In addition to fantasy, one of the genres I come back to again and again is historical fiction. I also read a lot of international fiction. I love great characters, but I also love that sense of the exotic, something new and different than everyday modern life. Historical periods are wonderful to explore in books… maybe I wouldn’t want to live in revolutionary France, but it makes a great setting for dramatic stories!
These are a few of my favorite historical periods:
The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet: Comprising Sunrise in the West, the Dragon at Noonday, the Hounds of Sunset, Afterglow and Nightfall; The Marriage of Meggotta; A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury: A King, a Prince, and the Knight Who Betrayed Their Dynasty; and The Heaven Tree Trilogy (The Heaven Tree / The Green Branch / The Scarlet Seed) by Edith Pargeter – I’m not sure whether I love this time period because it was interesting, or because Edith Pargeter makes it interesting. The Early Middle Ages were never one of my favorite periods until I read these books. Sure, knights in shining armor were neat and everything, but Pargeter makes these people larger than life, but still incredibly believable. I’m in awe of how much research she must have done in order to write so convincingly, and in awe of how well that realism is part of the story rather than part of gigantic info-dumps meant to show off the research she did. Edith Pargeter passed away in 1995, which makes me sad on a personal level (because I think she was probably a lovely person) and because there will be no more of her books forthcoming. I cried during almost all of these books.
When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman – Her books actually remind me a lot of Edith Pargeter’s… historical characters made larger than life, meticulous research, and exquisite prose, character development, pacing, and everything else. This is actually the first in her Plantagenet series, but I haven’t read the other two yet. I have also read The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III and the Welsh Princes Trilogy (Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning), which were all AMAZING. She has also written some books set in World War II, but I haven’t read them. Sharon Kay Penman and Edith Pargeter basically set the bar for my expectations of historical fiction, so it’s very high.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett – I haven’t read the sequel yet, but I have it in the long to-be-read list. The book was great, and the setting was great, but it didn’t affect me as much as Edith Pargeter’s or Sharon Kay Penman’s did. Maybe it was the characters, or maybe it was because I was little older when I read it… I don’t know. Still, it was a great book, with lots of great setting detail.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas – Actually, maybe I just like swashbuckling adventure stories, no matter where they’re set.
Revolutionary France (1780s-1790s)
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – one of my favorite books of all time. I wrote about Sidney Carton here. While this was probably a miserable time to live for nearly everyone in France, there is dramatic tension to spare for nearly any kind of story.
The Red Necklace and the sequel, The Silver Blade by Sally Gardner – young adult (YA) fantasy set in France and England during the French Revolution. Magic is part of the story, but not overwhelming. You can tell Gardner was inspired by…
Empress Orchid by Anchee Min – Although this is based on a real person’s life and many of the historical details are accurate, I think a few critical details are speculative (one particular romantic relationship). Nevertheless, if you read it as a novel, it’s a fascinating look at a difficult time in China’s history, made richer by inclusion of so much research and cultural detail. This focuses on the Imperial Palace and its inhabitants.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See – Completely different than Empress Orchid, this book focuses on two girls in a remote Hunan province, who communicate via writing on fans they send to each other as gifts. Through footbinding, famine, revolution, marriage, and many other changes, Lily and Snow Flower are connected through shared joy and pain.
I’d like to read more stories set in China and the rest of Asia, but I don’t really know where to start. Please recommend some authors to me!
Sarum: The Novel of England; London: The Novel; and The Forest: A Novel by Edward Rutherford – I can’t place these in a specific time period, but I love them. Every period in each book feels real and alive. They’re big and sprawling and you won’t devour these books in a day or two, but the time investment in reading them is worth it. He’s written books on Paris and Russia as well, which are on my mile-long to-be-read list.
Prehistory, The Ice Age, etc. – I haven’t read many of these stories, but I remember that I picked up The Valley of Horses (second in Jean Auel’s The Earth’s Children Series) when I was about 12 and in a major horse story phase. Somehow I didn’t realize it was the second in a series, either. There’s actually some pretty graphic sex in there (bordering on erotica, which I don’t read as an adult, much less a child), and I skipped over some parts, both shocked and mortified to be reading such things written down, in a book!! Books were sacred places of wonder and not to be tarnished with such icky things. I think my mom eventually glanced through it and was equally shocked, although somewhat reassured that I was skipping over those bits. I think she confiscated the book, which did not upset me at all. Anyway, I did actually really enjoy the setting. Writing in a prehistoric world is challenging if you want to have any semblance of realism, because so much research available is really spotty and sometimes inconsistent. The world may not be accurate, but it felt accurate enough within the constraints of the information available.
Settings I’d Like to Read More Of:
Southeast Asia is fascinating! What little I’ve read though is nonfiction and set in the last 100 years… basically history books, not historical fiction. I’d love to see it as a setting for fantasy or historical fiction.
China before the Cultural Revolution – I’ve read a lot of nonfiction and some fiction set in and around the Cultural Revolution and afterwards, but very little from earlier in its history. China has an immensely long, incredibly interesting history, but I don’t know of many fantasy or historical fiction works that use it as a background. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven was amazing (set in a fantasy version of Tang Dynasty China in roughly 755-763 AD). Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite fantasy authors and I loved this book, but I’d love to see more. The Opium Wars are kind of like the French Revolution… not so great for living in, but fantastic for writing.
Japan – Surely I don’t have to explain why Japan is cool. Right? Fantasy samurai. Historical fiction set in feudal or earlier Japan could be fascinating. Or what about Japan as it opened up to the western world? So far, I’ve read The Samurai (1600s) and Silence (1500) by Shusaku Endo; both were incredible books, but also profoundly depressing. I have the utmost respect for Endo (I thought about Silence for weeks after finishing it!), but I’d like to see a slightly more uplifting take on Japanese history too.
Russia and Eastern Europe – I’ve barely read anything about Russia or Eastern Europe before Stalin. I know there’s interesting history, but I don’t know much about it.
If you know of great historical fiction or fantasy books set in these time periods, please let me know!