Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My Favorite Historical Fiction Books

In my previous list, I tried to put together a list of all my favorite history books that read like novels.
In this post, I'm going to go one further and put together a list of all my favorite history books that are novels: historical fiction.
Historical fiction comes in all shapes and sizes.
Some historical fiction is just a fictional story that takes place in an historical period (e.g. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Debacle, The Gift of Rain, The Time of the Dragons, Pudd'nhead Wilson).
Some historical fiction integrates fictional characters with historical characters (e.g. The Flashman series, The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, War and Peace, To Kill a Tsar, Rebels and Traitors, The Voice of the People, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Ninety-Three, Ragtime, The Gods Will Have Blood et cetera.)
Some historical fiction is fictionalized accounts of the author's own experiences (All Quiet on the Western Front) or roman-a-clef memoirs (The Insurrectionist).
Due to the passage of time, a lot of  what was once contemporary fiction has now become historical fiction.  For example, books which were once about contemporary wars or politics (e.g. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Kim) are now read as historical fiction, as are books which explored contemporary cultural issues (e.g. Anna Karenina, Fathers and Sons, Babbitt, Rabbit Redux, The Outsiders).
Some historical fiction is loosely based on real events, but changes a lot of stuff around for dramatic purposes (e.g. Shogun)
And some historical fiction integrates elements of fantasy or magic (e.g. The Werewolf of ParisJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, The Butterfly in Amber) or imagines alternative explanations for traditional history (e.g. Rosa) or creates alternative time lines entirely (e.g. 1632).
To the extent that mythology and legends are themselves a form of historical fiction, any novel that retells these classics myths and legends can also be considered historical fiction (e.g. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Ilium, Olympus, Siddhartha).
    And some of the more avant-garde historical fiction is so bizarre it's just difficult to classify altogether (e.g. Bakunin: An Invention, U.S.!).

All of those books are interesting, but it's not what I usually think of when I think of historical fiction.  As someone who likes historical fiction mainly as a painless way to learn actual history, I've always liked best historical fiction that is more or less just straight up history told with some literary devices--the type of historical fiction where every character in the book is a real historical figure, and every event happened, and the only liberty the author takes is to invent some conversations or trying to imagine the thoughts of the characters.
(Again, as with my previous list, I'm not sure what exact terminology I should be using to separate this from other types of historical fiction.  Do I call it "Hard Historical Fiction"? What should I be saying?)

I was going to put together a list of all my favorite "Hard Historical Fiction" books, but as I started putting this list together, I began to realize that if you're a fan of this genre, as I am, then even when it's bad it's pretty good.  There are some books on this list I've given bad reviews to, but even though I believe they were lacking in literary merit, I still kind of enjoyed reading them actually.
So, here they are.  All the Hard Historical Fiction books I have read.  It's a short list, but don't think of it as definitive.  Rather think of it as the start of a dialogue.  In the comments section feel free to recommend any other books you know.

Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min
Takes the real-life story of Madame Mao and re-writes it as a novel.

I know I gave this book a negative review, but as I said in my original review: I was so enamored with the subject material, that I enjoyed the book in spite of its literary shortcomings.
If you like history, you'll probably enjoy this book.

Recommended with the caveat that, as I said in my review, I don't actually know enough about the life of Richard Sorge to know how accurate this book is.  But assuming it's accurate, it's another example of real life historical events turned into a novel.

It's a pity more of Ryotaro Shiba's books aren't translated into English, because this is excellent historical fiction--and all the events and characters in the book completely factual.

The Master's of Rome Series by Colleen McCullough
The First Man in Rome
The Grass Crown
Fortune's Favourites
Caesar's Women
The October Horse

To me, these are the absolute gold standards of historical fiction--100 years of history following the course of 3 full generations of the rulers ancient Rome.  Most of my historical knowledge of ancient Rome actually comes more from these books than anything else.  (And because it was written in the vivid prose of a novel, I actually remember most of it surprisingly well even though it's been over 20 years now since I read the first books in the series.)

And if we're counting plays as historical fiction as well, then Shakespeare wrote a number of historical plays.  (He changed things around a lot, I know, but it's still broadly historical, and uses all historical characters, so I'll still count them.)  To date, I've only reviewed on Shakespeare play on this blog:

King Richard III
(Although I have, in my school days, also read Julius Caesar, Henry IV Part 1, and Henry IV Part 2).

Those are all the hard historical fiction books I've reviewed on this blog, but there are others I read in my youth that I also remember fondly.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves
I read this book as a high school student and really enjoyed it.  See my review of the BBC series here.

Pontius Pilate and The Flames of Rome by Paul Maier
I absolutely loved these books when I was in 9th grade.  I haven't read them in years, but suspect they probably still hold up pretty well--at least from a story telling point of view.
These books are Christian historical fiction, so now that I'm a little bit older and wiser I'd probably be a bit more skeptical of some of the historical assumptions in them.  But we'll save that debate for another day.  This is simply a list of books that use historical sources to make fiction, and not a debate about the accuracy of the sources which the author uses.  Assuming you grant historical value to ancient Christian sources, Paul Maier operates within the realm of hard historical fiction--every character in his books is lifted straight from history or Christian tradition.

Julian by Gore Vidal
Another book I read in high school.  I mentioned some thoughts on it here.

Any more books, feel free to recommend them to me.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky @ UCL: On the poverty of the stimulus
and from Salon.com Chomsky’s right: The New York Times’ latest big lie: More misleading half-truths from a paper too cowed by power and myth to tell the truth about U.S. foreign policy

Addendum--video playlist


Joel said...

Conspirata by Robert Harris


Joel said...

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris


Joel said...

Alexander: Child of a Dream by Valerio Massimo Manfredi


Joel said...

Alexander: The Sands of Ammon by Valerio Massimo Manfredi


Joel said...

Alexander: The Ends of the Earth by Valerio Massimo Manfredi


Joel said...


Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault


Joel said...


The Persian Boy by Mary Renault


Joel said...


Funeral Games by Mary Renault


Joel Swagman said...

Dictator by Robert Harris


Joel Swagman said...

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
(Historical fiction assuming you believe parts of the Old Testament may be historical.)