Historical fiction is not necessarily a “new” genre, but many of the authors below have painstakingly recreated the past through years of academic and on-location research. As a window into the past, historical fiction is a healthy way to remove modern prejudices that affect our judgement of the olden days. Sometimes, it is easy to think that everybody was once simple-minded, brutish and downright inhumane, but these intimate portraits set in unfamiliar eras allow us to think otherwise.
This selection includes many skilled authors who boast many other quality works that should also be considered. At Qwiklit, we are merely showing you how certain authors have approached certain periods of time, and we are well aware there are dozens of other great selections worth looking at. Some recreate entire cities from the ground up, while others take conventional histories and turn them on their head. Either way, the past can teach us many lessons about how humanity has progressed (or has not done so at all), and these novels do more than just tell us about what happened. They make us experience it, too.
1. Robert Graves – Wife to Mr.Milton: The Story of Marie Powell (1943)
Time Period: 17th Century England
Robert Graves’ first-person narrative of the controversial Marie Powell has since been overshadowed by his grandiose I, Claudius, but his depiction of John Milton’s wife as a rebellious foe of the great Puritan poet has since been championed by critics of the genre. Though little is known of Powell, Graves challenges Milton’s reputation by highlighting his stubbornness and wayward fanaticism.
2. Mary Renault – The Mask of Apollo (1966)
Time Period: Athens, Fourth Century BC
Renault’s prose has been praised for its vividity and accuracy, so it’s not surprising that her historical fiction has since built a huge following. Set in Athenian Greece during the rise of theater and philosophy, the novel explores how plays affected its citizens through Nikeratos, a lead actor who believes he can communicate to God through a mask. The novel also explores Plato’s role in society, though unlike the theater, Renault has a far more skeptical view of his effect of society.
3. Michael Shaara – The Killer Angels (1974)
Time Period: American Civil War
Though Shaara’s Killer Angels won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the novel would actually peak in sales five years after his death when its cinematic adaptation, Gettysburg, became an instant success. Meticulously-researched, the novel was one of the first to combine actual first-hand documents with fabricated accounts, a technique that would influence many other authors to use historical fiction to “challenge” history and its authority.
4. Patrick White – A Fringe of Leaves (1976)
Time Period: 19th century Australia
White’s Crusoe-like tale of a shipwreck leaving a British woman marooned on the Australian coast is written with a refreshing detachment, but his eye for character–the leading Ellen an unforgettable heroine seeking an escape from her detached husband–gives the novel its edge. White’s previous historical works, many of them dealing with Victorian-era Australia, eventually lead to him receiving a Nobel Prize in 1973.
5. Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose (1983)
Eco’s gargantuan and complex novel about a murder mystery involving a monastery and a series of clues hidden within their texts is entertaining if not thought-provoking. Influenced by Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges and other enigmatic 20th century figures, the novel is a love letter to the shared process of interpretation that brings together communities and their readers.
6. Brian Moore – Black Robe (1985)
Time Period: New France, 17th century
Moore’s novel turns New-World adventure on its head with its depiction of a world of suffering and irreparable violence. About a young Jesuit missionary sent to the wilds of what is now present-day Quebec and Ontario, The Black Robe goes far beyond the Romantic aspects of travel and rather seeks to depict the protagonist’s loss of faith following several horrific ordeals.
7. Michael Ondaatje – In the Skin of a Lion (1987)
Time Period: 1920’s Toronto
Michael Ondaatje has dealt with a number of different topics in the many novels he has written, but his efforts to “resurface” those lost during the tumultuous construction of modern-day Toronto are some of his most successful. Combining the romantic with the historic, Ondaatje does not embellish history, but he offers us a perspective that would otherwise be unattainable in your regular history book.
8. Jeanette Winterson – The Passion (1987)
Time Period: Napoleonic Europe
Set during France’s decades of conquest with Napoleon at the helm, the passion focuses on the lives of his cook and quasi-mythical woman named Villanelle. Like many of Winterson’s novel, The Passion uses history as a sandbox that hosts both the real and fantastical. It is an ironic approach, but it helps move the focus of history away from its most fervent perpetrators.
9. Colleen McCullough – The First Man in Rome (1990)
Time Period: Ancient Rome, 2nd Century BC
Part historical fiction and part historial thriller, Mccullough’s novel chronicles the political tensions between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius, two determined leaders who nevertheless set aside their differences to defend Rome from invading Barbarians. The book avoids common cliches, though, and instead looks closely at the struggle to achieve political moderation in a world lead mercilessly by men.
10. Jane Rogers – Mr.Wroe’s Virgins (1991)
Time Period: 1830’s England
Many 19th century novelists explored the inner workings of rural England, but Rogers’ novel takes seven different accounts of the “same” story and pieces them all together. About a Lancashire preacher who “hires” seven young women for moral comfort, Mr.Wroe’s Virgins pieces together disparate fragments of a potentially troubling situation, forcing the reader to find build their own interpretation of the past.
11. Vikram Seth – A Suitable Boy (1993)
Time Period: Post-Partition India (1940’s, 50’s)
The great Russian Novel of India, Vikram Seth tells delves into the complexities of what should be a simple marriage plot, and explores the relational dynamics between Indian people in an era where nothing yet seems solved. It is, however, a perfect example of how literary realism can provide us with a clear window into a past that seems so distant.
12. Caleb Carr – The Alienist (1994)
Time Period: 1890’s New York City
Set during an age of tumultuous growth in The Big Apple, the novel is part historical fiction, part murder mystery. Featuring cameos from some of the biggest industrialists of its day, The Alienist follows a reporter as he searches for a serial killer in the Lower East Side.
13. Guy Vanderhaeghe – The Englishman’s Boy (1996)
Time Period: American/Canadian Prairies 1890’s, 1920’s Hollywood
The stark frontier borderlands of 19th century Canada and America is described in brutal but vivid language, as a young Hollywood writer attempts to recreate the awful Cypress Hills massacre that killed 23 Native American Dakotans. Vanderhaeghe portrays the haunting beauty of Big Sky country in ways that few others can match.
14. Edward Rutherfurd – London (1997)
Time Period: Common-Era London
Few novelists can successfully recreate the past, let alone the a city’s whole history, yet Rutherfurd’s London comes close to accomplishing the latter. Starting with a young Celt boy and continuing all the way to the 20th century London Bombings, Rutherfurd makes London the main character in a two-millenia long journey through time.
15. Andrew Miller – Ingenious Pain (1997)
Time Period: 18th Century England, Russia
A historical novel with an ingenious conceit: James Dyer is an English surgeon who is unable to feel pain nor pleasure. After moving up the ranks from a lowly assistant to the Russian court, James finally meets somebody who can make him feel. The novel is great for somebody interested in medical history, as it accurately describes the difficulties of surgery and basic treatment in the 18th century.
16. Richard Zimler – The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1998)
Time Period: 16th Century Portugal
During a time of mass conversion in Lisbon, Berekiah Zarco is one of the only remaining Jews in Lisbon. After his uncle is killed in a riotous purge, he goes on a hunt for the killer in some of the seediest parts of the city. Zimler, who is quite familiar with the town, paints an extremely vivid picture of a time and place long forgotten by time, and of course, a city-destroying earthquake in 1755
17. Robert Edric – The Book of the Heathen (2000)
Time Period: 19th Century Belgian Congo
While Joseph Conrad depicts the Congo as a moral reflection of Europe’s colonial vapidity in his classic Heart of Darkness, Edric goes beyond the framework of parable to show the Congo as it really was. When a prospector’s partner gets accused of murdering a local woman, he must piece together the evidence amid the ruinous waste of a nation destroyed by colonial rule.
18. David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)
Time Period: 1790’s, Japan
While David Mitchell is widely known as the author of the genre-bending Cloud Atlas, Jacob de Zoet–about a young accountant from Holland seeking a fortune in pre-industrial Japan–is another whirlwind read. Mitchell flexes his authorial muscles in this richly-detailed effort, the lead character tiptoes between the lawlessness of Imperialist trade and the ruthlessness of Japanese feudalism
19. Geraldine Brooks – Caleb’s Crossing (2011)
Time Period: 17th Century Martha’s Vineyard
Early American fiction has largely been overshadowed by exaggerated depictions of “witchcraft”-era Salem, but Brooks presents a wholly different Puritan story. Set off America’s craggy East Coast, the novel follows the relationship between Bethia, a young Puritan, and Caleb, who will become the first Native American Harvard grad. Like many other historical novels, Brooks highlights the tensions between personal relationships and the political conflicts that overshadow them.
20. Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries (2012)
Time Period: 19th century New Zealand
Yes, this novel’s recent Booker victory has made The Luminaries a recent media darling, but this sprawling murder mystery set in New Zealand’s lucrative mining regions is a wondrous account of a time that few outside of Catton’s home country know about. When a young prospector gets entwined in a series of mysteries involving high-profile locals, he must explore the unforgiving and lawless world of New Zealand’s boom-and-bust gold rush.