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Historical novels, subtype 'just-so' stories?
May 15, 2014 1:40 PM   Subscribe

I'm craving a particular subtype of historical novel: the kind that posits a dimly-remembered reality behind a famous myth/legend/story, sort of filling it out and extrapolating the details into realism. My favorite of this kind is Mary Renault's "The King Must Die" about Theseus (also the sequel). I also enjoyed "Eaters of the Dead", about the events of 'Beowulf'. But what are some other good ones you can recommend? More examples and specifics inside!

I have a long flight next week that's sort of freaking me out, and I'm hoping to submerge myself in really enjoyable books for as much of it as possible. And it's this type of book I feel hungry for at the moment, so I'm looking for recommendations for good ones (available as e-books if possible, to cut down on carry-on bulk).

Other details to help you calibrate:

I love the extra pleasure a good historical gives when it also seems to have little references in it that you can tell will change and grow over the millennia to become a particular legend, myth, historical artifact, etc.

I heard good things about Jo Graham's "Black Ships", that plays off of The Aeneid, but I haven't finished reading The Aeneid yet so I haven't tackled this one. (Guess I could take an e-book of The Aeneid with me too...)

I read that Rosemary Sutcliff's one grown-up novel, "Sword at Sunset", is about a historical basis for King Arthur. Is it any good?

I read Madeline Miller's "The Song of Achilles", and while I'm totally onboard for the Achilles/Patroclus relationship, I wish I had liked her depiction of Patroclus more (so passive! Very hard to buy the pacifist waffling).

I read the first Clan of the Cave Bear book back in high school, and I remember liking it, but I hear they inflate further and further into gummy Mary Sue weirdo romances, which do not sound appealing.

I've read and enjoyed the first few "Age of Bronze" graphic novels, depicting the events of The Iliad in a realistic context, but my Kindle is original-flavor and very basic, so it doesn't do that sort of thing.

Any recommendations you may have will be gratefully received!
posted by theatro to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Flashman books do this and do this well, as long as you can deal with the misogynistic dickhead cowardly deceitful antihero.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:49 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia seems like it would fit the bill. An exceptionally well written retelling of a legendary story from the perspective of a marginal character.
posted by ottereroticist at 1:58 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Don't know about Ms Sutcliffe, but Bernard Cornwell did a nice trilogy on King Arthur, not the story we all grew up with. He has the knack of narrative drive, which you'll want.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:58 PM on May 15


I think The Red Tent (about Jacob's daughter from the Old Testament) and The Mists of Avalon (based on the King Arthur legend) might work for this; there's magic in The Mists of Avalon but it's realistic historical magic, if that makes sense.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:59 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]


Hild, by Niccola Griffeth, is getting really excellent reviews. It's about Hilda of Whitby. Nicola Griffith is a Lamba-award-winning science fiction author and as far as I can tell from long-ago, limited interaction with her over the emails, a very nice person. I have a copy of the book, have not read it, but find the cover really lovely anyway...
posted by Frowner at 2:00 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I should add that these are both explicitly female perspectives on the legends/stories, if that affects your interest one way or the other.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:00 PM on May 15


You might enjoy Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad which tells the story of Odysseus through Penelope's eyes. It's more of a novella, though. It's part of a whole series of modern retelling of the myths (Winterson's Weight was pretty good, too, but possibly not what you want.)

Hilary Mantel's books about Thomas Cromwell and the times of Henry the VIII are fascinating. She fills in a lot of detail about Cromwell and postulates why Henry did what he did with his wives with both Cromwell's contemporary thinking and what ended up getting passed on through the ages. Plus they're Booker Prize winners, if that means anything to you: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

As just a side-kind of-maybe not related thing, Ahab's Wife by Sara Jeter Naslund is the story of...Ahab's wife, mentioned once or twice in Moby Dick.

(Have you read any Gore Vidal? If not, you might enjoy his historical perspective, even though it's much much more modern. Also, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres retells the play of King Lear through the eyes of the eldest daughter, so it's a new twist on an old story.)
posted by barchan at 2:01 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, mentioned by Barchan above, may be my two favorite books of all time at this point. Really amazing writing and fully engrossing.

I also second the Gore Vidal suggestion.
posted by janey47 at 2:13 PM on May 15


I'm currently enjoying Robert Harris's Imperium, an account of the life of Cicero as written by his scribe, Tiro.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:14 PM on May 15


I liked Song of the Magdalene about Donna Jo Napoli, a YA novel about the origins of Mary Magdalene.
posted by wrabbit at 2:16 PM on May 15


Josephine Tey's The Daughter Of Time is novel about a policeman reconstructing Richard III and the death of his nephews.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:22 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Steve Pressfield's Gates of Fire
And Flashman's very funny, despite the aforementioned blahblah.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:23 PM on May 15


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell has elements of this, though it takes a while to get to them.
posted by dekathelon at 2:27 PM on May 15


My daughter and I very much enjoyed Margaret George's "The Autobiography of Henry VIII: with notes by his fool, Will Somers", also "Mary Queen of Scotland and the isles: a novel", "Elizabeth I: a novel" ... they're engrossing and lengthy enough to take up some time. She also wrote novels about Cleopatra and Helen of Troy which I'm sure are just as enjoyable.
posted by Allee Katze at 2:30 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]


The Red Tent is a fascinating historical take on the Biblical story Of Dinah.
posted by Mchelly at 2:30 PM on May 15


Oh, I totally forgot: Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series, about the historical events surrounding Caesar's rise and fall, were engrossing. It starts out with Caesar's grandfather and other historical characters, then goes on from there...not high lit, totally beach book reading, but fun. (She wrote The Thorn Birds, if you're not familiar.)
posted by barchan at 2:33 PM on May 15


You will probably loooooove Updike's "Gertrude and Claudius" which slowly, through three sections, mutates the Saxo Grammaticus through a medieval source and into Hamlet, showing the bit just BEFORE Hamlet gets home. I had no idea who Updike was when I picked it up at random off a relative's shelf and I lost two day of my life to drowning in its awesomeness. :)

It's more historical fiction than fiction-laid-over-legend, but The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, and its two sequels, are insanely engrossing. They're about the life of the woman who would become Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had a HELLA CRAZY LIFE for real. Every time I thought, "This bit HAS to be fictionalized ..." I looked it up and NOPE, THAT HAPPENED. It's along the lines of "Wolf Hall," where the author takes the known facts and personalities and overlays thoughts and actions and connecting tissue to make a story of it.

I juuuuuust finished "Robin, Lady of Legend," which amazon promo'd to me free as 2nd place in its "breakthrough novel contest." I liked it! It's not top-notch stuff, but it's a really competent and entertaining quick beach read.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:45 PM on May 15


Disclaimer: I read her books about two decades ago, but I remember Gillian Bradshaw being really good. I read The Beacon at Alexandria and The Bearkeeper's Daughter - both excellent and rooted in antiquity (Byzantium & Egypt).
posted by kariebookish at 2:45 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Has Madeleine L'Engle's Many Waters been mentioned yet? It's a retelling of the Noah And The Flood story from the perspective of a side character not mentioned in the bible, with a bit of a time-travel/SFF spin.
posted by Sara C. at 2:49 PM on May 15


Also durrrrrrrrrrrr this is exactly the itch Mists Of Avalon was invented to scratch.
posted by Sara C. at 2:50 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


I think The Green Man by English poet Henry Treece (mild spoilers near the bottom of the page) is the best thing of this kind I've ever read; it plunges you so far down into the pagan prehistory of present-day Scandinavia that, like me, you may never quite get all the way back out.

I have to warn you though, it's dark and brutal in a way that makes ASoIaF look like stories a bunch of adolescent boys might try to gross each other out with on a camping trip.
posted by jamjam at 3:29 PM on May 15


There is Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross, which expands upon the Medieval legend of a female pope (and re-interprets historical facts that we know of today) - it is really quite good. Also, there is my favorite historical novel The Light Bearer by Donna Gillespie, which is about the exciting life and adventures of a renowned and highly skilled female Germanic warrior-turned-gladiator in ancient Rome - wouldn`t it be awesome if she was real! The quality of historical research is especially high in the latter novel, and the plotting is phenomenal. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Gary Jenning`s The Journeyer is also is filled with excellent research and epic adventure - it imagines what Marco Polo`s actual wanderings were like. It is another favorite of mine but there is a great deal of very graphic violence - including some sexual violence - so is not suitable for all tastes. As you can tell, I love historical fiction!
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 4:17 PM on May 15


The Gore Vidal book that you might want is Creation. It's an epic tome about a Persian diplomat who travels around the world circa 500BCE and meets Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, etc. Lots of adventure, intrigue, philosophy, and that clever Vidal sense of humour, with a real taste for re-interpreting ancient history.
posted by ovvl at 6:06 PM on May 15


Seconding Many Waters, Mists of Avalon, and especially Hild (though I knew none of the folks in Hild so for me it was just a REALLY GREAT novel.)

Another book I enjoyed was Grendel, telling Beowulf from the perspective of the beast.

Jonathan Strange has very extensive footnotes of the type that may not work in ebook format, but it's wonderful.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:19 PM on May 15


Oh oh oh! Have you read TH White's the Once and Future King, which is kind of a classic? It's about King Arthur, and ultimately pretty damn sad. The first part, The Sword in the Stone, is the basis for the Disney film.

Oldies but goodies, several novels by Robert Graves. Wife to Mr Milton isn't very well known now (it's pretty sad and all) but I Claudius is. Also there's Count Belisaurius which IIRC is about a general of Emperor Theodosius, Holy Roman Emperor. And then there's King Jesus, which is just a bit arcane. Can you tell I was a Robert Graves fan when I was younger? The first two, WTMM & IC are strongly recommended, given what you've said in your question.
posted by glasseyes at 6:28 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]


Linda Medley's Castle Waiting. She works in all kinds of fairy tales, often in quite unexpected ways. It's hilarious. It's also quite touching sometimes. And it's beautifully drawn and written. There are all kinds of extra little jokes if you recognise them ("The Curse of Brambly Hedge") but it also works if you don't. I wish there were more. While not historical (obviously) I think it contains many of the elements you like.

Jane Yolen wrote a book about Mary, Queen of Scots from the perspective of a (fictional) female jester in her entourage. When finding a link for it, I discovered that she's actually turned this into a quartet of books about the Stuarts. I've only read the first, Queen's Own Fool, which was good.

Gillian Bradshaw is very, very good. She has written an Arthurian trilogy which I actually think is her least-good work, but fits your criteria better. The Sand-Reckoner is about Archimedes - who has become a near-mythical figure - and Cleopatra's Heir is about a similarly mythical figure.

You could also try Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry. As explained on the page, "Kay's central concept in the novels is that Fionavar is the first of worlds, particularly in a mythological sense; the sagas and tales of other worlds originate (or culminate) in this most primary of settings." It is pretty high-drama and has definite Tolkien-esque overtones to it (unsurprisingly given Kay's background).

Oh, and Sandman. Bam. Although not if you are a Gaiman-detester.

I am realising this is obviously a favourite genre of mine too!
posted by Athanassiel at 8:23 PM on May 15


Sharon K. Penman's The Sunne in Splendour is the book that got me hooked on historical novels and history in general. It's about the War of the Roses, and Richard III in particular. It is very sympathetic to Richard, while still including nods to and interpretations of the things that blackened his name.
posted by lovecrafty at 12:00 AM on May 16


Guy Gavriel Kay is excellent, I agree. Apart from The Fionavar Tapestry, I really love (I mean LOVE) his Tigana. It may be a bit more historical/fantasy rather than straight-up historical but it is amazing.
posted by kariebookish at 2:10 AM on May 16


The King Must Die is one of my favourites too. I also love Renault's other work.

Seconding LeGuin's Lavinia and Griffith's Hild. Hild in particular is incredibly well-researched.

Joanne Harris's recent book The Gospel of Loki might scratch your mythological itch: Norse myths retold by Loki himself.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:24 AM on May 16


GG Kay's more overt magical fantasies have been mentioned, but I would recommend to you his more historical-based works like The Lions of Al-Rassan (Spain during the Reconquista), Under Heaven/River of Stars (medieval China), the Last Light of the Sun (post-Roman Britain), and Sailing to Sarantium (Byzantine empire under Justinian). These are set in an alternate version of our world (usually with a minimal amount of magic, maybe a visit from a ghost or mystical creature) but are all inspired by historical settings, down to specific characters being inspired by real-world characters. In each case I have been so interested in the setting and characters that I have sought out more information about the real history.
posted by tracer at 8:41 AM on May 16


Aaaaaaaah, thank you so much, everyone!

I now have four or five sample chapters waiting on my Kindle to consider and see which books I should get first--but after that, I obviously have a ton of reading to do, long after my trip is over. Glorious!
posted by theatro at 12:32 PM on May 16


Ooooh, ooooh, oooh, I forgot! I also recommend Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles and the Niccolo series! Chock full of history and little fascinating details about life in those times AND it took me a full year to work through all of them!
posted by Allee Katze at 1:51 PM on May 19


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