History is arguably one of the most rigid and unforgiving elements composing our world, setting the past in stone and paving the way for tomorrow. No matter how hard we might try, history is one of those things which can never be changed… and yet we’re drawn to the idea like moths to a flame.
The power to rewrite history, and consequently, to control reality and make it bend to one’s will, is probably one of the most coveted fantasy powers among human beings for centuries (if not longer), and while we don’t have access to time travel magic, we do have the ability to write.
Historical fiction is a genre with an untold amount of potential, daring authors to anchor themselves in a real point and letting their imagination soar from there on out. From using historical settings for fantastical stories to rewriting our known timeline of events, there are few limits, if any, for what imaginative authors can achieve.
In this category we’re going to look at historical fiction books across the whole spectrum, whether old or recent, fantastical or realistic. Here are the works which, I believe, make the most out of the potential this genre has to offer.
Umberto Eco is an author who has earned the right to write just about anything he wishes, and one of his more recent novels, The Prague Cemetery, he has taken it upon himself to write about a complex subject, hardly explicable in a sentence. In short, it follows a man responsible for creating conspiracies and spinning webs of prejudice as he tries to recollect his past and the event which led him to lose his memory.
Erich Maria Remarque has managed to capture like few others the atmosphere of his era, and in The Black Obelisk he takes us to the heart of Germany after the First World War. It introduces us to Ludwig, a young veteran from the war, now working for a monument company, mostly selling stone markers to the loved ones of the recently-departed. With the historical inflation in his country only worsening by the hour, Ludwig tries to find a meaning for his life amidst a turbulent and collapsing society.
Irwin Shaw is one of the writers whose works have a defined place in history, chronicling a reality we can never afford to forget. The Young Lions is perhaps his best-known work, depicting the Second World War and its immense complexity through three different perspectives: an observant young Nazi, a weary American film producer, and a shy Jewish boy who just got married.
Natalie Haynes has been exploring many venues of literature through the novels and books she has written, with her latest one, A Thousand Ships, taking us back to antiquity once again. Following the fall of Troy at the hands of the immortalized ruse by the Greeks, the book follows the stories of many women all affected in one way or another by the war and its resolution.
Guy Gavriel Kay is without question one of the more prominent and outstanding speculative fiction authors writing today, and I think we can add A Brightness Long Ago to his list of successes. The story follows an old and powerful man, part of the ruling council in a fantasy version of Venice, as he remembers his rather turbulent youth, how he came to be where he is, as well as all the different men and women who shaped his fate.
Michael Christie began his career as an author in promising fashion, being nominated for awards left and right. In his second published novel, Greenwood, he attempts to make full use of his talents to tell the complicated story of a family across multiple generations. Taking us on a trip through time from 1908 to 2038, we meet the four pivotal members who through their actions, both purposeful and unwitting, dictated their family’s history.
Sue Monk Kidd has never run short on imagination in her books, and her latest work, The Book of Longings, yet again bears testament to this. Set in the first century during the Roman occupation of Israel, the novel borrows some elements from history to tell the story of Ana, who is determined to give a voice to the other silenced women of her times while trying to carve a most difficult path for her own fulfillment.
Arthur Phillips has really been exploring his abilities as an author by diving into different genres since his first novel, and in The King at the Edge of the World he transports us into the realm of historical fiction. Taking place in 1601, we follow a web of courtly intrigues anchored around the impending death of Queen Elizabeth I, the leading candidate to her succession King James VI, and Mahmoud Ezzedine, a Muslim physician who stayed behind from the Ottoman Empire’s last diplomatic visit.
James A. Michener had a rather peculiar specialty as an author, focusing on rather lengthy historical novels profoundly focusing on a specific geographical location. The Source, originally published back in 1965, takes us on a journey thousands of years long through the Holy Land, recounting the origins of Judaism, the rise of the early Hebrews, and all which happened since then until the modern conflict with Palestine.
James McBride has always had a remarkable ability to examine and understand the human mind, and in Deacon King Kong he puts his talents on display once again. Taking us to a housing project in Brooklyn, we witness the shooting of a drug dealer by an old church deacon and its far-reaching effects on those who witnessed it, as well as those who didn’t.
Kate Quinn has firmly cemented her place among the best historical fiction writers of today a few novels, and she continues her good literary streak with The Huntress. The story is composed of three narratives, each one following in some way the titular Huntress, a Nazi war criminal of legendary proportions.
Eoin Dempsey isn’t one to skimp on complexity and emotional depth in his novels, often trying to get to the very core of what his characters are experiencing. In his most recent novel, titled Toward the Midnight Sun, we undertake an epic adventure with Anna Denton, a prospector during the Klondike gold rush with a different goal than most: to reach Henry Bradwell, the King of the Klondike, and the man she is meant to marry.
Tom Miller has truly created a unique and incomparable world of magical realism with The Philosophers Series, and the second book, titled The Philosopher’s War, continues the grandiose adventures of Robert Canderelli Weekes. After his exploits as a pilot, he is allowed to be the first male to join the US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service.
Kate Quinn has a penchant for writing historical novels of a generally more complex nature, and she further reinforced this notion when she published The Alice Network. Taking us through two stories happening in 1915 and 1947 respectively, we witness both a British intelligence network operating in Germany-occupied Northwestern France, as well as a young American girl’s search for her roots in the battered country.
Sara Donati may have truly started something remarkable with her Gilded Hour Series, presenting a portrayal of late 19th-century Manhattan from some unique perspectives. In the second novel in the series, titled Where the Light Enters, Donati pursues the story of Sophie and Anna Savard, two cousins who are also doctors. This time around, as they are still trying to find a place for themselves in this world, they are also called upon by the police as consultants for a couple of curious cases which suggest a killer might be on the prowl.
Sara Donati, the pen name used by Rosina Lippi, has authored quite a few remarkable historical novels, and out of them all none attracted the same kind of attention as The Gilded Hour, the first book in the series bearing the same name. We begin our journey through 1883 New York as we follow the lives of two female doctors, both struggling in their own ways with the realities of the times, doing their best to bring whatever goodness they can to a suffering world.
Catherine Chung has surprised many people with the publication of her popular first novel, Forgotten Country, and with her second novel, The Tenth Muse, she returns with another rather unique premise. The novel follows a woman by the name of Katherine, who attempts to carve a space for herself in the man-dominated academic world of mathematics, while also searching for her real parents, and ultimately, what secrets her family might hold from her.
Marius Gabriel has the undeniable knack of being able to profoundly penetrate into the soul of his characters while bringing history to life around them. In The Parisians he takes us on another such excursion, presenting us with three women living in occupied Paris: the American Olivia Olsen, the designer Coco Chanel, and the French actress Arletty. In their own ways, they all find themselves getting closer and closer to the enemy, a path which has its own price when the war finally comes to an end.
Madeline Miller has certainly made the best literary use of her time researching Greece and its mythology, recently penning her second novel titled Circe, told from the perspective of the titular character from the Odyssey. In her own tale, Zeus exiles her to a deserted island after feeling threatened by her power, a place where Circe meets many famous mythological figures and begins her journey onwards to not only defy the Olympians, but also to choose which side she belongs to: gods or mortals.
Steven Saylor certainly never lacked any imagination when it came to warping the threads of history for the purpose of our entertainment, and his recent novel titled The Throne of Caesar follows in the same vein. The story follows Gordanius the Finder, an Ancient Roman investigator who is given a very special task by Julius Caesar himself: to keep an ear on the ground and find out if there are any conspiracies against the dictator.
Tom Miller has certainly made a good decision in giving authorship a chance after working as an emergency room doctor for many years, gifting us with the very special novel The Philosopher’s Flight. In it, we follow Robert Weekes, a young practitioner of empirical philosophy, an arcane branch of science used to accomplish the unfathomable. After winning a scholarship to study in a famous all-women’s school, he begins struggling to find his place in the world and is soon faced with some real dangers stemming from a group of anti-philosophical radicals.
Ronald H. Balson has started one of the more peculiar and interesting literary series with his Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart books, and in the fifth one titled The Girl from Berlin we once again follow our two heroes as they come to the aid of an old friend to settle a land dispute in Tuscany. Little did they expect, the battle between old woman and corporation for the rights to a villa sends them down the former’s memory lane all the way back to Berlin 1918.
Heather Morris is one of the many authors doing their part to ensure the Holocaust remains unforgotten for evermore. She had the great fortune of befriending Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who witnessed first-hand the horrors committed at Auschwitz. After many years of friendship, she came to know the man rather intimately, and decided to immortalize his tremendous life story in her book titled The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Alison Weir has certainly done her part in bringing light to the Tudor dynasty in her Six Tudor Queens series, examining in detail the many women who came and went during this period of great turbulence in British history. In Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen, Weir recounts the life of the titular woman, often overlooked in favour of the more tragic stories revolving around the wives of King Henry VIII.
Alison Weir has educated us quite a bit on King Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and pursues her ambition in Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession, telling us the story of the king’s second and arguably most infamous wife. While her beheading has made the pages of countless history books for its ultimate political significance, few have sought to explore the unusually eventful life which led up to that point.