What can be called historical fiction? The lines are somewhat blurry and open to interpretation. How long ago do the events in the book have to take place? Can pieces written during a time (A Christmas Carol, Pride and Prejudice) now be considered historical fiction? These are books that transport us to cultures and places that are fundamentally different and in some cases unrecognizable to the present. A few are grounded in a reality we are familiar with, while some offer alternatives shrouded in horror or magic.
The Terror by Dan Simmons takes place during the time of naval exploration, specifically aboard the HMS Terror, manned by a crew attempting to discover the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, the ship is trapped in an ice flow during winter. This is a gruesome tale of starvation and scurvy, hubris and ignorance, as well as survival in the face of a supernatural being that may or may not be hungry for human flesh.
Aztec by Gary Jennings follows the life of Mixtli-Dark Cloud (a man of many names and professions) as he experiences the very peak of the Aztec civilization and witnesses its eradication. This well-researched book is filled with gore, sex and an expansive story about the fall of an empire.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is one of my favorite books. It is written in simple prose and follows the flawed and somewhat brutal (yet sympathetic) life of Okonkwo as he elevates himself to prestige and respect in his Ibo village - only to have his culture and way of life made completely irrelevant by colonialism. This is a powerful tragedy that touches on painful truths about an individual’s confrontation with the mighty currents of fortune, society, and power.
Blood and Beauty: The Borgias: A Novel by Sarah Dunant gives life to the scandalous and power hungry Borgias family as its patriarch uses his illegitimate children and his position as Pope to gain influence and control over the Italian peninsula. If you like this book, you may also like "The Borgias" TV Series.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a masterwork in fiction. The villain is terrifying and evil. The heroes are memorable, human, and flawed. The story is so expertly woven with humor, nuance, and tragedy that I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Experience a beautifully rendered England during the Napoleonic Wars in a world where magic is not only possible, it is at the very core of history. If you’re hesitant to commit to a 1,000-page book, check out the exceptionally good miniseries produced by BBC One.
11/22/63 by Stephen King explores America’s past in this thrilling novel filled with memorable characters and disturbing decisions. What if we had the opportunity to go back and fix the past? Should the past be altered? What would the consequences be for the present? The master of horror explores all these questions and more when Jake Epping steps from 2011 into the late 50s where he realizes he has the opportunity to stop one of America’s greatest tragedies.
More historical fiction:
- Beloved by Toni Morrison (Postbellum America)
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (WWII)
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (WWII)
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1960s Biafran War)
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (16th century England)
- The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (12th century England)
- The Secret River by Kate Grenville (1800s Australia)
- Shogun by James Clavell (16th Century Japan)
- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1920s China)