Looking for Historical Fiction Recommendations (Newer is Better)
December 11, 2004 10:28 AM   Subscribe

What are your favourite historical fiction novels? [more inside]

One of my relatives put "historical fiction" on their Christmas list this year, and aside from once giving a friend a Kenneth Roberts novel that they'd asked for, I know next to nothing about the genre. Newer stuff is probably better, as he's less likely to already have such things.

And yes, I realize that this question is a pretty broad one. But that just gives y'all the opportunity to go nuts with recommendations.
posted by Johnny Assay to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Anything relatively recent by James Ellroy. American Tabloid would be where I'd start.
posted by dobbs at 10:38 AM on December 11, 2004

I give three enthusiastic thumbs up to The Poisonwood Bible. Topical, political, jarring, romantic, suspenseful, unsettling, thought provoking, and beautifully, beautifully written.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:43 AM on December 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

Set in 480 B.C
Gates of Fire
by Steven Pressfield tells the story 300 Spartans on a suicide mission to the hold the pass at Thermopylae for as long as possible against a 100,000 strong Persian army. I'm not a fan of historical fiction but I, and everyone I've given to, have loved it.
posted by john-paul at 10:44 AM on December 11, 2004

All Quiet on the Western Front is one of my favorite books, but I imagine if he's into historical fiction at all he's already read it.
posted by borkingchikapa at 11:04 AM on December 11, 2004

My favorite of the genre is Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. Story of the building of a church in the 12th century. Very long, but very compelling. I believe Follett is known for his WWII novels - Eye of the Needle, and Hornet Flight were two I liked.

I loved Cold Mountain, by Charles Fazier - Civil War tale of a confederate soldier trying to make his way home. Well written, totally engrossing. I haven't seen the movie - I don't want to lose the characters as I have them in my head.

How about James Clavell? I loved Shogun (well before the mini-series came out). And have heard good things about Tai Pan as well.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 11:05 AM on December 11, 2004

Mason & Dixon.
posted by drpynchon at 11:21 AM on December 11, 2004

E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime. I can also second, uh, drpynchon's, Mason & Dixon recommendation.
posted by driveler at 11:26 AM on December 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

"Fatherland", I forget the name of the author. Nazi stuff is always so morbidly fascinating.
posted by ac at 11:29 AM on December 11, 2004

Patrick O'Brian for well-written Napoleonic-era naval stuff. Bernard Cornwell is also popular for his Napoleonic army series with Sharpe, though I haven't read any of his work myself.
posted by cardboard at 11:30 AM on December 11, 2004

I'd be careful here -- the phrase 'historical fiction' might mean something very specific to your giftee. You should probably explore more before buying.

The reason: historical fiction is not itself a genre: it spans genres. There's literature set in times past (which is being recommended here). These books are grat choices if they're interested in really good writing about the past, or if there's a specific historical period that they know a lot about and love to imagine.

And then there's genre historical fiction, which comes in many flavors (Western, Civil War, romance, medieval, more...). and has fewer aspirations to literary greatness - the reverse of futuristic sci-fi. If you get the wrong genre, chances are the relative just won't like it.
posted by Miko at 11:35 AM on December 11, 2004

I'm a fan of Edward Rutherfurd's books.
posted by cmonkey at 11:52 AM on December 11, 2004

any of the flashman series would be good unless your relative is some kind of moralist prig
posted by noisia at 12:14 PM on December 11, 2004

I agree with Miko, and I second the idea that knowing something about the kind of books your relative likes would help narrow the field. Some people I know prefer the beach-reading variety, while I prefer something more literary. That said, I know a lot of people who are crazy about Dorothy Dunnett, and I really love Umberto Eco, most especially his Island of the Day Before.
posted by butternut at 12:29 PM on December 11, 2004

Robert Graves' I, Claudius, about the emperor Claudius.

And it has a sequel "Claudius The God" if they like it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:08 PM on December 11, 2004

Graves also wrote some historical novels set in the American Revolutionary War: Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth and Proceed, Sergeant Lamb. Looks like they're out of print in America (& Canada) though you can get decent prices from amazon.co.uk.
posted by kenko at 1:15 PM on December 11, 2004

Came in to suggest the Flashman series, see I've been pipped at the post. So considered this a "seconded".
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 1:18 PM on December 11, 2004

Response by poster: Good point, Miko. I think that my uncle (the relative in question) is more interested in "literature set in times past" rather than genre fiction. He's a high school history teacher, so he's very much into good writing about historic eras. I'll make a few discreet inquiries to be sure, though.

These all seem like great suggestions thus far. Keep 'em coming!
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:23 PM on December 11, 2004

Yes, second the "ask first" recommendation: not only are there entire subgenres out there (neo-Victorian, nautical, Civil War, ancient world, historical mystery...), but there's also a real split between "literary" or experimental historical fiction and the traditional, plot-driven stuff.

If your friend doesn't mind epic-length novels, try Gore Vidal's Burr (probably the best of his American cycle) or Lincoln. If he's at all interested in SF or alternative history, there's William Gibson & Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine or something by Harry Turtledove (obligatory disclaimer: my father is a friend of the latter). For nautical, skip Dewey Lambdin and head straight for Patrick O'Brian. I think Mary Renault may have gone out of fashion, but she's a heroine to a lot of historical novelists still working (including Vidal).

Other suggestions: Barry Unsworth (Sacred Hunger, about the 18th c. slave trade, is the most impressive), Rodney Hall (the Yandilli Trilogy, about early Australia), Peter Ackroyd (try Chatterton or The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, a.k.a. Dan Lemo and the Limehouse Golem), Charles Palliser (The Quincunx--we're talking a serious doorstop here), Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose, especially if your friend also likes Sherlock Holmes), Russell Banks (Cloudsplitter, about the abolitionist John Brown), George Garrett (Death of the Fox, the first in his Renaissance trilogy--another doorstop).

Nineteenth-century classics: Sir Walter Scott (Waverley, if you're trying to begin at the beginning, but Old Mortality is often more to people's taste), W. M. Thackeray (Vanity Fair), Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities), George Eliot (Middlemarch). See also Victor Hugo, Honore de Balzac (Les Chouans), Stendhal (Le Rouge et Le Noir), and Anatole France (Les Dieux Ont Soif).
posted by thomas j wise at 1:35 PM on December 11, 2004

posted by .kobayashi. at 1:36 PM on December 11, 2004

The Baroque Cycle Series by Neal Stephenson. But they really have to like long books...
posted by GrumpyMonkey at 1:42 PM on December 11, 2004

Bernard Cornwell has more than just the (really fun reads) Sharpe series. He has stuff set in the 100 Years War, Arthurian Briton, the Civil War, and so on. They're all of the "adventure" genre wherein the hero kicks butt and takes names.

The Crusader, by Michael Alexander Eisner is pretty good. Set in the Crusades, obviously.

Harry Turtledove, who writes mainly scifi alternate history stuff, has a few historical fiction books under the name Harry Turtletaub. Justinian, about the second Byzantine Emperor of the same name, is pretty good.

Ex Libris by Ross King is an Eco-esque story set in London of 1660.

The Dante Club, which he's prolly read, by Pearl is decent (if funnily paced).

Banjo really liked The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber and The Eight by Katherine Neville.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:43 PM on December 11, 2004

Vollmann's Argall and Fathers and Crows.
posted by mwhybark at 2:00 PM on December 11, 2004

Oh yeah, and Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist books.
posted by mwhybark at 2:00 PM on December 11, 2004

The Road to Wellville by TC Boyle, about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (the creator of Cornflakes) and his health-crazy sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan in the years 1907/1908. Extremely well researched by Boyle a few years before he actually wrote it. It was made into a not-so-great movie with Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg (I loved his performance---the others were either 'eh' or 'awful').
posted by Agrippina at 2:10 PM on December 11, 2004

I'll second the vote for Dorothy Dunnett's books, especially the "Lymond Chronicles" by referring back to an older comment I made on the same topic. Really deep, challenging books...some of the best I've ever read. (There are a lot of other good suggestions in that thread, so I won't bother re-capping them here.)
posted by LairBob at 2:12 PM on December 11, 2004

I'll second Thomas J. Wise's recommendation for Gore Vidal's American Chronicles Series. My favorites were Burr, Lincoln, and 1876.
posted by sophie at 2:30 PM on December 11, 2004

Caleb Carr's The Alienist and its sequel, The Angel of Darkness. Erik Larsen's Devil In The White City isn't fiction, but reads just as grippingly. And from across the room, my wife recommends The Summer of My German Soldier, written in 1973 by Bette Greene.
posted by grabbingsand at 2:56 PM on December 11, 2004

War of the end of the world has turned out to be a great book. I picked it up after an earlier mefi post on the backlands of Brazil. It can also be accompanied by the non-fiction and still easy to read Rebellion in the Backlands.
posted by whatzit at 2:59 PM on December 11, 2004

Memoirs of a Geisha

House of Mirth (actually written in the time it was set, but it might as well be historical fiction from today's point-of-view. It certainly evokes an era!)

War and Peace

The Playmaker

posted by grumblebee at 3:32 PM on December 11, 2004

I loved the commentary for Vertigo. Lots of info on how they restored the film, matched color, recreated the soundtrack, etc.
posted by belladonna at 3:35 PM on December 11, 2004

Vollmann's Argall and Fathers and Crows.
posted by mwhybark at 2:00 PM PST on December 11

Lord yes.

And don't forget the Ice Shirt and the Rifles by Vollmann as well. The best living American writer in my opinion.

I also enjoyed Don Delillo's take on Lee Harvey Oswald, Libra.
posted by sic at 3:35 PM on December 11, 2004

Crap. Wrong window for my previous post.

Book suggestions (if he likes historical mysteries): The Name of the Rose, Elizabeth Peters' series about Amelia Peabody (mysteries set in Egypt in the late 1800s), the Brother Cadfael mysteries, Larry Millet's series about Sherlock Holmes (set in America)
posted by belladonna at 3:43 PM on December 11, 2004

Once an Eagle is a great book about the conflicting values of the U.S. Army as drawn by two characters, composites of several real people.
posted by atchafalaya at 3:44 PM on December 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah - the Kristin Lavransdatter series by Sigrid Undset.
posted by belladonna at 3:44 PM on December 11, 2004

Patrick O'Brian's serial novels about British naval officers during the Napoleonic Wars are excellent -- especially the first ten or so. I wasn't interested until I discovered that my unwarlike, non-nautical grandmother was passionate about them. Start with Post Captain (the first of a series of twenty).

I know it's not the same thing, but someone interested in contemporary historical novels may appreciate old novels about then-contemporary events. Henry Adams's Democracy is about corrupt American politics during the 1870s (it was first published in 1880). I think of it every other time I read the news these days.
posted by gum at 3:45 PM on December 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

Belladonna's post reminds me of Undset's other historical fiction series, The Master of Hestviken.
posted by kenko at 3:49 PM on December 11, 2004

I'll second Graves and Eco and throw out Sharon Kay Penman, who writes both literature and genre fiction set in medieval England. Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost and The Dream of Scipio are also quite good.

If something in the less remote past would appeal, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (1950s India) is excellent, if incredibly long.
posted by amber_dale at 3:56 PM on December 11, 2004

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King starts an interesting series with a retired Sherlock Holmes that spans some post-Victorian time pretty well. Good reading.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 3:57 PM on December 11, 2004

I'd like to lend hearty third to Fraser's Flashman packets and Patrick O'brian's Aubrey/Mauturin novels, though I believe the first in the series is Master & Commander, not Post Captain.
posted by cosmonaught at 4:45 PM on December 11, 2004

Most of the books I was going to suggest have already been listed, but the absolute best of them all hasn't yet been: The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth. It's epic and hilarious.

Note that some of the books on this list aren't really "straight" historical fiction. Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before, for instance, has elements of magic and fantasy in it; your relative may want something a little more realistic. (Unfortunately, that would preclude The Sot-Weed Factor).
posted by painquale at 5:44 PM on December 11, 2004

The novels of Mary Renault set in Ancient Greece.
posted by adamvasco at 6:15 PM on December 11, 2004

Colleen McCullough put a great deal of research into her Ancient Rome Series; she even learned Latin. The books have a wealth of historical detail including wonderful maps. She includes not only a glossery but also a pronounciation guide to names and places. The series starts with The First Man in Rome. It is tremendous way to immerse yourself in the times of Julius Caesar.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:51 PM on December 11, 2004

48 posts and nobody mentions Eagle in the Snow?

I'm not a big fan of the genre, but that's a pretty fine book.

My favorite mixed-up historical fantasy novel would have to be Avram Davidson's The Phoenix and the Mirror, although that's out of print.
posted by selfnoise at 7:17 PM on December 11, 2004

I like the series of novels written by Jack Whyte that lead into the King Arthur saga. The first book in the series, The Skystone starts several generations before Arthur, when Rome's presence in Britain was still strong. From the site for Whyte's Canadian distributor,
Publius Varrus is a veteran Roman officer and a maker of swords. In the early fifth century, amidst the violent struggles between the people of Britain and the invading Saxons, Picts, and Scots, he and his former general, Caius Britannicus, forge the government and military system that will become known as the Round Table, and initiate a chain of events that will lead to the coronation of the High King we know today as Arthur.

Rich in historical detail, brimming with drama, intrigue and passion, The Skystone gives new resonance to an enduring and powerful legend.
My only caveat is that there are some mature scenes that are probably not for a juvenile reader. (My son read it at 13, I think, and when I read it afterward, there was some stuff I wish he hadn't read. Not too bad, but sex was frankly described. Also some graphic descriptions of battlefield violence.)
posted by Doohickie at 8:38 PM on December 11, 2004

I second Ken Follett's "Pillar's of the Earth". I've read that, easily, six or seven times. "Memoirs of a Geisha" is also wonderful. "The Red Tent" is another good one. Here is a couple of good links to the subject matter.
posted by codeofconduct at 1:44 AM on December 12, 2004

Ellroy and O'Brian are both excellent. The Year of the French is one non-series historical novel I really liked.
posted by yerfatma at 9:36 AM on December 12, 2004

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