We read historical fiction to travel through time and space. Generally speaking, historical fiction is any story that is set in a time period in the past. It is no longer considered as bodice-rippers rife with anachronisms or depressingly dull textbooks dressed up in barely discernible plots. Historical fiction is now gaining the respect of readers and critics alike, regularly appearing on bestseller lists and on shortlists for major literary awards around the world. Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of historical fiction, you’ve heard the names Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton, Anthony Doerr and Kristin Hannah repeatedly over recent years.
What is Historical Fiction?
“HISTORICAL FICTION IS A LITERARY GENRE IN WHICH THE PLOT TAKES PLACE IN A SETTING LOCATED IN THE PAST.”
A historical fiction definition seems simple enough: it’s fiction that takes place in the past. Typically, historical fiction books are written about 30–50 years after the event has taken place. The read historical events and the time period of the book play as crucial of a role in the story as any character or plot twist. In addition, historical fiction is usually considered more realistic in nature. Though some of the Genre-bending books have added a bit of fantasy or magical realism flavour to enhance our understanding of the past.
Adding all historical fiction books into one manageable list is quite impossible, truly. This list, I believe, will give you the broadest view of our world’s shared past. Let us know in the comments below if we missed your favorite historical fiction book.
Time Period and Setting: 1920s, Russia
Publication Year: 2019
Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest, except his ‘house’ arrest is confinement to the luxurious hotel Metropol. Should he leave the Metropol, he will be shot immediately. You get a view of his life by looking from the outside in. You see him living, working, entertaining, and growing over many years of his life in the hotel. His friendships with the staff at the hotel, his interactions with Anna, Nina, Sophia, and others are just wonderful. You hear of the many changes that occur in Russia over a long period of time. And you come to see that Count Rostov, is the luckiest man in all of Russia.
Count Rostov is a true gentleman. He has exquisite taste, loves literature, and has the most excellent manners. And he expects the same from others (well, manners at least). Having read Towles first book, I felt that he was really striving for this sense of elegance. But he just did not achieve it. Perhaps it was due to his character. In this book, he found that particular character and did achieve an elegant novel.
As in his first book as well, you can see his love of literature that is often discussed in this book. You get detailed descriptions of not only classic literature, but history, food, politics, and more. Oh the wonderful descriptions of the food will leave you salivating.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Time Period and Setting: 1960s-1970s, U.S.
First Publication: 2018
Deeply moving and poignant, Where The Crawdads Sings is a coming of age tale like no other. Abandoned by her family as a small child, and shunned by society, Kya, the so-called ‘Marsh Girl’ grows up on her own on the fringes of society. With few friends, she gets by with the company of the marsh and sea birds that surround her home.
One day Kya chances across Tate, a friend of her long lost brother, who takes her under his wing and teaches her to read, opening up a whole new world for her. Years later another young man from the town, Chase, is found dead at the bottom of an old fire tower, and suspicion immediately falls on ‘The Marsh Girl’.
A touching tale, Delia Owens tells a emotional story of an outcast, who the townspeople rally against because she is ‘different’. This is a book to savor as Kya grows up amongst nature, surviving in her own way. The setting in the marsh comes alive as we befriend the birds, fish, and hunt for shells and mussels with Kya. She is a tragic figure, but has an amazing inner strength about her. A truly memorable character.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Time Period and Setting: 1500s, England
First Publication: 2009
Wolf Hall provides an immersive experience into the 16th century court of Henry VIII. The plot involves the rise of Thomas Cromwell from humble beginnings to one of the most influential people in the realm. His character is articulated extremely vividly – ambitious, intelligent, flawed, at times ruthless. Other deeply drawn characters include Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More.
This historical fiction novel elevates Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, from villain-hood (as portrayed in “A Man For All Seasons”) to sympathetic character. It also pulls Thomas Moore’s reputation down from its saintly perch. Moore in this story is a sniveling sanctimonious character running his own inquisition searching for heretics (utilizing torture and burning at the stake). Cromwell on the other hand is portrayed as the consummate administrator, accountant and politician astute at reading people. He is portrayed as a family man hardened by his personal losses and with skeptical regard for the merits of religion.
In this historical fiction, Hilary Mantel imagines and interprets her characters but remains true to historic events. No wild inventions are needed to provide the intrigue, romance, power plays, and betrayals characteristic of the period. The people are portrayed in a manner that feels authentic.