Help me make a world history syllabus out of novels
August 18, 2019 11:49 PM   Subscribe

I recently read a couple of historical novels, one set in Ancient Greece and one in the Roman Empire, and now I have a hankering to create a “world history syllabus” that’s composed entirely of novels. Please help me flesh out the syllabus by telling me about good historical fiction you’ve enjoyed — the more detailed and historically accurate, the better.

(To be clear, this is just for fun. I’m interested in novels set in all eras and places, as long as reading the book teaches me something about history. And I enjoy mysteries, so that’s a bonus, but romance, adventure, and literary fiction are all good too.)
posted by hungrytiger to Writing & Language (58 answers total) 111 users marked this as a favorite
The Shardlake novels are Tudor detective-ish stories (obvsly detectives hadn’t been invented yet). They’re good, although I found them a bit humourless for my taste, I like my escapist reading a bit lighter in tone.

Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars are terrific.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 11:59 PM on August 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

Ancient Greece: Tom Holt's The Walled Orchard (omnibus edition, like the Kindle version)
Vikings: Frans Bengtsson's The Long Ships

Both novels are amazing--reasonably accurate, but more importantly hilarious. Like having a history teacher who can't wait to tell you the fun stuff.
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:08 AM on August 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

This may cover too much history for your purposes, but The Bridge on the Drina covers ~400 years of history of a small region in ex-Yugoslavia, and was a good introduction for me to the complicated history of invasions and national/religious differences/relationships.
posted by AFII at 1:26 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset - a trilogy of novels about the life of a Norwegian woman in the 1300s. "Her work is much admired for its historical and ethnological accuracy," and won Undset the Nobel Prize for literature.

Dorothy Dunnett has two series that fit the bill -- each is incredibly well-researched (and a hell of a lot of fun). They're historical romances often structured like mysteries -- for maximum enjoyment on your first readthrough, don't read too much about them before you start! Together, they paint an incredible portrait of Renaissance Europe and beyond.
- The Lymond Chronicles are six books taking place from 1547-1558, and concerns a young Scottish nobleman seeking to repair his reputation. He's very much a Renaissance Man, and travels to places including Scotland, France, Malta, North Africa, Greece, Syria, Constantinople, and Russia. The first book is The Game of Kings.
- The House of Niccolò is an eight-book series taking place in 1460-1483, covering a wide geographical area including Flanders, Burgundy, the Byzantine Empire, Cyprus, Venice, Portugal, Madeira, West Africa, Scotland, Iceland, and France. It's about a boy who starts from low beginnings and makes his fortune. Ideally, it is best read after the Lymond Chronicles; the first book is Niccolò Rising.

The Moor's Account, by Laila Lalami - an imagined (but well-researched) memoir of Estevanico, one of four survivors of the disastrous 1527 Narváez expedition to establish a Spanish colony in Florida.

Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie - a magical realist novel about Indian Independence and Partition. While it is built around magical realist elements, it is deeply concerned with the reality of post-colonial experience.
posted by ourobouros at 1:39 AM on August 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

War and Peace.
posted by kevinbelt at 3:13 AM on August 19, 2019 [4 favorites]

Highly recommend Hillary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, a novel of the French Revolution. Much of the dialogue comes from archival sources.
posted by Morpeth at 4:17 AM on August 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

Following this closely. I teach World History in high school and I should probably make an AskMe searching for movies that cover my curriculum. I'll add All Quiet on the Western Front to the list here.
posted by gnutron at 4:37 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Year of Wonders for the Plague

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet for Japan under the Dutch West India Company

Sci-Fi, but Blackout and All Clear for Britain during the Blitz.
posted by Mchelly at 4:54 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Any of the St Germain (vampire) novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro suit your need. Yarbro researches time eras obsessively and these books range from ancient Rome to almost modern day. It doesn't hurt that they're also wonderful stories -- but she's a master at detailing life in an era.

Also check out Hild, set in sixth century Britain, by Nicola Griffin. Extensive life details.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:55 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Outlander series is pretty good for historical accuracy, at least in terms of what life is like in the late 1700s in the US and Scotland.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:58 AM on August 19, 2019

For Ancient Rome, Augustus by John Williams fits the bill. It's an epistolary novel, covering the life of Augustus from the age of 18 until his death, and I think I deserves a lot more attention than it’s ever received. It’s fictionalized, but historically accurate.
posted by holborne at 5:41 AM on August 19, 2019

The Brother Cadfael mystery series is set near the Welsh border during the 12th century civil war between Stephen and Maud and touches on Cadfael's past as a soldier during the Crusades.

Hard to find but possibly available from a library are Phillip Parotti's two brief novels The Greek Gernerals Talk and The Trojan Generals Talk.

The Marcus Didius Falco mystery series by Lindsey Davis is set in 1st century CE Rome and provinces. Falco's circumstances let her present a side of Roman daily life not covered in stories about the highest classes. I find her spinoff series about Falco's adopted daughter less convincing.
posted by Botanizer at 5:50 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is a novel about the Mirabal sisters, who worked to overthrow the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. Three of them were murdered by the regime in 1960.
posted by FencingGal at 6:01 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy takes place in Chicago in the pre-WWI era, the Twenties, and through the Depression until 1932 or thereabouts. A classic of American realism about which someone said, "It's good sociology, but is it art?" (I think it's both.)
posted by scratch at 6:13 AM on August 19, 2019

Try Edward Rutherford's Dublin Saga for a broad history of Ireland.
posted by codhavereturned at 6:13 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII's court.
posted by greta simone at 7:00 AM on August 19, 2019 [7 favorites]

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, for an amazing recreation of the experience of colonialism in Nigeria at its beginning.

Weep Not Child, Ngugi wa Thiong'o (James Ngugi at the time) about the Mau Mau uprising and struggle for Independence in Kenya.
Both of these are seminal works of African Literature.

Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not, Tsitsi Dangaremgba, consecutive semi-autobiographical novels (first 2 of a trilogy) set in Zimbabwe during the liberation struggle and its aftermath. Really important reflections on a recent, historically momentous event.

The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, for the unification period of Italian Sicilian history. It's great, and unusually the film is a wonderful film.

I learnt most of the (cod?) history I know from Robert Graves, who was an extremely well-read, eccentric and original scholar/novelist/poet. But, for a context-embedded memoir of the First World War and the run up to it, his autobiographical Goodbye to All That is unbeatable. (My daughter was 19 when I read it, and I just was couldn't get over the fact that Graves was 19 when he first went to Flanders.)

For more about the First World War Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy is stupendous.

There'll be links to Graves' works in the Wikipedia article but I'll list some of his historical books that made an impression on me. Do be aware that his underlying viewpoint (ongoing millennia-long occult battle between matriarchal and patriarchal religions) is not exactly mainstream. But he was steeped in the primary texts of classical scholarship.
I, Claudius. Roman history from Julius Caesar to Nero. Graves lifted entire passages of this from Tacitus and Suetonius and no doubt other Roman writers. Wife to Mister Milton, about the English Reformation and Civil War. Count Belisaurius, about Byzantium in Justinian times. King Jesus; well, this is an odd one.

Mary Renault is a good go for popular historical fiction set in the classical period. She was writing in the 50s and 60s so I don't know how accurate people think she is now, but her novels about Theseus - The King Must Die & The Bull from the Sea - made an impression on me that has not left. She also has a thing going on about conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal religions and is not as sympathetic to the matriarchies as she might be. Being gay, she was a gay-friendly writer, much more so than you might expect for the times. One of her novels is about Alexander the Great and the Persian Wars, The Persian Boy.
posted by glasseyes at 7:14 AM on August 19, 2019 [13 favorites]

Every Man Dies Alone is a novel based on the lives of a German couple who dropped anti-Hitler postcards around Berlin during World War II, an act for which they were ultimately arrested (I can't remember if they were both executed or just one). Primo Levi called it "the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis."

John Hersey's The Call is about American missionaries to China in the early twentieth century. It is a novel based on the experience of a number of missionaries, including Hersey's own father. Hersey is more famous for Hiroshima, which tells the stories of six atomic bomb survivors. It's nonfiction so it doesn't fit your requirements, but it's very much worth reading.

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty
by Sebastian Barry is the story of an Irish man born in 1900. It tells the story of the 20th century violence in Ireland through his eyes.
posted by FencingGal at 8:28 AM on August 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

I think I mentioned it in a different Ask, but Vanity Fair, War and Peace, and The Charterhouse of Parma form an entertaining and satisfying complementary reading experience. And I agree with all the recs for Pat Barker, Hilary Mantel, and Mary Renault.

I love The Name of the Rose, but I don't know how historically accurate it is, in fact, it might be an AU of some sort, good on the details of ordinary monastery life, but not on the rest of it.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:03 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also for Rome and early Christianity: Anthony Burgess, "The Kingdom Of The Wicked". I see he also wrote a similar novel about the life of Jesus, "Man Of Nazareth"; I have not read that.
posted by thelonius at 9:09 AM on August 19, 2019

Morgan Llywelyn has a whole bunch of novels based on Irish and Celtic history. In fact, looking at that Wikipedia list, way more books than I even knew of! I've only read Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish, Red Branch, and Druids (which is about the Celts in Gaul - Vercingetorix and Caesar's invasion.)
posted by dnash at 9:23 AM on August 19, 2019

I'm on a bit of WW2/postwar kick right now, so...

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Richard Flanagan)
Mudbound (Hilary Jordan)
All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
The Charles Hartmann trilogy by Sebastian Faulks: The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Birdsong, and Charlotte Gray
The Raj Quartet (Paul Scott), which was later made into the 1984 miniseries Jewel in the Crown (also highly recommended)

To complement the Raj Quartet, though, you need to read The Great Indian Novel (Shashi Tharoor), which is a mashup of Indian mythology and the independence movement, from the POV of the Indians rather than the Brits. Helps if you know the Mahabharat, but not essential.
posted by basalganglia at 9:31 AM on August 19, 2019 [5 favorites]

Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters) wrote a lot of straight historical fiction under her own name. Among the best, and least-known, is the WWII trilogy she wrote while the war was going on, starting with the novel The Eighth Champion of Christendom. It's very good, very vivid, and deals with the war from the perspective of not knowing how it was going to turn out.
posted by suelac at 9:42 AM on August 19, 2019

Ragtime, E.L Doctorow.
posted by athirstforsalt at 9:51 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower, set in Germany during Goethe's time--fictionalized biography of the poet Novalis.

Nthing Mantel--both A Place of Greater Safety and Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, though the latter are more heavily fictionalized than the former.

Emma Donoghue--Slammerkin (18th century prostitutes)

Edward P. Jones, The Known World (antebellum Virginia)

Toni Morrison, Beloved, Jazz (a lot of her work is historical)

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (mid-late 19th-cen to mid-20th cen America)
posted by Miss T.Horn at 11:14 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Captains Courages is a coming of age novel and may be classed as young adult, but the description of the cod fishing industry is pretty accurate. And then there is Moby Dick.

Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts tells the story of the American Revolution from the point of view of a loyalist. His North By Northwest is the story of a real attack by the US on Canada.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:42 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Winter War by Antti Tuuri, which is about the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II.

The Unknown Soldier by Väinö Linna, which is about the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union in the later days of World War II.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:49 PM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

For the last 50 years or so of the Roman Republic, Colleen McCullough's massive Masters of Rome series.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 3:15 PM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

'Creation' by Gore Vidal is rather stunning, it's my fave historical fiction & one of my fave novels of all time. A Persian diplomat in Athens recounts his memoirs, from the Greek Wars to the Silk Road, where he meets Siddartha in India, and eventually spends years in China and meets Confucius. Insightful, witty, & rather sarcastic at times.

I'm also a fan of 'I Claudius' by Graves, which also used extensive serious historical research, but re-worked into provocative and sometimes controversial interpretations of then accepted attitudes about the olden times.

For Mary Renault, I'd add my fave 'The Mask of Apollo', which ironically touches on Plato's failed real-life experiment in creating a Philosopher State, and other things.
posted by ovvl at 5:27 PM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is a really neat story following people protected a remarkable book and it's history in Europe from the 15th century until the present day (more or less).

I don't know how you feel about alternate histories, but I learned more about the Napoleonic wars from His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik than I have from any other source -- and the later books in that series and Gail Carriger's the Custard Protocol series (1890's) are all delightful for traveling the world (and imagining how many specific cultures would be different with the presence of dragons/supernatural beings & airships). Also good if you're okay with witches and vampires, Deborah Harkness's Shadows of Night, one of the most historically accurate books I've read about England in the Elizabethan era. (It's the second book in the series, but the only one set in that era. Just read that one.)

If you want to read about World War II, there are so many great personal stories you could read, not biographies, just true. I recommend Without Vodka: Adventures in Wartime Russia by Aleksander Topolski, Courier from Warsaw by Jan Nowak, Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac, China to Me by Emily Hahn, for stories from Russia, Poland, France, China, and Hong Kong. (I normally read novels and I find these equally compelling.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:54 PM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

For the period leading up to WW1 and through to WW
John Buchan's Richard Hannay series

The Thirty-Nine Steps 1915
Greenmantle 1916
Mr Standfast 1919
The Three Hostages 1924 - I'm still looking for this one and the 1936 one
The Island of Sheep 1936

Most of the usual biases of that period but covers some useful ground, and covers a lot of real ground in long often on-foot journeys through England, Scotland, Germany and France among other places.

Buchan was a soldier, diplomat and spy. He even has a society! It's not perfect history, although some was written during the events, and the geography has often been massaged.
posted by unearthed at 6:12 PM on August 19, 2019

With apologies to adding to an already Europe-heavy list:

Birds Without Wings covers the end of Ottoman Empire and into the Greek/Turkish split, from both high and low perspectives.

Dumas' The Valois Romances (separately the very different novels Queen Margot, Chicot the Jester and The Forty-Five Guardsmen) take place during the French wars of religion.

I'll enthusiastically second the Ragtime suggestion for the early 20th century US.
posted by mark k at 7:06 PM on August 19, 2019

As an alternative or supplement to O'Brian, C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels are excellent Napoleonic war-at-sea stories (I personally prefer Forester to O'Brian, but that's just personal taste).

You might look into some of James Michener's novels. I'm not sure how historically accurate it is anymore, but his novel The Source covers several thousand years of mid-eastern history through the artifacts found during a archeological dig, and Centennial is a terrific saga of the exploration (and exploitation) of the American West.

Herman Wouk's The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, are sprawling views of the leadup to and action during WWII as seen through the eyes of the adventurous and widely-scattered family and acquaintances of an American naval officer. One of Wouk's missions in life was to memorialize the Holocaust, and there are some harrowing accounts of the camps in the second book.

James Clavell's Shogun depicts feudal Japan as seen through Western eyes in the 1600s. A sequel, Tai-Pan, is a fictional look at the founding of Hong Kong. King Rat is an account of prison camp life in Changi, Singapore during WWII.

Ken Follett has a number of very large historical novel series. Some of his books are set in WWII, but he's also written about building a cathedral in 12th century England (The Kingsbridge trilogy, starting with The Pillars of the Earth). He also wrote A Night Over Water, set on the literal eve of WWII on a Boeing Model 314 Clipper flying from England to the US. It wasn't his best novel, but I read it for what I think is the same reason he wrote it: to explore and celebrate one of the great aircraft of its era.
posted by lhauser at 7:47 PM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Whoa, I love all these recommendations and am compiling them into a master list! Thanks everyone!

(Also -- one thing which maybe I didn't make clear in the beginning -- the novels don't have to feature famous people or events, and they definitely can contain fictional/goofy characters and plots -- i.e. a vampire novel set in the Inca Empire or a mystery set in 1800s Siberia would both be great. Saying I wanted to make a "world history syllabus" makes it sound like I specifically want to hear about Great Men and Their Doings, and while that is great, the part I want MOST is just to "get the vibe" of different eras and places.)
posted by hungrytiger at 8:13 PM on August 19, 2019

Oh man, this is just about my favorite thing. Great suggestions so far, and I can probably think of more later, but :

Roman Empire
Memoirs of Hadrian—Marguerite Yourcenar

13th Century(ish)(Denmark/Greenland)
The Greenlanders—Jane Smiley

17th Century (England/Netherlands)
Margaret the First—Danielle Dutton

Late 18th (UK)
The Gallows Pole—Benjamin Myers

Late 18th (Appalachia, US)
The Land Breakers—John Ehle

Late 18th (Haiti)
All Souls Rising—Maidson Smartt Bell

Late 18th/Early 19th (Jamaica)

Book of the Night Women—Marlon James

Late 18th/Early 19th (Jamaica/UK/US)
Washington Black—Esi Edugyan
The Confessions of Franni Langton—Sarah Collins

Late 18th/Early 19th (Africa/England/US)—Slave Trade Specific
Middle Passage—Charles Johnson
Sacred Hunger—Barry Unsworth
Homegoing—Yaa Gyasi (parts of)

Mid 19th (Ireland)
Grace—Paul Lynch
Land of Dreams—Peter Behrens

Mid 19th (Indian Ocean)
Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy (starts with Sea of Poppies) covers the Opium Trade/wars of the mid-nineteenth century through China India and Mauritius. It’s fantastic.

Mid 19th C (Canada)
Alias Grace—Margaret Atwood

Mid 19th (US)
The Good Lord Bird—James McBride

Mid-Late 19th (US)
Cloudsplitter—Russell Banks

Mid 19th-Late 20thc (Texas)
The Son—Philip Meyer

Mid 19th -WWI (Austria)
The Radetzky March—Joseph Roth

Mid-Late 19th (American West)
Days Without End—Sebastian Barry
Inland—Tea Obreht
Death Comes to the Archbishop—Willa Cather
Angle of Repose—Wallace Stegner

Mid-Late 19th (Australia)
True History of the Kelly Gang—Peter Carey

Late 19th-1980s
Pachinko—Min Jin Lee

Late 19th/Early 20th (Mexico)
The Years with Laura Diaz—Carlos Fuentes

Late 19th/Early 20th (Germany)
The Sleepwalkers—Hermann Broch

Early 20th Century (Ontario)
In the Skin of a Lion—Michael Ondaatje

Early 20th Century (Hungary/Romania)
They Were Counted--Miklos Banffy

1920s (Ireland)
Troubles*—JG Farrell
Fools of Fortune—William Trevor

1930s (Hong Kong/China)
Little Reunions—Eileen Chang

1930s (Germany)
The Berlin Stories—Christopher Isherwood
Half Blood Blues—Esi Edugyan

WWII (Germany)
Alone in Berlin—Hans Fallada
The Seventh Cross—Anna Seghers

WWII (Germany/Poland)
All for Nothing—Walter Kempowski

WWII (Russia)
Life and Fate—Vasily Grossman

WWII (Italy/Eastern Europe)
Kaputt—Curzio Malaparte

WWII & After (Japan)
An Artist of the Floating World—Kazuo Ishiguro

1950s (Kenya)
A Grain of Wheat—Ngugi wa Thiong’o

1950s (Peru)
Conversations in the Cathedral—Mario Vargas Llosa

1960s/70s (Nigeria)
Half a Yellow Sun—Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

1960s-80s (South Africa)
An Act of Terror—Andre Brink
David’s Story—Zoe Wicomb

1970s/80s (Vietnam/US)
The Sympathizer—Viet Thanh Nguyen

Left to the end, because controversial choice:
I actually really enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy (17th/ Early 18th c. England/France/Ottoman Empire/US) far more than I enjoyed any other Neal Stephenson people have tried to get me to read. Many more people disagree with this assessment than agree with it.
posted by thivaia at 8:47 PM on August 19, 2019 [11 favorites]

*because a bit of a satire. Not as broad as Farrell's Siege at Krisnapur (Mid 19th, British India), but still. Also, this is one of my all time favorite books
posted by thivaia at 8:48 PM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

To add to thivaia's excellent list: A Funny Dirty Little War by Osvaldo Soriano (1970s, Argentina)
posted by perhapses at 9:03 PM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

For the sake of geographical variety, Leaves of the Banyan Tree by Albert Wendt is pretty good: three generations of a Samoan family dealing with the increasing impact of colonialism on traditional life.

A couple that are perhaps a bit more stylised and literary and might not have the detailed quality you’re looking for: Chaka by Thomas Mofolo is an unusually early African novel (published in the 20s, I think) which tells the story of Chaka Zulu, the early C19th Zulu king. I thought it was really good. And Cities of Salt by Abd al-Rahman Munif is the story of the American oil companies arriving in an unnamed Middle Eastern desert country (*cough* Saudi Arabia), but all told from the perspective of the locals.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:26 AM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks for asking this question, hungrytiger. I'd favorite this twice if I could.

Glen David Gold's Sunnyside is a remarkable look at American culture and the impact of mass communication on the eve of WWI. Crooked Timber hosted an online seminar on it. A great huge-hearted wondrous disturbing book.
Sunnyside is a vast, shiny, dark and funny novel about Charlie Chaplin, the birth of modern celebrity, America’s diffidence and then wild enthusiasm for World War I, two genius puppies and their fame-seeking GI owner, an apple-cheeked criminal prodigy, and a Detroit devotee of Ruskin’s attempt to rescue three Russian princesses from the Red Army....

Sunnyside made me laugh out loud in public and on my own, pepper Wikipedia with historical queries, plague family and friends with its insights and asides, and cry the embarrassing, heaving sobs of true loss, not the fictive kind. And, annoyingly, in the middle of a grand World War I narrative where faceless millions perish mostly off-screen, Sunnyside made me care very much if the dog makes it.
posted by conscious matter at 6:14 AM on August 20, 2019

After you finish Midnight's Children, you could turn to Vikram Seth's door stopper of a novel, A Suitable Boy, set in a newly-independent India. From Wikipedia:
The 1349-page novel alternately offers satirical and earnest examinations of national political issues in the period leading up to the first post-Independence national election of 1952, including Hindu–Muslim strife, the status of lower caste peoples such as the jatav, land reforms and the eclipse of the feudal princes and landlords, academic affairs, abolition of the Zamindari system, family relations and a range of further issues of importance to the characters.
By all accounts it was meticulously researched. Certainly the few parts I had separate knowledge of held up to close scrutiny.
posted by peacheater at 9:43 AM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Rilla of Ingleside -- the second-last book in the Anne of Green Gables series -- is notable for being (one of?) the first "women on the home front" novels about women's lives during war -- in this case, WWI.

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B (and its two sequels) is about Napoleon's first wife, and I learned a hell of a lot about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, plus I was riveted by the novel!

I was super-surprised by how entertaining I, Claudius was! (For some reason I had the impression it would be super-dry.)

"James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy takes place in Chicago in the pre-WWI era, the Twenties, and through the Depression until 1932 or thereabouts. A classic of American realism about which someone said, "It's good sociology, but is it art?" (I think it's both.)"

My grandfather read these in high school as they were released -- he was born poor and Catholic in Chicago in 1920 -- and they were the first books that made him feel like serious novels could be relevant to his life, since Studs's early life was so, so similar to my grandfather's, and he felt really seen. They turned him into a lifelong reader.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:45 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Warning: if you are unfortunate enough to come across the books in which John Buchan's racism is apparent, it is at least as distressing for those on the other end of it as Georgette Heyer's casual antisemitism is for Jewish people. It's gross.
posted by glasseyes at 11:48 AM on August 20, 2019

Oh also! The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (fanfare link) which is a tough read but sooooooooo worthwhile.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:49 AM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm currently reading for the second time the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. Not overtly historical, but really feel of a time and place, mid-late 20th Century Italy and the tumultuous politics of that place and time. Also just brilliant, if you haven't read them.
posted by swheatie at 1:02 PM on August 20, 2019

Seconding Hild by Nicola Griffith and also Hilary Mantel.

Maybe for New World colonial history try VS Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas or A Bend in the River.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald.

Not a novel BUT I love love love Carlo Ginzburg: The Cheese and the Worms, about a 16th c. case of heresy involving a miller, and The Night Battles, about remnants of a folk tradition around people born in the caul (thought to have special abilities in fighting evil and ensuring a good harvest). Both draw heavily on records of Inquisitorial investigations but interrogate the records themselves, reading against the grain. (That's a Walter Benjamin idea, Ginzburg was a marxist I think.) They're very readable.

Also The Return Of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis, it's similar to Ginzburg in looking at the historical record (French, 16th c.) but it's such a narrative, such a weird story, that you can certainly read it for pleasure.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 1:31 PM on August 20, 2019 [3 favorites]

One I had forgotten: The Heirs of the Kingdom by Zoe Oldenburg (La Joie des Pauvres) about the First Crusade. It's very long, very researched, very tragic. Not a light read. She was a very serious writer.
posted by glasseyes at 2:09 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Speaking of french translations, you could go nuts and look out the Angelique books, 17C high malarkey. I seem to remember they were rather better written than the covers might make you expect.
posted by glasseyes at 3:29 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Canek by Ermilo Abreu Gomez may be a bit more "literary" than you were asking for, but it is extremely short. Having spent some time in the Yucatan region of Mexico, where it is set, I appreciated it quite a bit. Review.
posted by gudrun at 4:09 PM on August 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

These both have some romance in them and I definitely don’t vouch for their accuracy but they’re good reads (so to speak):

The Beacon at Alexandria - set in the eastern Roman Empire as it’s falling and tells the story of a young woman who becomes an Army doctor. Don’t read the back summary/click ‘more’ unless you like spoilers!

Jubilee Trail - tells a much clearer and more interesting picture of the history of California around the time it became a state than anything else I’ve ever read. Bonus: told through the eyes of a young woman from back East. Published in 1950.

I also really enjoyed The Source, mentioned above.
posted by librarylis at 6:49 PM on August 20, 2019

There's an author named William Durbin who writes YA novels that are actually quite good. He lives in northern Minnesota on beautiful Lake Vermilion, and several of his books are set in that area: they describe the fur traders who traveled through the area on their annual trips at he height of that era.

Here's the whole list -- pretty much pick any of them: William Durbin's books. He has recently branched out into other topics (e.g., the Finnish Winter War), but the writing is still very good.

Also worth noting: my son emailed him out of the blue for a school report, and he couldn't have been nicer about a doing an interview via email.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:20 PM on August 20, 2019

Thought of another Indian author you might enjoy - Amitav Ghosh. Actually the book of his that I have read is The Hungry Tide, which I loved, but he is most well known for his Ibis Trilogy, which was very well received. Again quoting from Wikipedia:
The Ibis trilogy is a work of historical fiction by Amitav Ghosh. The story is set in the first half of the 19th century. It deals with the trade of opium between India and China run by the East India Company and the trafficking of coolies to Mauritius. It comprises Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015).

The trilogy gets its names from the ship Ibis, on board which most of the main characters meet for the first time. The Ibis starts from Calcutta carrying indentured servants and convicts destined for Mauritius, but runs into a storm and faces a mutiny. Two other ships are caught in the same storm—the Anahita, a vessel carrying opium to Canton, and the Redruth, which is on a botanical expedition, also to Canton. While some of the passengers of the Ibis reach their destination in Mauritius, others find themselves in Hong Kong and Canton and get caught up in events that lead to the First Opium War.

The novels depict a range of characters from different cultures, including Bihari peasants, Bengali Zamindars, Parsi businessmen, Cantonese boat people, British traders and officials, a Cornish botanist, and a mulatto sailor. In addition to their native tongues, the novels also introduce the readers to various pidgins, including the original Chinese Pidgin English and variants spoken by the lascars.

posted by peacheater at 8:09 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think you'd enjoy some Gillian Bradshaw - I learned about her here on Metafilter:
Her serious historical novels are often set in classical antiquity — Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, the Byzantine Empire, Saka and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, Imperial Rome, Sub-Roman Britain and Roman Britain. She has also written two novels set in the English Civil War.
I personally enjoyed The Sand-Reckoner (Archimedes, ancient Rome) and The Bearkeeper's Daughter (Theodora, Byzantine Empire).
posted by kristi at 9:27 PM on August 20, 2019 [2 favorites]

Coming back to add James Michener. As wikipedia says: "He wrote more than 40 books, most of which were lengthy, fictional family sagas covering the lives of many generations in particular geographic locales and incorporating solid history. Michener had numerous bestsellers and works selected for Book of the Month Club, and was known for his meticulous research behind the books." The ones I would recommend would be his first book Tales of the South Pacific (World War II era) for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 (the musical South Pacific is based on part of it), and Hawaii, which covers the history of Hawaii from its creation to when it became a U.S. State.
posted by gudrun at 9:37 AM on August 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Some novels I can recommend, in order of historical era:

"The Secret River" by Kate Grenville. Class, race and stolen land on the Hawkesbury River in early 1800s Australia.

"An Officer and a Spy" by Robert Harris. Late 19th Century France, digging the dirt on the Dreyfus Affair.

"The Middle Parts of Fortune" by Frederic Manning. An Australian soldier in the mud of 1916 France. A worthy companion to "All Quiet on the Western Front". Might be hard to find, but Gutenberg has .txt, epub and Kindle versions -

"Grand Days" by Frank Moorhouse. Geneva after WWI amid the birth of the League of Nations.

"Foveaux" by Kylie Tennant. Life in the slums of Depression-era Sydney.

"The Year of Living Dangerously" by Christopher Koch. The year is 1965, the story centres on political turmoil in Sukarno's Indonesia.
posted by valetta at 1:09 PM on August 22, 2019

Thivaia's suggestion of Alias Grace reminded me of my favorite historical novel ever, Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion (1900s Toronto).

His Coming Through Slaughter (1900s-10s New Orleans) is also pretty great.

And, technically this is fantasy, but Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a very period-accurate depiction of Georgian England/the Napoleonic Era, plus faeries.

You might as well go ahead and read Charles Portis's True Grit (1870s-80s U.S./Arkansas) if you haven't already, because it is wonderful.

This is such a good thread.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 11:33 PM on August 22, 2019

Oh my lord I completely forgot the batshit insane novel that is Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd.

This is about Ackroyd: Ackroyd’s biography of Thomas More ... furthered his reputation as the modern British writer most skilled at channeling the crimes and misdemeanors of previous centuries ... He remains best known for his inquiries into the seamier side London, whether in stories, non-fiction or on screen - a body of work marked by his fascination with those aspects not located in London A-Z. "London goes beyond any boundary or convention," he has written. "It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London."

This is about Hawksmoor (trying not to spoil it too much): [The novel] explored the supposed dark side of the architect’s work. Ackroyd drew on a fanciful hypothesis of recent origin, one that links the churches built by this disciple of Christopher Wren to some distinctly un-Christian concepts. Hawksmoor designed six London churches in the early 18th century, and picked locations with historic linkages to plague, murder, fire and other unsavory events. If plotted on a map, the sites can be linked to form the image of the eye of Horus—an Egyptian symbol congruent with Hawksmoor's obvious interest in pyramids, obelisks and other pagan structural concepts.

So history-wise it's post-plague and -fire of London, style-wise it's literary, ornate and cryptic. Here's a list of works by Peter Ackroyd, lots of historical stuff and biography.
posted by glasseyes at 2:54 AM on August 23, 2019

Kid's books - I grew up in Scotland and was assigned several books from the Kelpies series which were often novelizations of events from Scottish history. I remember enjoying The Thirteenth Member by Mollie Hunter, and The Hill of the Red Fox by Allan Campbell McLean. Respectively: "The discovery of a boy servant in sixteenth-century Scotland that a kitchen maid is a witch leads to the disclosure of a plot by satanists to murder King James I." and "It is the time of the Cold War. Soviet spies are feared, and secrets are traded. People disappear. Thirteen-year-old Alasdair, living in London, knows nothing of this world. He can't wait to start his long summer holiday on the Isle of Skye, away from his mother and aunt." Kelpies are still going and there is now an interactive map should you wish to match up a particular Scottish locale with a book set nearby: .
posted by aesop at 9:57 AM on August 23, 2019

I’ve only read a couple out of the seven books, but Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series, “which chronicle the dawn-to-decadence history of the American Empire; the narratives interweave the personal stories of two families with the personages and events of U.S. history”.
posted by fabius at 4:47 AM on August 26, 2019

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