Ask a Book Question: The 43rd in a Series (Finding Historical Fiction)

March 1, 2006 | 10 books mentioned 9 2 min read

Katie writes in with this question:

When I was in Rome I read I, Claudius [by Robert Graves] and loved it. Now I’m looking for other historical fiction, of any period or nationality, that does a comparable job of bringing a time and place to life and maintaining some literary credibility. Any suggestions?

coverAccording to Wikipedia, not the definitive source in this realm but a decent enough place to start, a work of historical fiction can be defined as one in which “the story is set among historical events, or more generally, in which the time of the action predates the lifetime of the author.” This is a bit broad for my taste, but I think it’s a good place to start. Going by this definition, a lot of books that we think of first as fiction could also qualify as historical fiction. Some of my favorite books by contemporary authors fall into this category. T.C. Boyle’s Water Music is about a Scottish explorer in Africa in the late 18th century, and Edward P. Jones’ book The Known World is about black slave owners in Virginia in the 1840s. Another example of a book like these is Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel, Cold Mountain.

coverBut these books aren’t really historical fiction in the same way that I, Claudius is historical fiction. Traditionally, in historical fiction, the history is like another character in the novel, and the action is more likely to be ripped from the history books, as it were, placing the reader in a novelized version of true historical events. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell about Atlanta during the Civil War is a famous example. Another is James Clavell’s Shogun about the 16th century exploration of Asia. Of the few historical novels I’ve read, my favorite would have to be Leon Uris’ Trinity, a powerful epic about the Irish struggle for independence at the turn of the 20th century.

There is also historical fiction that hews closely to a particular niche, like the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, both of which take place during the time when tall-masted ships ruled the high seas. The there’s Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, which is prehistoric, historical fiction. I know, crazy.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who have historical fiction to recommend, so please share in the comments, and thanks, Katie, for your question.

Update: Jenny exposes my unfamiliarity with historical fiction by suggesting many, many fantastic-sounding books in the comments. Check it out, and leave some more suggestions if you’ve get them.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

9 comments:

  1. Well, the sequel Claudius the God is also a must-read. I have a sort of obsession with Graves, I have read "I, Claudius" countless times. There is really nothing else quite like it. Graves wrote a lot of other historical fiction, but a lot of it is quite peculiar, like "Wife to Mr. Milton" or "They Hanged My Sainted Billy." I like them, but they are a bit of an acquired taste.

    Gore Vidal's "Julian" is in my opinion his best, though the nineteenth-century American ones are also appealing (esp. Lincoln and Burr); Rosemary Sutcliffe's young-adult Roman-and-British history novels are also very good (and actually, I think young-adult historical fiction is often more appealing than the adult stuff; I recommend E. L. Konigsberg's "A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver," about Eleanor of Aquitaine). Margaret Yourcenar's Hadrian is a classic but I don't know if it stands up as well as Graves from the standpoint of pure enjoyment. Mary Renault is really wonderful if you haven't read her, must check it out if not: "The Last of the Wine" is perhaps my favorite, but there's a really good one about Alexander the Great ("Fire From Heaven"), an excellent one based on the (mythic) Theseus ("The Bull From the Sea"), and "The Praise Singer" is another favorite of mine (it's years since I read them, I may have got some of the titles wrong).

    Hilary Mantel's "A Place of Greater Safety" is an interesting (though to me ultimately not so satisfying) novel about the French Revolution, if you like novels that treat public political events. My best other recommendation is Sebastian Faulks; I think "Birdsong" and "Charlotte Grey" are both extremely satisfying novels, about WWI and WWII respectively. If WWII counts as historical, of course, there start to be lots of good books to read….

    All right, that's enough! But there's a lot of great other stuff out there too, of course. War and Peace is in some sense the great historical novel, put that one on the list too if you haven't read it…

  2. Stephen Harrigan's Gates of the Alamo is a moving piece of historical fiction, told by both the Texian and Mexican sides.

  3. I would like to add a few suggestions to the list.

    Madison Smartt Bell's Haitian trilogy, starting with All Soul's Rising and ending with The Stone That the Builder Refused, is historical fiction on an epic scale. It tells the story of the Haitian slave revolution. This is a great example, in my opinion, of what historical fiction does best.

    Tom Franklin's Hell at the Breech recreates an unusual private war between wealthy landowners and poor sharecroppers that raged in the backwoods of Alabama in the 1890s. A well-done recreation of a sad and mostly forgotten incident in American history.

    Elizabeth Gaffney's Metropolis recreated New York's Five Corners area – think Dickens redoing Gangs of New York. A good story, well told, with excellent period details.

  4. mario varga llosa. Feast of the Goat. the most harrowing account of a country under the rule of a murderous despot ever written. a masterpiece. a must read. seriously.

  5. This was my original question and thanks for the great responses! If anyone is still inspired, any ideas for historical fiction surrounding the French Revolution?

  6. I have to add Aztec. I love that book so much. It follows the sunset of the Aztec empire. Really fantastic.

    -Erik.

  7. French Revolution: Well, Tale of Two Cities is the obvious, and it is really pretty great if you haven't read it (though it's so far inferior to Dickens' best that I can't say it's one of my favorites). Victor Hugo has a really wonderful novel called Quatre-Vingt-Treize (1793), which I think should be more or less available in paperback–it was certainly in print in the mid-90s. I'm ignorant about other French-language stuff, though Michelet's French Revolution history is fantastic (history, not fiction) and there's also a film called Danton starring Gerard Depardieu that I liked when I saw it.

    The Hilary Mantel novel I mentioned above is about the French Revolution; another thing well worth reading tho more on the truth than fiction thing is Richard Holmes's essay about Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris during the revolutionary years, it's in his collection Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.

  8. For Ancient Rome, try the "Masters of Rome" series by Colleen McCullough. For Africa, I've always like Wilbur Smith's sagas of the Courtneys and the Ballantynes.

  9. RE: French Revolution

    Anatole France's "The Gods Will Have Blood" is an excellent historical novel set during the Revolution.

    Victor Hugo's hard to find "Ninety-Three" centers around a counter-revolutionary invasion during the Revolution.

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