It looked so promising; it was set just after the fire of London in 1666, there was a disappeared young woman, people murdered in peculiar ways, intrigue and mystery – so the cover promised me. The author is well-respected, has won many awards, has written many other books.
I am not always a great fan of historical fiction, although I loved the Shardlake books by C.J. Sansome, and going back to much earlier reads, the Claudius books by Robert Graves, and Mary Renault’s novels and Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters – not forgetting Rosemary Sutcliff! I’ve read most of the Lindsey Davis, and most recently the Red Tent by Anita Diamant…
There is an incredible amount of detail which I am sure is accurate, the clothes people wore, the way they lived, their houses, their food, the geography of the place and what the burnt out and still smouldering city must have looked and smelt like…
However, however I just have to admit I am not really enjoying it, and I confess, I’m rather disappointed. So it is not the genre, it’s not the period, it’s not the accuracy… is it me? Somehow I feel as if I’m wading through The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor. In one review it is described as ‘gripping, fast-moving and credible, reaching a climax in the ruins of St Paul’s…’ Well, I’m a couple of chapters off the climax and I guess I do want to know what happens, but if it wasn’t for the fact that I have to finish it for book club tomorrow night I think I would be reading it more slowly and interspersing it with something else… in fact, last night I even picked up a history of the Anglo Saxons and galloped through a couple of chapters of that.
So why am I struggling? Maybe I haven’t engaged with the characters – the story is told by a young man and also in the third person a young woman barely out of her teens. Maybe it’s the clichés… people are forever biting their lips till they draw blood, their faces look like skulls beneath the skin for example… I shall be interested to see what the book club say – usually I’m the one who has a different opinion, so I’m used to that!
Just for a bit of fun, here is a list of fifty well-known historical novels; I have underlined the ones I’ve read, and the ones I’ve enjoyed are in bold :
50 Essential Historical Fiction Novels
- The Nightingale Kristin Hannah – Two sisters face horrific challenges in France during WWII.
- I, Claudius Robert Graves – A fictionalised autobiography of the Roman emperor Claudius.
- All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr – This heartwrenching tale of World War II won the Pulitzer in 2015.
- The Twentieth Wife Indu Sundaresan – The story of one of the most controversial empresses of India’s 16th century Mughal Empire.
- The Other Boleyn Girl – Philippa Gregory An entertaining if inaccurate portrayal of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary.
- Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel– – Booker Prize winner documenting Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of King Henry VIII.
- Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel – Sequel to Wolf Hall, chronicling Cromwell’s machinations to rid Henry VIII of Anne Boleyn.
- The Three Muskateers Alexandre Dumas – Swashbuckling tale of d’Artagnan and the three Musketeers in 17th century France.
- Silence Shusaku Endo – The story of a Portuguese Jesuit missionary’s persecution in 17th century Japan.
- Waverley Walter Scott – Originally published in 1814 and set 100 years prior, considered the first historical novel.
- A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens – Parallel stories intersect in London and Paris during the French Revolution.
- The Book of Negroes Lawrence Hill – An 18th century woman journeys from freedom in Africa, to slavery in the US, and back to freedom again.
- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet David Mitchell – Love story between a clerk for the Dutch East India Company and a disfigured Japanese midwife.
- War and Peace Leo Tolstoy Tolstoy’s – epic masterpiece depicting the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic era.
- Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather – Two priests travel 1851 New Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War.
- Gone With the Wind Margaret Mitchell – The Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
- The Leopard Giuseppe di Lampedusa – Sweeping saga of Sicilian society during Italian unification in the 19th century.
- The Far Pavilions M. M. Kaye – This romantic epic set in 19th century India under British rule has been compared to Gone With the Wind.
- Oscar and Lucinda Peter Carey – Winner of the 1988 Booker Prize, about the misadventures two gambling misfits in 19th century Australia.
- Alias Grace Margaret Atwood – A fictionalised account of a notorious 1843 murder case in pre-Confederation Toronto, Canada.
- Cloudsplitter Russell Banks – Story of radical 19th century abolitionist John Brown, told from the perspective of his only surviving son.
- The Last Crossing Guy Vanderhaeghe – Complex saga of Victorian England and the North American frontier, told from multiple points of view.
- March Geraldine Brooks – Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, retells Little Women from the perspective of the absent Mr. March.
- Measuring the World Daniel Kehlmann – Two 19th-century German scientists with different approaches to measuring the world.
- The March E.L. Doctorow – Sherman’s March to the Sea near the end of the American Civil War, told through a large and diverse cast of characters.
- The Long Song Andrea Levy – A bawdy, farcical, yet unflinching portrait of a 19th century Jamaican slave girl on the brink of emancipation.
- The Painted Girls Cathy Marie Buchanan – The model for Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is brought vividly to life.
- The Sisters Brothers Patrick Dewitt – Multiple award winner about two 19th century hired guns traveling from Oregon to California.
- The Twelve Rooms of the Nile Enid Shomer – A fictional friendship between Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, set in Egypt in 1850.
- The Luminaries Eleanor Catton – This Booker Prize winner part love story, part mystery, set against the backdrop of New Zealand’s 19th century gold rush.
- Caravans James A. Michener – Story of an American diplomat in Afghanistan following WWII, originally published in 1963.
- Troubles J.G. Farrell – Ineligible when published in 1970, Troubles was awarded the ‘Lost Man Booker Prize’ in 2010.
- August 1914 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – An epic chronicle of events leading up to the Russian Revolution.
- Three Day Road Joseph Boyden – Two young Cree men from Northern Ontario become snipers for the Canadian army in WWI.
- Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie – A story of children born at or near the moment of India’s independence from Britain.
- The Thorn Birds Colleen McCullough – Melodramatic family saga of early 20th-century life in the Australian outback.
- The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver – The family of a Baptist missionary adjusts to life in the Congolese jungle in the early 1960s.
- Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden – The fictional memoir of a geisha, from age nine to adulthood, in pre- and post WWII Japan.
- The Night Watch Sarah Waters – An evocative story of London during WWII, told in reverse chronological order.
- The Colony of Unrequited Dreams Wayne Johnston – A fictionalised portrait of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s colorful first premier.
- The Historian Elizabeth Kostova – An interweaving of the stories of Vlad the Impaler, Count Dracula, and a 1930s search for Vlad’s tomb.
- Arthur & George Julian Barnes – The story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s efforts to exonerate George Edalji, a solicitor falsely accused of a crime.
- Shanghai Girls Lisa See – When WWII reaches Shanghai, two sisters leave a life of privilege to enter arranged marriages in the US.
- Half-Blood Blues Esi Edugyan – Highly original story of an interracial jazz band in Berlin and Paris during the early days of World War II.
- The Egyptian Mika Waltari – 1949 Finnish novel that was the bestselling foreign novel in the US until 1983.
- The Pillars of Earth Ken Follett – Intrigue surrounds the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England.
- Kristin Lavransdatter Sigrid Undset – 1928 Nobel Prize-winning trilogy depicting Norwegian life in the Middle Ages.
- The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco -A highly literary murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery.
- The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Victor Hugo – A Gothic novel that inspired a flood of tourists to Paris’ most famous cathedral.
- Romola George Eliot -Eliot’s study of life in Florence during the 15th century Italian Renaissance.