Top Ten Historical Novels

“True stories seldom have endings.”

Frances Hardinge

  1. The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova. This isn’t straight history – there’s some horror thrown in for good measure, and if I’m remembering correctly some of it is set in the present day. But the weight of history upon its narrative is astounding and wonderful: a tale of libraries, dusty old books, puzzles in ancient cities and a lurking, half-historical evil. I must read it again soon.
  2. Throne of Jade – Naomi Novik. Also not straight historical, featuring as it does Regency dragons, but Novik is extraordinarily sensitive to the rhythms of Regency culture without the book ever becoming dry or unreadable, and it feels historical even if, strictly speaking, it isn’t. Did I mention the dragons?
  3. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. Look, I’m counting it. At least two of the sections of the book are historical, one of them featuring one of my all-time favourite bookish couples (Frobisher and Sixsmith *wipes away tear*), and the sweep of time featured in the novel is really important to Mitchell’s project, and damn I need to read this one again too.
  4. The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe. This one was admittedly published in 1794, but it’s also set in something like the 1500s, so I’m counting it. It’s completely anachronistic, by the way, but its hypnotic, dense Gothicness is like catnip to me. It’s also surprisingly accessible for an eighteenth-century doorstop.
  5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Just a really sweet epistolary novel about the experiences of the Guernsey islanders during the Second World War (which does not sound like a sweet topic, but somehow Shaffer and Barrows manage to beat it into saccharine submission). Plus, I love reading about the early twentieth century, for purely shallow and aesthetic reasons: it’s just close enough to our own era to be recognisable, but just distant enough to be shiny and new. (This, I have concluded after about ten seconds of thought, is why Downton Abbey is so popular.)
  6. Fly By Night – Frances Hardinge. Based on England in the early eighteenth century. It says so at the back, OK? Don’t go into Fly By Night expecting historical accuracy, though: it’s a steampunky romp set in what is effectively an alternative version of England, one with writing twisty and lovely as a very twisty and lovely thing and a sharp edge of social awareness and a brilliant, ambivalent heroine.
  7. The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton. Set in a New Zealand mining town in 1866 (an unusual setting, I’m sure you’ll agree), The Luminaries is another doorstop of a book, one which winds down and down and down to one of the most beautiful last pages I think I’ve ever read. Another one for the reread pile.
  8. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. If the recent BBC series wasn’t enough to convince you to read this, then I don’t know what will be. Like Throne of Jade, Clarke’s novel is technically historical fantasy, but its historical setting is absolutely central to its project: an immensely powerful (because fantastic) meditation on the beginnings of civil rights, on institutionalised racism and sexism, and also a damn good read in itself.
  9. Atonement – Ian McEwan. A postmodern experiment dissecting the narratives we tell about ourselves and our mistakes. Another WWII tale, but this one is definitely not sweet.
  10. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak. A third wartime story to close out this list, The Book Thief is the story of Liesel, a German orphan whose adopted family hide a Jew in their house during the Second World War. It’s narrated by Death, which is not as macabre as it sounds; it is tragic and terrible and personal and it made me cry on public transport.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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