23 February 2017

My 9 Favourite Historical Fiction Novels | Recommendations

I recently realised that I read a lot more historical fiction than I thought I did - as in, it's up there with science fiction and fantasy in terms of my reading habits. So I thought I would recommend some of my favourite historical fiction books! So below I've picked out nine books ranging from antiquity to 1960s America, to give you an idea of what I think you should be reading.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their difference, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper - despite the displeasure of Achilles' mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

This is such an amazing book, and one that really surprised me by how much I loved it! It's beautifully written, the characters are such incredibly portrayed, multi-faceted people, and it's equally heartbreaking and inspiring. I could also classify this as fantasy, because it incorporates all the magic and mythology of the original legends, but I would personally count it as historical fiction at its heart. I've always loved Roman and Greek mythology, but while I knew lots about Achilles himself, I'd never heard of Patroclus, so not only is this a wonderfully compelling story, you also get to dive deeper into the detail of the legend. It's also an LGBTQIA+ book, so if you're looking for more diverse reads, I would highly recommend this.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

You've heard of Arthur. Noble king, legendary hero. But you've never heard the truth. Gwyna is a slave-girl when Arthur's magician, Myrddin, takes her under his wing. Myrddin transfroms her - into a lady goddess, a boy warrior, and a spy. Amid the bloody battles that rage across Britain, he will show her the real secret behind Arthur's success, and teach her how to spin a tale so powerful that people will believe it for ever ...

Another mythology retelling! Except this one is distinctly lacking in any magic, and instead focuses on how a mixture of embellished story telling and blatant lies can create any myth. Gwyna is taken in by Myrddin (the original Merlin figure in this story) and raised in disguise to help him carry out his plan to make Arthur king. It's a wonderful take on Arthurian legend, with all the original characters warped almost beyond recognition, and all of the your expectations are subverted.

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory 

Daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, Katherine has been fated her whole life to marry Prince Arthur of England. When they meet and are married, the match becomes as passionate as it is politically expedient. The young lovers revel in each other's company and plan the England they will make together. But tragically, aged only fifteen, Arthur falls ill and extracts from his sixteen-year-old bride a deathbed promise to marry his brother, Henry; become Queen; and fulfill their dreams and her destiny. 

The Tudors have always been my favourite part of English history, mainly because of how crazy their antics were when you look at them properly; and Henry VIII was always the most fascinating of the monarchs (for obvious reasons). I knew all about his six wives and their fates (as the rhyme goes: "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived") but I never knew the details, especially that his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was actually married to his older brother first, who was the actual heir to the throne. This novel is a fictional take on Katherine's first marriage and the build up to her second, and her unpredictable life in the Tudor court, and Katherine (or "Catalina") is a character you'll end up loving!

Pirates! by Celia Rees

Nancy Kington, daughter of a rich merchant, suddenly orphaned when her father dies, is sent to live on her family's plantation in Jamaica. Disgusted by the treatment of the slaves and her brother's willingness to marry her off, she and one of the slaves, Minerva, run away and join a band of pirates. For both girls the pirate life is their only chance for freedom in a society where both are treated like property, rather than individuals. Together they go in search of adventure, love, and a new life that breaks all restrictions of gender, race, and position. 

This is just a fun (but often pretty gritty and dark) adventure of two girls, one an upper-class lady, and the other a runaway slave, escaping to join a pirate ship. Honestly it's been a while since I read it, but I remember really loving Nancy and Minerva's friendship, and absolutely hating the super creepy villain...

Sally Lockhart Quartet by Philip Pullman

When her dear father is drowned in suspicious circumstances in the South China Sea, Sally Lockhart is left to fend for herself, an orphan and alone in the smoky fog of Victorian London. Though she doesn't know it, Sally is already in terrible danger. Soon the mystery and the danger will deepen - and at the rotten heart of it all lies the deadly secret of the ruby in the smoke... (Blurb of book 1: The Ruby in the Smoke)

The four Sally Lockhart books are an amazing set of mystery-adventures, made even more exciting by the fact they're set in the late Victorian era. Sally is an incredible protagonist; she's intelligent, determined, resourceful, and carries her own pistol (which I think is pretty cool). I also love the supporting characters, especially the precious Jim Taylor - who would definitely object to my calling him "precious". But anyway, this is a great historical mystery / crime series, which you'll want to reread over and over.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton 

Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. 

Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself. 

One of my all time favourite books, The Forgotten Garden skips back and forth between three time periods to tell the story of an old family secret. The mystery is beautifully crafted, and will honestly keep you guessing until the end of the book, and the whole thing has an air of magic to it, mainly because of the character known as "The Authoress" whose famous fairy tales are also woven into the book. Kate Morton has written other books with a similar premise and theme, but for me, The Forgotten Garden will always be head and shoulders above the rest.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady's maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives - presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave. 

This novel is full of suspense and mystery, and there's a wonderfully creepy atmosphere hanging over the entire story. The second Mrs de Winter arrives at her new husband's grand estate to find it haunted by the memories of his first wife, the charming and enigmatic Rebecca, and the mysterious fate that befell her. Rebecca is only historical fiction in hindsight, because it's set roughly around the time it was originally published (the late 1930s), but I wanted to include it here anyway, just because it's so good. It's also one of the few classics I properly enjoyed!

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives. 

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge. 

Another beautifully written novel, this one switches between Marie-Laure and Werner's stories, and their experiences on opposite sides of the war. The short chapters mean you're effortlessly drawn into the story, and the plot itself means you'll be obsessed until the very last page. You can read my mini-review of it here.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. Her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone. Aibileen is a black maid raising her seventeenth white child. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own. 

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed. 

This book is amazing, it's that simple. It switches between Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny's stories, and each character is so well crafted, and so well portrayed on the page, you'll end up falling in love with all of them for completely different reasons. The racism directed at Aiblieen, Minny, and the other black maids in the story is disgusting and heart-wrenching, and made all the worse by the fact that these sort of things actually happened, and because of that I think this book is an incredibly important one.

Honourable mention: Maus by Art Spiegelmann 

The complete story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler's Europe. Addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival - and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. 

This is technically non-fiction, but I wanted to give it a special mention here anyway. This graphic novel / comic (there's some disagreement as to which it is) tells the story of the author's father during the holocaust. Don't be fooled by the characters being portrayed as animals (eg. Vladek and the other Jews are mice, while the Nazis are shown as cats), this is very much an adult story, due to the brutally honest storytelling. The format makes it easy to read, while the subject matter makes it a very difficult read, but it's a stunning work, and one I would highly recommend.

Let me know your thoughts on any of these books, or give me some of your own historical fiction recommendations - I would love to hear them!

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