Historical Fiction
July 23, 2012 4:06 AM   Subscribe

I need some historical fiction book recommendations.

I have recently read (and very much enjoyed) The Kitchen House, Sarah's Key, Water for Elephants, Whispers in the Ashes and Unbroken (non-fiction, but reads like fiction).

Any other really great historical fiction must-haves?
posted by Sassyfras to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Q, by a group of Italian anarchists writing under the name Luther Blissett is amongst the most enjoyable reads I have had in the last decade. It is set in Reformation Europe and tells the story of an Anabaptist, persecution by the Catholic church and the struggle for religious and political power among the established and emerging churches.
posted by biffa at 4:13 AM on July 23, 2012

I really enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. It takes place in the late 18th century in Japan, in the Dutch East Indies Company trading post in Nagasaki harbour. I'm normally not a huge fan of historical fiction, but I'll read anything from Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) - and I wasn't disappointed at all.
posted by barnoley at 4:13 AM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Ken Follett writes some suberb historical fiction. The Pillars of the Earth and Eye of the Needle come to mind.
posted by jacobean at 4:27 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

My go-to recommendations for good historical fiction usually comprise the quartet of the aforementioned Q by Luther Blissett, An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, and Lempriere's Dictionary by Lauwrence Norfolk. Those four, though, are all absolutely huge reads, massive sprawling epics that require a bit of discipline. For more slender stuff, I'd recommend Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying (Civil War Wisconsin) or maybe either Ingenious Pain or Pure by Andrew Miller (Eighteenth century Europe). An absolute stone-cold classic of historical fiction remains The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.
posted by hydatius at 4:36 AM on July 23, 2012

You might enjoy Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves, which takes place in 1860s Canada. Beautiful and gripping.
posted by davidjmcgee at 4:44 AM on July 23, 2012

The Matthew Shardlake novels by CJ Sansom (A detective series set amongst the religious strife under Henry VIII).

Not sure if its your cup of tea, but I also recently read HHhH by Laurent Binet. It is a weird post-modern meta retelling of the assassination of a prominent Nazi during WWII. It is hard to explain the style, but it is a wonderful take on the blurry lines between history and fiction.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 4:45 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

My love for Mary Renault's work set in ancient and classical Greece is deep and abiding. The King Must Die, starring Theseus, is probably a good place to start; The Persian Boy tells the story of Alexander the Great's conquest of Persia through the eyes of his favourite eunuch, and is my favourite of her Alexander trilogy; The Last Of The Wine interweaves the love story of two young disciples of Socrates with the dire straits of the Peloponnesian War.

Her scholarship is profound and results in a real "you are there" feeling. Same-sex love is a major theme in her books. I come back to them again and again.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:28 AM on July 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

I really, really enjoyed The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, along with its two sequels, which are fictionalized accounts of the life of Napoleon's first wife, Josephine. That woman's life was CRAZY.

The Heaven Tree Trilogy is a little older. It's also about building a medieval cathedral, in Wales. It was really moving.

Wolf Hall won the Booker a couple of years ago, although I have not yet read it. Tudor period.

For something a little lighter, Eva Ibbotson wrote some charming historical romances like "A Company of Swans" and "A Countess Below Stairs."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:35 AM on July 23, 2012

Hilary Mantel has been my go to author for historical fiction lately. As previously mentioned, Wolf Hall, and the very new Bring Up the Bodies, deal with the reign of King Henry VIII, the first leading up to his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the second with the aftermath of that event. She also does an amazing job of dramatizing the French Revolution in A Place of Greater Safety. All highly recommended.
posted by hwestiii at 5:59 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by something something at 6:20 AM on July 23, 2012

Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White is phenomenal.
posted by hazyjane at 6:22 AM on July 23, 2012

For Ancient Rome, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves. Steven Saylor also writes novels set in Ancient Rome; many are a part of a mystery series following his character Gordianus the Finder, but a couple are standalone books, and all the ones I've read are really good.

For something completely different, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible takes place in the Congo in the 1960s. I read it back-to-back with King Leopold's Ghost, nonfiction but reads like a novel, about the colonial history of the Congo.
posted by rtha at 6:29 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Mary Renault--and I wanted to put in a plug for her book The Mask of Apollo. Historically, it's covering the period of time when Dion was attempting to improve the tyranny of Syracuse, with the help of Plato. But the main character is an ordinary man, an actor in the theatre, and I love all the details of his work, his fellow actors, the theatre's role as a rite for the gods, etc.
posted by theatro at 6:42 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

James Michener.

And for some geeky adventure that's perhaps more fiction than history, but is strongly anchored by history and historical figures, Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy, beginning with "Quicksilver."
posted by Sunburnt at 6:56 AM on July 23, 2012

Seconding The Crimson Petal and the White. Utterly unputdownable.
posted by mochapickle at 7:09 AM on July 23, 2012

The Nicolo series by Dorothy Dunnett is fantastic.
posted by bluesky43 at 7:09 AM on July 23, 2012

I'd second the recommendations for Wofl Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

I would add, pretty much anything by Geraldine Brooks. My favorites are Year of Wonders (about an English plague village in 1666) and People of the Book, but Caleb's Crossing and March, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, are wonderful as well.

One of the first historical novels that I ever read and is still among my favorites is Susan Sontang's The Volcano Lover.
posted by kaybdc at 7:16 AM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Terror by Dan Simmons is set on the lost Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage. There are some supernatural horror elements, but the mundane stuff is extremely well researched and scary in its own right.
posted by zeptoweasel at 7:32 AM on July 23, 2012

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. A murder mystery set in the illumination workshops of the Ottomans, the book has fabulous passages about Islamic art history, the craft of illumination and miniatures, and real wars fought over precious illuminated books.
posted by BinGregory at 7:33 AM on July 23, 2012

The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye. Set in India at the end of the 19th century or so, about a boy born to British parents who passes as both a British soldier and an Indian man. And then he falls in love with an Indian princess. It straddles "love story" and "historical" very well, so people who aren't necessarily interested in one can be carried along by the other.

You might enjoy Laurie R. King's Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series. I wasn't really familiar with the canon before starting in, but they're all over the place in terms of setting, characters, etc. and I have devoured them ruthlessly.

Katherine Neville's The Eight has a significant portion set in the era of the French Revolution.

Previous suggestions: I am apparently in the minority here, but I can't get through Wolf Hall. I find it difficult to get to a convenient stopping place because it has very few chapter delineations. But that may be my own little bugaboo.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as well as Cloud Atlas (to a certain degree) are just phenomenal. I can't remember the last time I actually sat back from a book at the end and had to let myself settle into its finality. Also Geraldine Brooks, yes.
posted by Madamina at 7:49 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

clarification: "to a certain degree" re: Cloud Atlas refers to its historicality, not its awesomeness. They're both great.
posted by Madamina at 7:55 AM on July 23, 2012

Shocked as I am that nobody's mentioned them yet -- Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin novels are an absolute must. Start with Master and Commander and just keep going. They're the books that Jane Austen would have written if she'd been a Royal Navy officer like her two brothers who became admirals. The events are real, the main characters are fictional, although Jack Aubrey and some of his exploits are heavily based on the life of Lord Thomas Cochrane.

Be warned that the last 6-7 books are perhaps a bit weaker than the rest, which means that they are merely very very good rather than fantastic.

(Incidentally, Amazon reminds me that I bought Master and Commander 15 years ago, but I've quite lost count of how many times I've reread the entire series since then.)
posted by McCoy Pauley at 8:26 AM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Strongly recommend Gore Vidal's "Narratives of Empire" series. Start with the first one, "Burr," and if it is to your taste continue with the rest. "Burr" is an up-close and personal look at the human side of the "founding fathers" of the U.S.
posted by rexknobus at 8:39 AM on July 23, 2012

Most of Tracy Chevalier's novels are excellent, particularly "The Lady and the Unicorn" and "Burning Bright".
posted by skwm at 8:51 AM on July 23, 2012

Turn of the last century, United States:
City of Light by Lauren Belfer
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Fortune's Rocks by Anita Shreve

1800s, China:
Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
posted by Kriesa at 8:54 AM on July 23, 2012

Nthing Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (haven't read the sequel but it's on my list) and seconding The Alienist. I loved The Far Pavilions when I read it as a teenager but I'm not sure how I'd do with it now.
posted by immlass at 8:58 AM on July 23, 2012

Ditto The Name of the Rose, also The Remains of the Day.
posted by Zed at 9:02 AM on July 23, 2012

City of thieves was recommended to me from mefi and I just finished it.
posted by radsqd at 9:25 AM on July 23, 2012

A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles. Absolutely, 100% awesome. It's about the gold rush in the late 1800s, unbelievable storytelling.
posted by AngryLlama at 10:43 AM on July 23, 2012

Shogun or any of the other books in the Asia Saga by James Clavel.
posted by Dick Laurent is Dead at 12:13 PM on July 23, 2012

Allan Eckert's Winning of America series (and other frontier related books) and Alan Furst for 1930s Europe spy thrillers.
posted by CincyBlues at 12:17 PM on July 23, 2012

2nding the Geraldine Brooks recommendation.

I will also suggest the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear and Mistress Of The Art Of Death by Ariana Franklin.Both are the first books in fantastic series.
posted by bibliogrrl at 3:05 PM on July 23, 2012

Sarah's Key was a quite blatant rip-off of Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier, so that's a good bet (I liked both).

Margaret Piercy has written some really great historical fiction. I particularly enjoyed Gone to Soldiers (which tells some "alternative" stories from WWII - a Jewish codebreaker, an artist-turned-spy who falls in with the French Resistance, a female pilot) and Sex Wars, about the women's suffrage movement.
posted by lunasol at 4:40 PM on July 23, 2012

I'm going a thumbs down on Hillary Mantel. My problem is that she's careless about anachronisms in speech and attitudes, and I get the impression, willfully so. Some think this is a feature, not a bug, but it really bugs me. YMMV.

Nthing Patrick O'Brien, who does not have this problem in the least - he is immersed in the period and it comes out, and not in that annoying "let me show you all the serious research I did" kind of way. It took me two attempts to get into it, but once in, I was hooked. Not a lot of plot, nor big fights, but beguiling nevertheless.

If you're up for big fights, Patrick Rambaud did The Battle, quite striking.

Better than her fiction are M.M.Kaye's memoirs,The Sun In The Morning, which reads like fiction. Stunning tales of the Raj, and you will find her portrait of her father irresistible.

Arthur Conan Doyle did a series on the Napoleonic wars featuring Brigadier Gerard, great good fun. He also did The White Company which I've not read.

The Leopard if you haven't read it already. The Red Horse if you have.
posted by BWA at 4:59 PM on July 23, 2012

Nthing Name of the Rose, as well as Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, altho I liked Wolf Hall a lot more than ButB.

I'd also like to suggest:

A Plague on Both Your Houses. Medieval murder mysteries, with likeable characters. There's a series of them.

The Silver Pigs. More murder mysteries, Ancient Roman flavoured. Another series.

The Tale of Murasaki. Heian Japan. An imagined autobiography.

Maybe someone else can help me remember the nice book I read about a medieval (?) woman doctor, trained in the Middle East (?) accompanied by a Saracen (?); she investigates a series of odd deaths, which are found to be the work of a sadistic crusader type.
posted by woolly pageturner at 6:25 AM on July 24, 2012

I read about a medieval (?) woman doctor, trained in the Middle East (?) accompanied by a Saracen (?); she investigates a series of odd deaths

Sounds like Mistress of the Art of Death.
posted by Zed at 11:39 AM on July 24, 2012

Oh, that's it! Thank you, Zed.
posted by woolly pageturner at 2:21 PM on July 24, 2012

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