shenanigans, everything is already in existence in Orczy's book ... she came up with it all.


Patrick O'Brian: Aubrey / Maturin series

One of the iconic literary friendships, and you have to look long and hard to learn as much about early 19th century naval voyages and warfare as in this series of novels.  (Including the terminology -- I was thoroughly relieved when I found that there are not one but two companion guides; one giving background to the voyages and locations featured in the individual books, the other one explaining the terminology.)  At heart, though, these are simply ripping good yarns -- well-written and well-researched, and you can't help but root for the two main characters.


Iain Pears: Historical stand-alone novels, particularly The Dream of Scipio

Pears -- an art historian by training -- started out with a series of mysteries set in the world of, well, art history, which are nice for what they are, but they were clearly only the warm-up for the longer and much more intricate stand-alone novels to which he moved on with An Instance of the Fingerpost.  All set in different historical periods and locations (from 17th century Oxford in Fingerpost to, inter alia, 19th century Venice in Stone's Fall), with The Dream of Scipio my favorite of them all: Three interconnected storylines, all set in the Avignon area of the South of France; one in the waning days of the Roman empire, one during the medieval Avignon exile of the Papacy, and one during the Nazi occupation of France; all revolving around a mysterious manuscript, and all asking profound questions concerning life, tolerance, and the essence of humanity.


Lion Feuchtwanger: Historical novels, particularly Die Jüdin von Toledo (Raquel / The Jewess of Toledo / A Spanish Ballad)

Feuchtwanger was one of the preeminent German novelists of the first half of the 20th century; he was driven into emigration to the U.S. when the Nazis rose to power.  Though he bequeathed his literary estate to the University of Southern California, his final academic and literary home, he is all but forgotten in the U.S. -- not so in Germany, however, where he is still very much a household name.  He wrote both historical and -- for him -- contemporary fiction; of his historical novels, all of which are grounded in profound examinations of the human condition (some, but not all of them, from the perspective of his Jewish faith), two stand out to me in particular: Jud Süss, the biography of a [real life] 18th century Jewish merchant from southwestern Germany (which the Nazis infamously abused and twisted into one of their most vicious anti-Jewish propaganda pieces -- much to Feuchtwanger's fury, not least given that the actual essence of his novel is the precise opposite: an analysis of the pressure brought onto Jews to "assimilate" into the dominant culture surrounding them), and Die Jüdin von Toledo (variously translated as Raquel, The Jewess of Toledo, and A Spanish Ballad), also a story based on actual historical fact; set in medieval Reconquista Toledo and revolving around the romance between enlightened Christian king Alfonso XII and the beautiful, wise young daughter of one of his advisors (a Jew).


Frank Baer: Die Brücke von Alcántara

Another novel set in medieval Spain; translated (to the best of my knowledge) into Spanish but unfortunately not into English (the title translates as The Bridge of Alcántara).  A riveting doorstopper of a book following three protagonists -- a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew -- whose fates take them from Andalucía ("Moorish" Spain) to reconquered Christian Castile and back, until the peaceful coexistence of the three religions finally comes crashing down around them once and for all on a battlefield near the eponymous bridge.


Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

Eco said he had started to write this book because he "felt like murdering a monk" -- well, I'd say he had his revenge and then some.  It helps to have a basic notion of medieval history and religion / philosophy, but at heart this is just a very intricate, historically knowledgeable mystery set in a small monastic community with all of its petty rivalries and antagonism, with a mindblowing finale, and with Eco obviously having a ball with his newly created playing field for the notion that (paraphrasing from memory) "if you can't use it to tell a lie, you can't use it to tell a story".


Robert Graves: Claudius duology (I, Claudius and Claudius, the God and His Wife Messalina)

One of the most insightful (and cheekiest) fictional diaries in all of historical fiction, and if you ever entertained any ideas about the particular nobility of the Romans or their imperial dynasties, these two books will cure you of that notion in absolutely no time.  Also not to be missed: the TV miniseries starring Derek Jacobi (yeah, him again) as Claudius.


Louis De Bernières: Birds Without Wings

This book totally devastated me.  Small-town Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century, Gallipoli, Muslim / Turkish vs. Christian Orthodox / Greek communities, diaspora, displacement, friendship, coming of age ... complete and utter heartbreak, beautifully written.



Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun

Another totally devastating book.  Xenophobia, racism, violence against women and, ultimately, war -- African against African, though the administrative and territorial mess left behind by the British at the end of their colonial rule very likely played a role.  Like Birds Without Wings, a book that everybody should read -- it's about so much more than "just" the Biafra war, though it really also does a great job analyzing how that war came about and what it did to those caught up in it.  (For the record: This is historical fiction within the meaning of the act; it's set in the 1960s, i.e., the decade prior to that of Adichie's birth.)


Shusaku Endo: Silence

Decades ago, when a Japanese pen friend poo-poo'ed James Clavell's Shogun as unrealistic and a typically Westernized view, I asked her which book she would recommend I read instead -- this was her answer.  It's stuck with me all these years ... though I confess I haven't been able to get myself to watch its recent movie adaptation yet (and I probably never will).  Still, I learned more about Japanese history (and attitutes) from this one novel than from many a newspaper report or nonfiction book.


Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day

One of the most shattering literary exhibitions of wasted lives and missed chances -- as well as a superb exercise in Ishiguro's big topic, the unreliability of memory.  Don't get sidetracked by the WWII / "Nazis in England" background ... it's there for a reason, obviously, but it's merely the setting, not what Ishiguro is chiefly interested in.  This is all about one man's self-destruction, by denial, self-denial and self-deception; all of which ultimately brings down much more than himself.  Ishiguro deserved the Nobel Prize for this novel and Never Let Me Go alone.  (For anyone in doubt, Kazuo Ishiguro was born in 1954, so the core action of this novel is set several decades before his own lifetime.  And I'd argue that the 1956 road trip during which the MC reminisces on the events that form the novel's main action is so close to the author's birth that Ishiguro himself wouldn't have any active awareness of that particular period in history, even if he might have snippets of memory of his personal toddler's experience.)


Robert van Gulik: Judge Dee mysteries

A Dutch diplomat and sinologist / scholar's loving tribute to the exploits of a famous (real life) 7th century Chinese magistrate, begun after van Gulik had first translated a Chinese novel immortalizing the same man.  And he didn't only create the mysteries themselves -- typically, following the pattern set in the Chinese novel he had translated, consisting of several interwoven cases and frequently touching on issues of Chinese philosophy, as well as criminal law and social mores --; he also illustrated them in the authentic Chinese ink brush technique.  I've loved these little books (none of them is substantially longer than 200 pages) since practically forever and am thrilled to see them back in print in English (they've never gone out of print in Germany).


Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks

Mann's first magnum opus; cited (justly) as one of the major reasons why he was awared the Nobel Prize in Literature (along with The Magic Mountain): chronicling the downfall of a Lübeck (northern German) merchant family over the course of a century.  I love it for both its characters and the intricacy of its setting -- if you know Lübeck, the city really does come alive for you in the book -- and it blows my mind to think that Mann was a mere 24 years old when the novel was first published. -- In terms of categorization as "historical fiction", this is a similar case as Ishiguro's Remains of the Day: The vast bulk of the book is set in the early and middle decades of the 19th century and thus long before Mann's own lifetime; only the final chapter (which deals with the aftermath of the company's dissolution and the sale of the Buddenbrooks' patrician home) is set some 2 years after Mann's own birth and thus falls technically into his own lifetime.  Here, too, I'd argue that this is not enough to take away the characterization as a historical novel, though.


Theodor Storm: Der Schimmelreiter (The Dykemaster / The Rider on the White Horse)

Also a novel from Northern Germany; even further north than Lübeck, from the islands on the North Sea coastline immediately bordering on Denmark (which coastline actually did belong to Denmark for part of its history); part ghost story, part local lore, and all of it a sombre pilloring of the folly of superstition and prejudice that has lost nothing of its urgency in the century (plus) since its first publication.  Again, a similar case as Ishiguro's and Thomas Mann's books: There is a tiny bit of a (from the authorial POV) contemporaneous introduction, but that only serves to set up the main tale, which is set in the 18th century and, thus, long before the author's own lifetime.


Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind

I'd watched the movie before I first read the book, and I cannot (nor could I, ever) look at either of them without cringing at their blatant racism; but I'd still argue that it's a seminal piece of historical fiction writing and probably closer to the attitutes of the time in which it is set than many a historical novel written since.  It's also one of those seminal, sweeping romances that even without being much of a romance reader I can (almost) totally get lost in.


I'm running out of space and the following three entries require some (in part, considerable) fudging, so make of these last entries what you will:



The Medieval Murderers round robins AND the mystery series "feeding" them

The Medieval Murderers is a series of round robins authored by a group of British writers of historical fiction including, originally, Michael Jecks, Susanna Gregory, Philip Gooden, Bernard Knight and Ian Morson; with C.J. Sansom and Karen Maitland joining in for a couple of the later installments.  Each book in the series follows one distinct object (that was, or is believed to be cursed) from a certain point in time in the early or high Middle Ages over the course of the centuries, with the main sections of the action firmly set before our / the authors' lifetime, and with a brief concluding epilogue set in our time (and in one book, in a dystopian future).  Each member of the group contributes at least one chapter to each of the books, with each chapter forming a distinct episode within that particular book's entire narrative arc.  Initially, the members of the group chiefly relied on their individual main mystery series and made their contributions to this series of round robins shorter, but de-facto stand-alone episodes within those series.  Later some of them began using the Medieval Murderers series as a sort of testing ground for new characters and series concepts, and in some cases, the events from their contributions to this joint series also started to "carry over" into their own respective main series.  Anyway, long story short, I love both this series (Medieval Murderers) and some of the individual contributors' main series; in particular:

* Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew and Thomas Chaloner series (though only Matthew Bartholomew has, so far as I can see, made repeated appearances in the Medieval Murderers context to date);

* Michael Jecks's Knights Templar series;

* Ian Morson's William Falconer series;

* and Philip Gooden's Nick Revill series.


Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose

It's debatable whether / to what extent this is really historical fiction, because it's a book that is genuinely set on two distinct narrative plains; one set in the past and one, from the author's POV at the time of the writing, in the present.  It is definitely one of the most gorgeous pieces of writing out there, though; nobody captured the West like Stegner and Steinbeck, and I love it to pieces.  If its historical contents were significant enough to make it qualify for inclusion within the definition of historical fiction I'd be thrilled, but again, far be it from me to want to force the issue here.


John Fowles: The French Lieutenant's Woman

"Technically" unquestionably historical fiction, as the main action is set a century before the author's own lifetime.  However, Fowles has a way of inserting himself into the narrative via some fairly intrusive comments (as well as by appearing, himself, in two of the three alternative endings), which effectively breaks the fourth wall -- and caused Harold Pinter, when writing the screenplay for the movie adaptation, to create an entirely new, additional present-day framework narrative so as to preserve that level of present-day authorial comment and " page / face time".  So, classification as historical fiction is again up for debate in my view -- but, either way, I love the book and do think it's one of the most important ones to have been published in the recent couple of decades.


P.S. Final comment: I was going to add book covers to this post, but it's already past bedtime for me, so I'm just going to leave this "as is" for the time being -- I may come back and add covers tomorrow.

Covers added.