In which I consider historical novels

Occasionally two separate projects overlap in my head, creating bubbles of thought. (The process is a bit like pouring vinegar on baking soda: the end product is active and slightly acidic.) This is one of those times.

As I mentioned before, I’ve been reading about Boudica’s revolt against the Roman empire. At the same time, I read and reviewed Mary Beard’s latest book about Roman stuff. for Shelf Awareness for Readers.* It was one quick mental step from Roman Britain and Roman jokebooks to Lindsey Davis‘s excellent series of murder mysteries set in ancient Rome (and its empire) shortly after the British revolt.

If I had access to my fiction collection** I probably would have re-read Silver Pigs (set partially in post-Boudica Britain) and Last Act in Palmyra (which deals in part with a jokebook) and this blog post would have never been written. Instead I found myself thinking about the role of the historical novel in my reading life and understanding of history.

I will be the first to admit that historical novels–genre and literary alike–have shaped my image of historical periods, places, and people outside of my specific area of expertise. They’ve often spurred an interest in a period I otherwise knew nothing about. At their best, they provide a vivid picture of a moment in time, adding details of daily life and the experience of “normal” people to the big picture. At their worst? *Bleah*

I’m pretty clear about what I want in historical fiction: impeccable historical detail that supports the story but does not call attention to the author’s research and characters who are rooted in their time.*** What’s your stand on historical fiction? And what authors should I add to my To-Be-Read list?

* Coming to a blog post near you sometime after it runs on Shelf Awareness
**Currently in boxes in the living room waiting the installation of new floor to ceiling bookcases.

***My pet peeve? Breaking historical plausibility to create an appealing character. I’m happy to have a female character push against the constraints of social mores; don’t give me a modern woman in historical costume.


  1. HJ on June 15, 2014 at 9:10 am

    I love historical novels and credit them for my love of history. (I’ve just had déjà vu — have I said this in a comment before?) I devoured Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliffe books as a child, and Alison Uttley A Traveller in Time. Then I found and read every Georgette Heyer Regency, which not only formed my interest in the period but also gave me a thorough and accurate grounding in the mores of the ton and in the clothing, carriages and language (carefully researched by Heyer, and accurate).

    Recommendations: Joanna Bourne Spymaster series (superb writing); Lauren Willig Pink Carnation series (more Regency spies, very amusing); Tracy/Teresa Grant (even more Regency spies, complex plots) — all these are very well researched and set in specifically identifiable historical events, without the factual accuracy being rammed down your throat. Later in period and also excellent: Deanna Raybourn Lady Julia series (mysteries rather than spies, and not always set in Europe). Much more recent i.e. 1920s in Cambridge: Charlie Cochrane Cambridge Fellows series — they solve mysteries.

    I know I’ve missed some personal favourites but these should get you going! They’re on the romance side of historical novels, but don’t let anyone tell you they’re lesser somehow because of that.

    • pamela on June 15, 2014 at 2:57 pm


      Thanks for the good suggestions. Willig and Raybourn were already on my radar, but I haven’t read them yet. The others are new to me.

      No need to warn me about the romance end of history. I’m also a big Heyer fan–as I believe I’ve mentioned once or twice on these posts.

      Read on!

  2. Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm on June 16, 2014 at 1:20 am

    I was going to hugely plug Gary Corby’s Athenian mystery series till I read your 3rd footnote. But although Diotima is a bit modern, I still really enjoyed the ones I’ve read. So let’s call it a moderate plug? 🙂

    And- have you read the Williamsburg novels by Elswyth Thane? They follow the Sprague-Day-Murray family clan from the Revolutionary War through WW2. They were written soon after WW2, so they’re not exactly PC about women or slaves… but they’re SO GOOD.

    • pamela on June 16, 2014 at 12:07 pm

      Jessica: You’ve pointed me toward so many emjoyable books since we *met* that I’ll give Gary Corby a try–modernish female character or no. I’ll let you know.

  3. Davide on June 16, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Historical novel usually are a hit or miss, without any middle ground. So it’s never easy recommend one.

    Personally I’ve enjoyed the Aristotiles novels by Margaret Doody, a serie of crime fictions set in Athens with the philosopher as protagonist. It cames out a bit like a Sherlock Holmes novel, but with a nice attention to historical details.

    Quite good are also “Alexandros” trilogy and “Heroes” by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, an italian archeologist turned novelist. Beware, though, of his other novels. I find him a bit unsteady as writer and not all his novels are good.

    Finally, I’d like to break a lance for the “Candlemass road” by George MacDonald Fraser. It’s a very short novel written after his book on the border reivers (a very interesting part of british history, quite unknown here in Italy)


    • pamela on June 16, 2014 at 11:57 am

      Davide: I agree about the hit or miss quality of historical novels. I either love one or hate it.

      Thanks for the good suggestions. The Fraser looks particularly interesting. I didn’t know he wrote anything other than the Flashman novels–which I’ve had an on-and-off again relationship with for more years than I care to admit.

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