Really good historical fiction?
August 5, 2017 12:13 PM   Subscribe

I have some travel coming up and would love to load up my kindle with some really well-written historical fiction. There are three things that seem to come up a lot in this genre that I want to avoid, see inside for snowflakes.

1. Anachronistic speech: I promise I'm not nitpicky about historical details, but use of modern phrasing and slang really throws me right out of a book. I prefer novels that lean more heavily towards pastiche (in both dialogue and narration).

2. Exposition with a knowing wink towards the reader: I'm willing to accept some of this as an inevitability of the genre, but I hate heavy-handed stuff along the lines of "Automobiles? Those'll NEVER catch on!"

3. Characters with views transplanted from our era: this is harder to explain, but it bugs me when characters constantly make statements that seem totally out of character for their upbringing and environment. I know there have been progressive individuals throughout history, but I'd prefer an author who shows me a character's journey rather than just presenting someone as unusually feminist, anti-racist, etc for their time. It also annoys me when all the "good" characters are tolerant progressives and all the "bad" characters are expressing period-appropriate horrid racism or whatever.

Books I have read in the past and liked very much:
The Aubrey & Maturin books
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Luminaries
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
Euphoria by Lilly King

Books I have read recently and did not like:
Jo Walton's Farthing (committer of cardinal sin #1)
The Alienist by Caleb Carr (committer of cardinal sins #2 and #3)

I suspect people are going to tell me to read Wolf Hall, which I did start at one point, but it put me to sleep :(

The list of books I like probably makes it seem like I stick to the 19th century, but I'm really open to any era. I am happy with either straight historical fiction or works that mix in other genres - fantasy, mystery, magical realism. I don't really like YA.

I apologize if I listed a book that you love in my do-not-like list or vice offense meant!
posted by cpatterson to Writing & Language (51 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
Burr by Vidal is excellent.
posted by sammyo at 12:16 PM on August 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I was just about to suggest Aubrey-Maturin, but then saw you'd already read them. I've heard Mary Renault praised quite a bit in the same breath as O'Brian, but have yet to look into her work. Perhaps worth a try, if classical Greece interests you at all?
posted by Alensin at 12:19 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Definitely definitely Dorothy Dunnett, if you can handle her labyrinthine plots and the casual use of multiple languages in dialogue. Start with The Game of Kings and see what you think.
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:20 PM on August 5, 2017 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I don’t know how you feel about romance novels, but Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances are great fluffy fun. She’s really good at character and dialogue.

I’ve also enjoyed the Marcus Didius Falco novels by Lindsey Davies — sort-of-detective novels set in ancient Rome.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:24 PM on August 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

Have you read anything by Sarah Waters?
posted by matildaben at 12:26 PM on August 5, 2017 [9 favorites]

Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett
posted by humboldt32 at 12:28 PM on August 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

I really enjoyed the Falco mysteries set in ancient Rome. Author Lindsay Davis says she allows herself one anachronistic word in each book so mostly they are very accurate, and the one word per book is usually crime related and amusing.

Here's a web page collecting mystery novels set in the ancient world. I don't know if mysteries are your thing but I can see myself reading pretty much all of these.
posted by irisclara at 12:40 PM on August 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hild, by Nicola Griffith.
posted by rtha at 12:52 PM on August 5, 2017 [8 favorites]

I enjoyed Trinity by Leon Uris.

I also like John Le Carre, but that might not be quite the flavor of history you are looking for.
posted by vignettist at 12:57 PM on August 5, 2017

The unusual thing these historical novels have in common is that they're hilarious though also tragic or tragicomic at other points:
  • Charles Portis, True Grit. This is great--still worth reading even if you've seen one of the movie adaptations. I've listed it first because of your preference for dialogue/narration that is historical too.
  • Frans Bengtsson, The Long Ships. I can't recommend this highly enough. I think it meets all your criteria, including dialogue that feels true to the setting.
  • Tom Holt, The Walled Orchard. The breezy narration may trip over your first requirement, but there's background info that may help. Holt studied classics at Oxford, and the book is extremely rich in historically accurate details. He's also a humor writer inclined to see amusing similarities in human motivation across time. So what may seem too familiar is really a sort of translation, not a lack of skill or lack of familiarity with the material.

posted by Wobbuffet at 1:05 PM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Mary Renault is superb. (So is Hilary Mantel, but you don't seem to be in the mood for her. Try her later, though!)
posted by languagehat at 1:24 PM on August 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Steven Saylor has several works of fiction set in Ancient Rome and the surrounding empire, including some detective fiction. I enjoyed 'Roman Blood' and 'Murder on the Appian Way', but bounced off of 'A Mist of Prophesies'.
posted by dws at 1:41 PM on August 5, 2017

Best answer: The Outlander series seems an obvious suggestion.
posted by youcancallmeal at 1:42 PM on August 5, 2017

Best answer: Yep Mary Renault (so unanachronistic that the attitudes of some MSM characters and how she pyschoanalyses them can be a bit jarring? I think?). Try her Theseus books, The King Must Die and The Bull From The Sea.

Also Mary Stewart's Hollow Hills very Welsh/Romano British Arthurian series, very evocative.

Do try Mantell's other historical stuff perhaps, The Giant Obrian is shortish and fab.

I love Lyndsey Davis but I think her Falco books are a bit anachronism-friendly to suit here - the style is very hard-boiled. But her Course of Honour is one of theee most affecting love stories.

Cold Mountain US Civil War, poetic, pungent, by Charles Frazier I recommend all the time, didn't seem the tiniest bit anachronistic to this Brit.

Andrew Miller - Ingenious Pain CAPTURED the Regency for me in a way that Norrell/Strange didn`t.

Georgette Heyer is very well done and enjoyable, I avoided her out of snobbery; it was misplaced.

Nora Loftus is good on ?Early Medieval Britain.

Davis C. Mitchell's 1000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet seems verrry good on 18th c. Japan, and complements Aubrey/Maturin well

(All of O'Brien's other nautical/historical stuff is absolute magic too of course)

((And speaking of, Naomi Norvik's Temeraire books are VERY enjoyable POB fanfic/pastiche/methadone, if you can cope with the Napleonic wars with air forces of sentient dragons (and the human protagonist is a wee bit priggish in a Hornblower-type way)))

Robert Graves and Colleen McCullough on Imperial / Republican Rome

Jane Smiley - The Greenlanders is an immersive grim epic of the Danish settlements that is totally worth taking the time to get in to.

Sigrid Undset's Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy, 14th c Norway, is magnificent

(On preview seconding) Frans G Bengtsson's The Long Ships or Red Orm is a dryly droll, swashbuckling Viking classic

(And if you don't mind one YA , Rosemary Sutcliff, especially Dawn Wind, is old fashioned, poignant, meticulous and lovely.)

Good historical is my happy place!
posted by runincircles at 2:10 PM on August 5, 2017 [10 favorites]

Even though you didn't like Wolf Hall, you might like Mantel's The Giant O'Brien, which is much more focused and compact. I would also suggest trying her French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety.
posted by FencingGal at 2:18 PM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series is pretty good, it also takes place mostly during the Napoleonic Wars. I also really like his viking series, the Saxon Stories, on which the show The Last Kingdom is based, but ymmv.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:25 PM on August 5, 2017

I liked Ahab's Wife when I read it several years ago.

It's been even longer since I read The Believers, about a woman living in a Shaker community, but I think it would meet your specs.

The other Jessamyn West might be interesting to you.
posted by bunderful at 2:34 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Gillian Bradshaw! Island of Ghosts is especially my jam, but any of her historical novels.

P F Chisholm's Sir Robert Carey series, and also the (same author) Patricia Finney novels that are Elizabethan England with as much magic as Elizabethan England thought was plausible, which I enjoy as a alternative non-presentism (also, Stuff Happens and the characters are likable though annoying).
posted by clew at 2:42 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Golden Hill (colonial New York) by Francis Spufford.
The Troubles (Ireland right after World War 1) by J.G. Farrell
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 2:42 PM on August 5, 2017

And lots and lots of nineteenth-c fic is available at Project Gutenberg, including contemporaneous potboilers by the shelf yard. Many very bad. Some delightful! All remind me that how the past saw itself is not how we see it.
posted by clew at 2:43 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

On a phone so I can't link, but I adore Judith Merkle Riley's books. My favorite of them is The Oracle Glass, about witches and poison in the court of the sun king, but they are all very good.
posted by PussKillian at 3:13 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

The classics: Once and Future King by TH White (the definitive King Arthur) and I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:20 PM on August 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you've any interest in the American Civil War, you'll enjoy Owen Parry's series featuring Abel Jones, a Welsh immigrant and army enlistee who, after suffering a serious injury, is called upon to serve as an investigator on behalf of the War Office. His duties take him to several states in the Union, and also to England.
posted by Lunaloon at 3:38 PM on August 5, 2017

I recently spent a transatlantic flight deeply absorbed in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I found it a beautifully written and engaging WWII novel.
posted by somedaycatlady at 4:20 PM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Barry Unsworth wrote a sequel to Sacred Hunger, called The Quality of Mercy, which is just as good as the first. I encourage you to read anything by Unsworth, I also particularly like The Ruby in her Navel, but you can't go wrong with Unsworth (although I wasn't crazy about Morality Play).
posted by janey47 at 4:32 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 4:40 PM on August 5, 2017

The other Jessamyn West might be interesting to you.

Coming here to say that. I've read all of her books and she has a few really different sort of novels that you might enjoy, two that are really based on historical things.

- Friendly Persuasion (has some "thees" and "thous" iirc but it's because they're Quaker and not anachronistic otherwise) about the Civil War era and one pacifist son decides to fight and one decides not to. Became a motion picture (Tony Perkins' first film!), quite interesting.
- Massacre at Fall Creek - about a massacre of Native Americans at right around the time that sort of thing was becoming a lot less OK and the people who were involved went to trial for it, interesting commentary on social mores, some graphic violence but not much.
posted by jessamyn at 5:14 PM on August 5, 2017

Best answer: DOROTHY DUNNETT is the very very best, IMHO. Also recommending Mary Renault, both mentioned before in the answers but both of these authors are magnificent.
posted by bluesky43 at 5:23 PM on August 5, 2017

I've been on a historical mystery binge and enjoy both these series. I don't think either violates your rules
Pat McIntosh's Gil Cunningham series set in 15th century Glasgow, Scotland
Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January series set in 1830s (mostly) New Orleans (mostly)
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:35 PM on August 5, 2017

Crimson Petal & The White?
posted by functionequalsform at 5:55 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These suggestions all look really great. Of the authors mentioned, I've already read (and enjoyed) Sarah Waters, John Le Carre, Ken Follett, the Temeraire series and The Once and Future King. I've maxed out my library e-book loans with some of the others and put the rest on my Goodreads to get to when I can.

I tried and failed to read a Dorothy Dunnett book once, but that's on me - I was heavily pregnant at the time and really unable to concentrate on anything more complicated than the Nero Wolfe mysteries (for some reason I binge-read every single one of those during my last trimester). So I will definitely give that another go.

Thanks all! (and keep them coming if anyone thinks of more!)
posted by cpatterson at 6:19 PM on August 5, 2017

If you can find "Red Adam's Lady" by Grace Ingram, give it a try. Set in 12thC. England. Lots of good historical detail on daily life in castle and village. Sadly, I think it's out of print.

Mary Gentle is the best historian writing fiction I know of. The novels Rats and Gargoyles (1990), The Architecture of Desire (1991), and Left to His Own Devices (1994), together with several short stories, form a loosely linked series (collected in White Crow in 2003). Several take place in an alternate-history version of 17th century and later England, where a form of Renaissance Hermetic magic has taken over the role of science. Another, Left To His Own Devices, takes place in a cyberpunk-tinged version of our own near future. The sequence is informed by historically existing ideas about esotericism and alchemy and is rife with obscure allusions to real history and literature. And then there's Book of Ash (4vol) an alternate-history of medieval Burgundy, with a young woman who rises to command a mercenary company, and also has some magical fabulousness in it.

I've also enjoyed the Roselynde Chronicles by Roberta Gellis, a 6-vol set that follows the women of a noble family over several decades. Good history and characters (incl. Eleanor of Acquitaine and King John).
posted by MovableBookLady at 6:32 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "I’ve also enjoyed the Marcus Didius Falco novels by Lindsey Davies — sort-of-detective novels set in ancient Rome."


We had a Historical Fiction Book Club in FanFare that read some of the books you liked, so maybe some of the others would be ones you would like! (PS, fanfare threads don't close so you can comment whenever you finish reading!) We read and liked Euphoria! (We also read Wolf Hall but I think I liked it more than other people!) Other books:

Pioneer Girl, which is actually history-history, the original version of Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs, heavily scholarly-ly annotated
Paul Kingsnorth's "The Wake" which is written in a "shadow tongue" of old English and HOLY SHIT READ IT, it was the best, most challenging book I read that year
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, the Eat Pray Love lady but in a totally different mode, I loved this book
The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, lighter-weight, more beach-read, but interesting and good HF
I, Claudius, a stone-cold classic
The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, which has two sequels and is EXCELLENT. My mother stole them from my house to finish them after picking them up on a visit.
Forever Amber, the best-selling AND most-banned book of 1944 and deliciously spectacular trash
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:08 PM on August 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Seconding Bernard Cornwell. I adore the Sharpe series, but the Starbuck Chronicles about the Civil War are my favorite. All his books are great, though.

I'd also like to recommend Mary Doria Russell. She's known for The Sparrow (an awesome SciFi/Anthropology book), but her other books are historic fiction. A Thread of Grace has stayed with me for years.
posted by gemmy at 9:41 PM on August 5, 2017

Five Books is a great resource for the best in various genres. They ask someone who knows something about the interest at hand to choose and explain their 5 favorite books related to their specialty. Over time, they have asked 3 writers about their favorite historical fiction -- Alison Weir's response drove my reading for quite a while.
posted by janey47 at 11:01 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just remembered, Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle! This trilogy runs from about 1660 to 1710 and covers a lot of ground. Sometimes the language seems anachronistic but the usages are all supported by in-text citations explaining their historical background. The infodumps are dense but the characters are wonderful.
posted by irisclara at 11:43 PM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Cecilia Holland! I cannot believe she hasn't been mentioned yet. I would particularly recommend:

Until the Sun Falls (set during the Mongol invasion of Europe, from the point of view of one of the Mongols)
Great Maria (set in 11th century Italy)
Rakóssy (set during the Ottoman invasion of Hungary)

Parke Godwin also wrote some quite good historical fantasy novels about King Arthur (Firelord
and Beloved Exiled). Although the have some fantasy elements, a lot of effort also went into making them historically realistic. He also has one about Saint Patrick (The Last Rainbow).
posted by kyrademon at 3:11 AM on August 6, 2017

Putting in a very strong recommendation for all the European historical fiction works by Sarah Dunant. My wife and I love them. If you are headed to Italy, try her recent two about the Borgias.

If you'd like an European art bent, Susan Vreeland's books are good.

Also, if you want fantasy pseudo-historical Europe, I like Guy Gavriel Kay's Lions of Al-Rassan and Sailing to Sarantium.

You say you are good with magical realism, so I'd throw in Chilean author Isabel Allende's works "House of Spirits" and "City of Beasts".

Moving to Asian history, I adored how Tan Twan Eng breathes life into early 20th century Malaysia in The Gift of Rain and Garden of Evening Mists. Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a good story set in 19th century China. Kate Furnivall's The Russian Concubine is about China in the 20s, as seen through the eyes of a young Russian emigre. Amy Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife and The Bonesetter's Daughter are good. If you can cope with the very depressing topic, Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan about a girl growing up during the Cambodian civil war (Khymer Rouge) is very well done.
posted by mkuhnell at 3:44 AM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Solzhenitsyn August 1914

The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker knocked my socks off.

The Danzig Trilogy by Gunter Grass.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:09 AM on August 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

I, Claudius is superb.

I'll admit I enjoy Philippa Gregory's books. Well, most of them. My favorite was The White Queen*.

(I too could not get into Dunnett, and the less said about Wolf Hall the better. Do try the White Queen, maybe you and I are book twins.)

*yes I know she's wrong about the princes, it's ok
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:15 AM on August 6, 2017

> The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker knocked my socks off.

Seconded; those are great.
posted by languagehat at 9:23 AM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

All of Vidal's American history series, beginning with Burr as noted above, are entertaining as well as enlightening.
His "Live from Golgotha" was good too. Another with that same theme is Christopher Moore's "Lamb".
Seconding Stephenson's baroque cycle, including Cryptonomican.
And his "Reamde" is a page-tuner of recent historical fiction.
posted by Mesaverdian at 12:48 PM on August 6, 2017

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood!
posted by retrofitted at 7:03 PM on August 6, 2017

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin - set in the turn of the twentieth century, in rural Pacific NW.
posted by sweetpotato at 8:29 PM on August 6, 2017

Previously, about Westerns, specifically.
posted by Bruce H. at 11:41 PM on August 6, 2017

I'm going to step in to recommend Molly Gloss, whose finely-described stories of the (mostly rural) West are full of a deep and sincere humanity. She primarily writes about women in the West, and how they managed in what pop culture has informed us was a mostly-male environment.

She's really quite marvelous and I highly recommend her work.

The Jump-Off Creek is about a single female homesteader in rural Oregon in the 1880s, and it was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award.

My personal favorite of her novels is The Hearts of Horses, about a young female horse-trainer making her way alone in northeastern Oregon on the eve of the US entry into WWI. It's sincere, and brutal, and lovely, and heart-breaking.
posted by suelac at 9:09 AM on August 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Creation - Gore Vidal's novel about the Axial Age.
posted by plep at 12:57 PM on August 7, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Mesmerizing.

Have heard good things about North Water by Ian McGuire but haven't read it yet.
posted by amillionbillion at 9:37 PM on August 7, 2017

I'm currently re-reading Twelve Children of Paris by Tim Willocks. It's set in Paris during the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. It's a sequel to The Religion which takes place during the Siege of Malta.

If you don't mind dark, baroque, gothic, grungy, violent fiction I'd totally recommend them. He's basically my favourite living writer, I just wish he'd publish more often.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:48 AM on August 9, 2017

Oh hey chrck this out, ABE Books has a list plus a link to a bunch of other lists.
posted by janey47 at 2:08 PM on August 12, 2017

I share your sensitivities, and everything I've read by Diana Norman, I've enjoyed. This may not mean that the books are free of those features - it's been a while since I read them - but does mean that, if present, they did not jar. Most are out of print, even electronically, but it looks as if there are Kindle editions of The Vizard Mask (17th-century London, Great Plague, Charles II), Blood Royal (18th-century - South Sea Bubble, Jacobean uprising, highway robbery), and, by one of those annoying quirks of publishing rights, volumes 3 and 4 only of her Mistress of the Art of Death mediaeval mystery series, written as Ariana Franklin.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:04 AM on August 13, 2017

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