Renn Faire Brain Candy Books?
June 5, 2013 4:27 PM   Subscribe

I (astonishingly) survived the first year of my PhD program. Yay! Now summer is upon me, and I (again, astonishingly) find myself desiring more reading...but this time for funsies! Specifically, I'm looking for some good hammock-and-wine reading material that I can reasonably justify spending time on to my English-Grad-Student brain. I want to immerse myself in a modern fictionalized version of the late medieval and/or Renaissance period. What can you recommend that is genuinely good, but won't ask too much of my super-exhausted noggin? More specific preferences after the jump!

Before you even say it, I've read "Wolf Hall", and "Bring Up the Bodies" is next in line. I'm looking for recommendations on what to read after that (because grad school has turned me into a horrible person who must constantly be trying to catch up on lists of reading).
I want to read:
- novels
- set in the late medieval or early modern/Renaissance period (14th - 17th centuries), that are
- historically sound (though not necessarily based on actual events)
- (extremely) well-written
- fun! dramatic! page-turner-y!
- insightful/revealing re: the social/cultural/everyday experience of life in the aforementioned period (though this needn't be the sole focus of the book)

Long story short, what should I be reading when I take a break from the daunting list of "Things I Must Read" that is still (at least tangentially) relevant to my chosen field of study (i.e. Early Modern English poetry)?

Note: I don't read novels that often anymore, especially modern/contemporary novels, so please include even the most obvious of recommendations and most canonical of Renaissance historical fiction....because chances are I haven't read it!

Help me, MeFites! You're my only hope!
posted by Dorinda to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
You want the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:31 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe 'The Name of the Rose'?
posted by box at 4:47 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sarah Dunant and Phillipa Gregory have written a pile of books for you. Its kind of out there on your criteria, but I really enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinsons "Galileo's Dream".
posted by florencetnoa at 4:48 PM on June 5, 2013

Try Wu Ming's Q and Altai.
posted by RogerB at 4:50 PM on June 5, 2013

Although Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle (Wikipedia link) is set a bit later than what you've specified -- it takes place between 1660 - 1714 -- I'm going to recommend it anyway. Its three volumes run ~2700 pages and are exquisitely rich in period detail, period-specific political and social intrigue, and features many well developed characters.
posted by mosk at 5:02 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is set in the present day, but the second book, Shadow of Night, involves time-traveling to Elizabethan England.

You might enjoy Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan which is about the courts of Elizabeth I and Invidiana, queen of the faeries of England.
posted by mogget at 5:04 PM on June 5, 2013

Philippa Gregory is like crack, sweet, sweet crack that even contains a few nuggets of valid historical information. Just curl up in that hammock with The Other Boleyn Girl and all its siblings and enjoy your wine.
posted by mygothlaundry at 5:11 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding Q. It's an absolutely amazing read.
Also, for seventeenth century England, an absolute must-read is Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost.
posted by hydatius at 5:15 PM on June 5, 2013

You might like Ildefonso Falones' Cathedral of the Sea, which is set in 14th-century Barcelona. If I recall correctly, the author is a legal scholar, and I remember there being a lot of details about everyday life and also contemporary law. This is only sort of what you asked for, but when I was visiting my family over the weekend, my mom gave me a copy of Connie Willis' Doomsday Book and said that she thought it was a perfect summer read for a history grad student who just finished the first year of their doctorate (me).
posted by naturalog at 5:22 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cadfael mysteries?

And though it's not an absolutely perfect match for your criteria, I recommend Eifelheim.
posted by brookeb at 5:26 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Eco's Name of the Rose. Very well-written, very intelligent and full of great information about that time period, sociological, theological, and a murder-mystery to boot!
posted by bfootdav at 5:59 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ariana Franklin authored a number of medieval CSI-lady physician books that are soooo much fun. I think the first one is Mistress of Death or somethin'.
posted by Lornalulu at 6:05 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I haven't reread it recently enough to have a very accurate recollection of the writing style, but long ago I loved Katherine by Anya Seton (set in 14th century England - it's about Chaucer's sister-in-law).
posted by unsub at 6:11 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

unsub, yes! I have to strongly 2nd Katherine. (Haven't found too many Anya Seton fans in my travels, so yay!) Most of her other books are pretty good, too. Green Darkness is my other favorite, a romance/mystery set in the modern day (20th c) with a parallel storyline in Tudor England.

My other recommendation is Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead. It's 10th c., though, but still a good historical read.
posted by cardinality at 6:24 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Cadfael. Predates your timeframe a bit, but it's rich in character and period, easy on the brain, whodunnits. Imagine if Miss Marple were a retired soldier from the crusades.

The tv episodes are awesome, too, and can be found on Netflix.
posted by tllaya at 7:12 PM on June 5, 2013

I think of Anya Seton as a guilty pleasure. Green Darkness, which I first read at 12 or 13, was probably the single book most responsible for my interest in history (followed closely by Katherine) to which I attribute my immense love and appreciation for Wolf Hall (which I've read twice and am currently listening to as an audiobook -- highly recommended) and Bring Up The Bodies (read once and will be listening to it next). Seton set a standard that raises her books well above the bodice ripper.
posted by janey47 at 7:48 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Daphne Du Maurier's House on the Strand has a really clever take on time travel (to the medieval period). It's a cracking good read, as you would expect from DDM.
posted by orrnyereg at 7:57 PM on June 5, 2013

Love Ariana Franklin's series about a Medieval woman doctor - which start as mentioned earlier with the fantastic Mistress in the Art of Death.
posted by arnicae at 8:23 PM on June 5, 2013

I would highly reccomended Juduth Merkle Riley's books to you. I feel like she deserves to be known about more than she seems to be. Start with The Oracle Glass, A Vision Of Light, or maybe The Serpent Garden.
posted by PussKillian at 8:23 PM on June 5, 2013

Robin LaFevers's His Dark Assassin YA series--teenage girls and espionage in 15th-century Brittany!--is a ton of fun, though maybe not historically accurate enough for you (but there is a section on the author's website about the history the books are based on).
posted by mlle valentine at 9:17 PM on June 5, 2013

The Doomsday Book: "For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin -- barely of age herself -- finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history's darkest hours."

I read this when it came out about 10 years ago. I am just now reading it again. I still love it!
posted by buzzieandzaza at 10:49 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like everything by Margaret George.

Philippa Gregory's books started out good but have gotten more formulaic and poorly written as she's started having to churn them out regularly following The Other Boleyn Girl's success. The last one I enjoyed was The Constant Princess. After that they were just kinda meh.
posted by olinerd at 2:25 AM on June 6, 2013

I loved Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Page turners, well written, and full of historical detail!
posted by lumiere at 3:38 AM on June 6, 2013

Another vote for The Doomsday Book. Loved it.
posted by orange (sherbet) rabbit at 6:01 AM on June 6, 2013

Alan Gordon has a series set in the 1200s which are part Shakespearan riffs (the first one, Thirteenth Night, takes place a decade after events of the play Twelfth Night). There are ways in which they have a very modern sensibility: they're consciously self-referential and riffing on Shakespeare and other things (and one of the core things in the book - the Fool's Guild - isn't a real thing.) But outside of that, they're way fun, and they're really really really good on both setting and historical detail except for the few clearly-fictional bits. The books take place, at various points, in Italy, Denmark, France, and Constantinople.

Sharan Newman's Catherine LeVendeur series might also be right up your alley. (1200s France, but the main character has Jewish family, so you get multiple layers of society.)

Also, while historical fantasy, you might find Guy Gavriel Kay also really fascinating: Tigana (Renaissance Italy analogue), Song for Arbonne (Trouvere era France analogue) and The Sarantine Mosaic (Byzantium analogue) are probably the most relevant.
posted by modernhypatia at 7:55 AM on June 6, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great suggestions!
Side note: I'm surprised that mysteries and whodunnits seem to be disporportionately represented in this particular niche of the historical fiction genre. What is it, I wonder, about contemporary ideas of the period that seems to call out for plots of intruige and mystery? Or is that just a trope of all historical fiction which I'm unaware of? Very interesting...
Anywho, checked out "Q" and "The Name of the Rose" from the library this morning, since they both seem right up my alley, have "Doomsday Book" and "The Instance of the Fingerpost" next on the list, and hope to work my way through as many of your other recs as the summer sunshine and my wine budget will allow!
Long live summer!
Thanks, all!
posted by Dorinda at 12:57 PM on June 6, 2013

Nthing Dorothy Dunnett, Ariana Franklin, Judith Merkle Riley and Connie Willis. Adding Diana Norman (Ariana Franklin's real name) and Karen Maitland; in both cases, not all of their books are within your specified time period, but if you can find the ones that are, I think they're thoroughly enjoyable reads.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:46 PM on June 6, 2013

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