• By Lara Luck
  • Posted Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Books We Like

When I mention to people that I like historical fiction I usually get one of two reactions: “I find it too boring.” or “Isn’t it great?” The first historical fiction I distinctly remember reading was in the third grade, a speculative fiction book about Virginia Dare. I don’t remember the name of the book, but it definitely made a lasting impression on me. It started in the Roanoke Colony right after Virginia Dare was born, but most of the book followed her life among a Native American tribe on the mainland that rescued the colonists when they were attacked at their settlement by another tribe. It was fascinating, and I was hooked. I started to read everything I could find about the colony. (I was very disappointed when I found out nobody actually knew what happened to Virginia Dare and the rest of the colony.) To this day, I still like to read anything I can, fiction or nonfiction, about the Lost Colony.

This is the reaction and feeling a good historical novel can and should illicit in someone. Not just entertainment, but fascination and interest so deep you don’t want the story to end. I’d like to think if I try hard enough I can get everyone over to that “Isn’t it great?” column. So, here are a few tips on finding the perfect historical novel for yourself. First, historical fiction can cover a lot of territory, so finding something that appeals to you is usually as easy as finding a time and place that you find interesting. If you don’t find either the time period or the setting fascinating, reading the book will be more of a chore than a pleasurable experience.

Another consideration is how well the author did their research on the subject and how much you care about it. Some authors spend a considerable amount of time researching their subject before writing the book, and, let’s face it, others obviously don’t. So think about accuracy and if it matters to you. (Remember, if it doesn’t that’s okay, you will probably have a lot more books to choose from.) Finally, what genres do you like to read? You can find historical fiction with drama, romance, intrigue, action, fantasy, and any other sub-genre you can think of, covering just about every time and place. Even if you only like non-fiction, there are historical fiction novels out there so realistic and well-researched, you really won’t know the difference.

Obviously these aren’t the only considerations in picking out the perfect book, but starting here, you can pick out a few titles to try using our great reader’s advisory resources or wonderful library staff. Personally, I like well-researched novels with strong character development, and, although I’m not usually picky about the time or place, I do tend to read a lot of English historical novels. If you need a jumping off spot, here are a few books I’ve really enjoyed.

Philippa Gregory brings the women of English royalty to life like no other author I’ve read. She takes these women who we don’t know much about beyond the facts that they were the mothers, wives, or daughters of kings, and fleshes out their thoughts, motivations, ambitions,and desires for themselves and their families. The King’s Curse is the sixth and final novel in her Cousins’ War series which covers the War of the Roses, and the transition between Plantagenet and Tudor lines. It follows the story of Margaret Pole, the last Plantagenet princess, from the loss of her brother at the hands of the Tudors, through her own turbulent history trying to survive in Henry VIII’s court and protect her family from being seen as rivals to the Tudor’s claim to the throne. So, if you like political intrigue with a dash of romance, and a very believable, well-researched story, this may be the book for you. While each book in this series can be read by itself, the characters and stories do overlap with one another. So be warned, if you read one, you will probably want to read them all (and then start on her other series).

My next recommendation is Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran, which also centers on real-life royalty, but in this case the Rani of Jhansi, the queen of a large province in India before the British took it over. The story is told not from the queen’s point of view however, but from Sita’s, one of her female bodyguards and confidants. Females have few options other than an arranged marriage in India in the early part of the nineteenth century. To help her family, Sita trains to be considered for the rani’s Royal Guard. Training which involves archery, sword work, hand-to-hand fighting, manners, and even artistic accomplishments. When she is accepted into this elite group, she finds out the training wasn’t the hard part. Now she has to survive the politics of court, backstabbing enemies, and the encroaching British while finding a way to keep her beloved queen alive. I love the way Moran brings this little known period in history (at least for Westerners) to life and makes you root against all odds for the British to fail.

While I was still working as a youth services librarian I read a juvenile chapter book about Kaiulani the last princess of Hawaii. Until I read that book I knew very little about Hawaii other than it was a great vacation spot with volcanoes that I wanted to see someday, but after reading that book I wanted to learn more about its history. So, when I saw Moloka’i by Alan Brennert on the book shelf I had to check it out. The late 1800s was a dark period in Hawaiian (and American) history. American businessmen deposed the Hawaiian monarchy and took over the government to support their own monetary interests.

New diseases were running rampant because of increased contact between the native population and outsiders. Those Hawaiians who contracted leprosy were separated from loved ones and confined to Moloka’i, an isolated leper colony and their families who stayed behind were shunned in their own communities as well. Moloka’i is the story of Rachel, a five-year-old Hawaiian girl who contracts leprosy from her uncle during this tumultuous time, and is taken from her family and confined to the colony. Despite the tragic circumstances, it’s a touching and hopeful story about how she and others create a life and form a family. The real-life circumstances of this group of people didn’t always turn out so well, but it remains a very realistic portrayal of the human condition.

While I don’t usually like military action novels, one of my favorite time periods is the Napoleonic Wars and English Regency era. The next three books are this type of novel set in Europe during this time period, but each has a unique perspective from the typical military history.

Sharpe’s Tiger by Bernard Cornwell is the first chronologically in a series about a private in the British army who works his way up through the ranks during a time when commissions were purchased and usually only held by nobility.

Richard Sharpe starts life out as an illiterate commoner, but enlists to avoid being condemned to prison (or worse). While stationed in India, he runs afoul of his commanding officer and gets sentenced to 2000 lashes, a sure death, but while this punishment is being carried out he gets “rescued” by the regiment’s commander and given the opportunity to not only commute his sentence but to advance in rank. The catch? He must pretend to be a deserter, join the enemy’s forces, and rescue an English Colonel being held captive without being caught and executed by either army. The action and intensity are riveting and make this story very hard to resist.

Finally, my last two recommendations, both again set during the early 1800s, are historical fantasy. Those of you who want to try something different should give His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke a try. Both have a realistic setting, nineteenth century Europe, but with the slight twist that magic does exist and is being used to wage war against the tyrant Napoleon Bonaparte. After all who can resist dragons being used for aerial warfare or a single magician destroying a naval armada? Even if fantasy is not quite your cup of tea, the military action, historical setting, human drama, and superb writing make these books well worth the effort. So give them, or some other historical novel a little of your time, and you’ll be hooked too.

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