Best Historical Novels 2013

by Margaret Donsbach

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See also:
The 36 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Greek History
The 50 Best Historical Novels for a Survey of Ancient Roman History
The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age


My favorite historical novels have characters that pull me right inside their skin so I can see (and hear, and smell) their time and place through their perspective. The clean, well-crafted prose either disappears into the world of the story, or it sings to me and carries me along without a misplaced bump or squeal. The best novels also give me something worthwhile to think about: a haunting idea, a new way of seeing something, or a question about human nature to ponder long after I've turned the last page. They never, ever bore me. My favorite novels straddle the boundary between literary and popular fiction, giving me rich characters and ideas along with a lively story with twists and turns that keep me wondering what will happen next.

Here are the ten best historical novels I read this year which lived up (mostly) to these high standards. More complete book reviews appear onsite for all of them.

1. The Observations by Jane Harris (2006)

It's not often a novel is funny, moving, suspenseful, psychologically astute and well-researched, with exceptionally well crafted prose, all at the same time. Harris focuses on two fictional women of the nineteenth century, one a working-class girl down on her luck and struggling for survival, the other a woman of more intelligence than common sense married to a man of the landed gentry and frustrated by a lack of opportunity to use her brain. Sound like characters you've read about before? Then you'll be all the more surprised by this novel's startling originality.

See Review


2. The Son by Philipp Meyer (2013)

The Son is a Texas novel through and through, written by someone who knows Texas history in great depth and detail. Reminiscent of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove in its unsparing realism, it focuses less on the cattle business of its rancher-protagonists than on the tense and often violent relations among the Comanche, Hispanic and American settlers in a landscape that could make survival a difficult task. Following several generations from the nineteenth into the late twentieth century, it shows the conflicts and secrets of the past shaping and distorting the present.

See Review


3. The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson (2012)

Short and intense, The Daylight Gate is about a seventeenth-century witchcraft trial which snares a wealthy widow along with the ragged and resentful group of beggars she tries to help. Winterson's vividly direct, often poetic prose and her historical scholarship and psychological insight make the story compellingly credible, and therefore all the more chilling when the supernatural intrudes.

See Review


4. The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee (2013)

This love story transcends the historical romance category by portraying characters with genuinely complex personalities and problems in a fresh setting: behind the scenes in a nineteenth-century seaside resort. The title character is a "ruined" woman, bracingly practical and determined to survive and, if possible, thrive.

See Review


5. Cotillion by Georgette Heyer (1953)

Almost 40 years after her death, Georgette Heyer is still the unsurpassed queen of the genre she invented, although later authors have injected more sexuality and romantic tension into it, making "Regency romance" something of a misnomer for Heyer's witty, decidedly unsteamy novels. Cotillion is one of her most delightful. Like the others, it emphasizes comedy, historical authenticity and just a touch of feminism in a plot that ends with its heroine happily engaged to be married (that's no spoiler, because I haven't said to which character).

See Review


6. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (2011)

Ernest Hemingway's life was as eventful and rife with emotional upheaval as his novels, and he seems to have been as clueless about women's inner lives as his characters were. With a warmth of insight, The Paris Wife portrays his first wife, Hadley Richardson, a sheltered young woman unprepared for the experimental lifestyle of the expatriate community in 1920s Paris or for Hemingway's scarred psyche.

See Review


7. Brilliance by Anthony McCarten (2013)

Thomas Alva Edison has been hailed as a genius and denounced as a scoundrel. He lived in a time of rapid change when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer - sound familiar? Brilliance uses Edison's relationship with financier J.P. Morgan to create a study of moral cowardice all too relevant to our own time.

See Review


8. Pirates! by Celia Rees (2003)

This adventure story for teens was inspired by the real-life female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Readers swept away by the heroine's saucy, sympathetic voice and her suspenseful, sometimes hair-raising story, will also learn a lot of fascinating things about the history of sugar, the slave trade and seafaring in the eighteenth century.

See Review


9. Original Death by Eliot Pattison (2013)

This well researched and vividly imagined mystery/thriller is set in Colonial America during the decades before the Revolution. Plenty of historical novelists have explored this time period, but Pattison focuses less on the oft-portrayed grievances of the colonists against the British than on their relationship with the Iroquois whose land they usurped. It's an enlightening novel.

See Review


10. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)

This unusual and unusually engaging novel is about a woman born in 1910 who dies at birth but has the opportunity to be reborn and survive not once, but over and over, making different choices at major turning points that led to disaster. I read some very good novels this year - and this is my favorite so far.

See Review.

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Best Historical Novels 2012

The Ten Best Historical Novels I Read in 2013

1. Illluminations by Mary Sharratt (2012)

The twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen was one of the more fascinating people of her time. Her visions, which melded the heavenly with earthy images of greening and blossoming plants, were accompanied by debilitating pain and ecstasy. They led her out of confinement in a tiny anchorage to becoming an abbess in all but name - an abbess who had the nerve to scold a pope. Sharratt richly conveys her passion and determination.

See Review


2. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922)

If you ask people to list the books that changed their lives, Siddhartha will appear on many lists. This slender, graceful novel about an ancient Indian prince searching for the best way to live is deceptively easy to read. Like a zen koan, it carries a message of paradox that, for some, can turn lives upside down (in a good way).

See Review


3. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012)

The sequel to the Booker prizewinning Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies won Mantel a second Booker for good reason. Her vigorous, intelligent storytelling makes the old tale of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn suddenly fresh and gripping. Never again will you think of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's enforcer, as simply an evil, stock villain. He becomes a person.

See Review


4. A Gift for the Magus by Linda Proud (2012)

Fra Filippo Lippi, a fifteenth-century Carmelite friar who took a former nun as his unofficial wife, shocked the religious sensibilities of his time by painting a Madonna from a human model (probably his wife). Proud tells his story with humor, insight and a sympathy that never minimizes Lippi's flaws. Along the way, readers also meet Lippi's patron Cosimo de' Medici, the man, it can be argued, who acted as chief midwife to the Renaissance.

See Review


5. The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (2012)

A sensual love story for intelligent readers, The Last Nude brings readers into the world of artist Tamara de Lempicka and the expatriate community of 1920s Paris through the medium of the fictional model for one of de Lempicka's most celebrated paintings. Woven into the love affair between the two women are themes of innocence and betrayal.

See Review


6. The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson (2000)

The husband and wife in The Fox Woman write poetry to each other as part of their everyday routine; in medieval Japan, this is what aristocratic married couples do. A family of foxes lives on the rundown estate to which they retire after a setback. Foxes don't understand poetry, but a strange attraction to the human male who writes it transfixes the little female fox. The novel is as poetic in bringing the tangible world to life as it is in weaving the illusions of fox magic.

See Review


7. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin (2011)

Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump was born in Middleborough, Massachusetts, in 1841, and grew to an adult height of two feet, eight inches. Vinnie was smart and ambitious, and her job as schoolteacher did not give her the challenge she was looking for in life. This novel brings readers into her unusual world, in which the most memorable hardships and satisfactions are not necessarily those that would occur first to a reader's imagination.

See Review


8. The Witches' Kitchen by Cecelia Holland (2004)

Second in Holland's "Corban Loosestrife" series, this novel can easily be read on its own. Holland's forté is the authenticity of her historical settings, from the details of the physical world the characters inhabit to the inner nature of the characters themselves as thinking and feeling beings, shaped by both their humanity and their culture. In this story of an Irish man who has been a Viking slave, the paranormal elements - arising from the way Celt and Viking understood the world, death and power - are in their own way as authentic as everything else.

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9. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer (2012)

In 1850, both Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert toured the Nile. They may never have met - but they could have. Shomer has researched each of her main characters' lives deeply enough to make their encounter both plausible and moving, and to shed light on the social forces arrayed against the choices these two creative and unconventional people made in their lives. There's some evidence their travel in the Nile was life-changing for both Nightingale and Flaubert; it's not too much of a stretch to imagine they could have served as catalysts for each other.

See Review


10. The Solitary House (also titled Tom-All-Alone's) by Lynn Shepherd (2012)

Some think Bleak House is Charles Dickens' best novel. Readers who can't get enough of it will enjoy getting a little more in the form of this mystery built in the spaces where Dickens left scenes and storylines unimagined.

See Review

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Best Historical Novels 2011

The 14 Best Historical Novels I Read in 2010

1. Doc by Mary Doria Russell (2011)

Instead of rehashing the tired mythology of the OK Corrall shoot-out, Russell explores the life and psyche of the gunslinging, tubercular dentist Doc Holliday from the perspective of his "single season of something like happiness" in Dodge City, Kansas. His tender but unsatisfactory relationship with Kate Harony and his friendship with the fanatically honest Wyatt Earp make this a fresh and surprisingly luminous novel: my #1 favorite of the year.

See Review


2. The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman (2011)

This collection of linked short stories about the people of a Massachusetts town features just a touch of Hoffman's trademark magical realism. It begins with the town's founding in 1750 and ends in the present. The stories are tied together by characters whose actions reverberate into the town's later history, and by their themes of yearning and love, especially the love of parents and children.

See Review


3. The Rebirth of Venus by Linda Proud (2008)

I know of no other writer who so captures the vast but intimate passions of the Italian Renaissance and Lorenzo de Medici's Florence. The Rebirth of Venus concludes Linda Proud's "Botticelli Trilogy" and, I believe, is the best of three superb novels. Laced with heartbreak, salved with a sense of hope, this novel covers the last years of Lorenzo and the disastrous rise of Savonarola, while looking ahead to that enduring product of Renaissance thought, the Reformation.

See Review


4. and 5. The Road to Jerusalem (2008) and The Templar Knight (2010) by Jan Guillou

These first two novels in a trilogy about a Swedish templar knight take a deep look at the passions of the Crusades and how they intersected with and influenced Swedish history. At least in English, few novels cover the fascinating history of medieval Sweden, a place where the traditions of the pagan mead hall mingle strangely with the mystical self-denial of medieval Christianity. The Road to Jerusalem traces the portentous childhood and coming-of-age of its fictional hero with a light, often comic touch. The Templar Knight focuses on his twenty years in Palestine, offering unusual insight into the tragic ironies of the Crusades.

See Reviews of The Road to Jerusalem and The Templar Knight


6. Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

First in a trilogy about the Roman politician Cicero, Imperium brings ancient Rome to life. Rule-bound, violent, drenched in politics, it is a fascinating world that, for all its oddness, seems uncomfortably close to our own.

See Review


7. Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain by Margaret Irwin (1953)

The first two novels in Irwin's series about Elizabeth I before she came to the throne held tightly to Elizabeth's personal story. Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain extends its reach to her emotionally tortured sister Mary and Mary's Spanish bridegroom, Prince Philip, a man hagridden by religion and vexed with both hatred and lust for Elizabeth. It's a psychologically acute portrayal of a pivotal time in English history.

See Review


8. Children and Fire by Ursula Hegi (2011)

Children and Fire continues Hegi's loosely bound series of novels that follow her masterpiece Stones from the River, set in the fictional town of Bergdorf, Germany, during the rise of the Nazis. This time, the central character is a schoolteacher with a loving heart, a strong sense of honor, and a guilty conscience. Remorseless in portraying her struggle to guide the boys under her care while the Nazi propaganda machine keeps forcing her to compromise her standards, this painful novel makes it clear that ordinary Germans were both complicit in and themselves victims of the Nazi regime.

See Review


9. To Defy a King by Elizabeth Chadwick (2011)

Chadwick has written several novels about William Marshal and his family. This one revolves around his daughter Mahelt, his cherished favorite as a child, and as a woman, a more self-confident personality than her society found comfortable. As conflicts rise between King John and her husband's family, the Bigods, Mahelt struggles to find the right balance between reckless self-assertion and the equally risky passivity the Bigods would impose on her. A vivid, meticulously researched novel in which the characters spring to life on the page.

See Review


10. The King's Witch by Cecelia Holland (2011)

Cecelia Holland's novels are known for their precision in depicting the time and place of their setting and for the authenticity of the characters' thoughts, feelings and behavior. This can make them alienating to readers looking for an emotionally moving story with characters a modern reader can easily relate to. But for readers who want, above all, to understand the past and the people who lived there, few novelists are more compelling. The King's Witch is about a fictional woman in the coterie of Richard's bride, Berengaria, in Holy Land to wed Richard. The novel especially shines when exploring Richard's tortured motives for crusading and their unjust, bloody consequences.

See Review


11. The Doctor and the Diva by Adrienne McDonnell (2010)

Evocative, sexy and psychologically astute, The Doctor and the Diva is a romantic novel for intelligent readers who appreciate fine prose. It may surprise some to learn that infertility treatments in 1903 were as advanced as they were. In the repressive atmosphere of the time, infertile couples who resorted to medical intervention did not openly discuss it, creating an atmosphere of secrecy that magnifies the sense of intimacy between the woman and her physician.

See Review


12. The Cats in the Doll Shop by Yona Zeldis McDonough (2011)

This charming story for preteen girls makes this year's list because it's as good a children's story as any of the above novels for adults are in their own class. Eleven-year-old Anna lives above her parents' doll shop. Her experiences with a cousin made homeless by the war in Russia and with an abused kitten will win hearts. Anna is Jewish. The loving spirit of the story transcends particulars like religion, making it suitable for girls of all backgrounds.

See Review


13. Prophecy by S.J. Parris (2011)

Prophecy is the second in a mystery series featuring the Renaissance scholar Giordano Bruno as sleuth. Some historical evidence suggests the possibility that Bruno might have spied for Queen Elizabeth's adviser Francis Walsingham, and this series takes the idea and runs with it, to superb effect. In Prophecy, Bruno's conscience is put through a wringer as he spies on the French ambassador, a man who has been particularly kind to him.

See Review


14. The School of Night by Louis Bayard (2011)

The School of Night straddles the modern world, in which a failed academic is tempted with an Elizabethan document, and Elizabethan England, where astronomer Thomas Herriot is has developed a telescope months before Galileo did. The modern portion of the story offers a well-crafted but not particularly outstanding mystery. What will ravish readers in love with the mysterious ambiance of the past is the Renaissance tale of Herriot and the love Bayard imagines for him.

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Best Historical Novels 2010

The Twenty Best Historical Novels I Read in 2010

1. Private Life by Jane Smiley (2010)

A woman's domestic life can be as tense and dramatic as any other kind of life, and sometimes as relevant to life in the public arena. Smiley's protagonist in this absorbing novel must sort out whether her astronomer husband's pet projects are the result of his undeniable brilliance or his shaky grasp on reality. Both characters, along with their supporting cast, are richly drawn and all too believable, making this novel as mesmerizing as any set on the high seas or in the halls of political power.

See Review


2. The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon (2009)

Plenty of novels have been written about Alexander the Great. This one centers on Aristotle's work as tutor to Alexander as a child. It portrays these two larger-than-life historical people with an intimacy, humor and sympathy that makes them seem utterly real without diminishing the greatness of either. Did history change course when Aristotle, the champion of moderation, agreed to tutor Alexander, still a symbol of what can be achieved - and lost - when the accepted limitations on human endeavor are disregarded?

See Review


3. The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland (2010)

Cecelia Holland is revered by discriminating readers of historical fiction for her ability to conjure up any number of historical periods with extraordinary authenticity. Sometimes her novels can be a bit on the dry side because of characters who seem less than fully sympathetic to modern readers or plots that move more like underground rivers than rushing mountain streams. But The Secret Eleanor succeeds as a page-turner as much because of the vivid authenticity of its setting as for its engaging characters and exciting, twisty plot.

See Review


4. A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury by Edith Pargeter (1972)

In a cynical modern world in which it sometimes seems money is everything and everyone has a price, it's refreshing to read about characters who value integrity and the public good even above their own lives. Pargeter has reworked characters familiar from Shakespeare's play Henry IV, Prince Hal and Harry "Hotspur" Percy, into a story of growing up that is decidedly not for children or those looking for easy answers to questions of honor.

See Review


5. The Wilding by Maria McCann (2010)

Another novel about moral questions, The Wilding is one of a number of recent novels set in seventeenth-century England and revolving around the English Civil War - in this case, its effects on the next generation. U.S. publishers evidently think readers here shun this setting, because The Wilding so far has not found a home this side of the Atlantic. It's worth special-ordering for its brilliantly twisty plot with surprises around every corner that keep ratcheting up the tension and for its sophisticated theme, as well as for the sheer evocative beauty of the writing.

See Review


6. Elizabeth, Captive Princess by Margaret Irwin (1948)

Historical novelists love writing about England's Queen Elizabeth I, and readers love reading about her, so there are novels aplenty starring this remarkable woman. For its sheer vivacity and sparkle, this oldie but goodie still belongs near the top of the heap. It's the second in Irwin's trilogy about Elizabeth as a princess, but can easily be read as a standalone if readers can bear to skip the other two, Young Bess (see review) and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain. This one begins with the death of her brother, Edward VI, and covers her struggle to stay alive without giving up her claim to a place in the succession.

See Review


7. Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan (2010)

Numerous readers still cherish Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights, but the sisters' lives were even more harrowing than those of the characters in their novels. Actually, this novel's U.K. title, A Taste of Sorrow, better conveys the classy writing and scope of this novel, which centers on Charlotte's life and includes sister Anne and brother Branwell as characters of perhaps equal importance to Emily. By timing the ending skillfully, Morgan delivers a satisfying happy ending without violating the factual underpinnings of Charlotte's life.

See Review


8. The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse (2009)

This novel for teens was as skillfully written and delightful to read as any of the adult novels I read this year. Perhaps its most outstanding quality is its humor, as a spunky medieval maidservant narrates her story of going on pilgrimage with her immensely trying mistress, the historical Margery Kempe. But just because it's funny doesn't mean it's shallow. The ending brought tears to my eyes.

See Review


9. For the King by Catherine Delors (2010)

I'm not usually a fan of thrillers, but this one was not only tense enough to keep me turning pages, it was also sophisticated enough to engage my intellect. Delors brings France in the early years of Napoleon's reign to life with vivid, well-researched details woven into a taut story with characters who feel so real you can touch them. And I learned a lot about the wide variety of responses Parisians had to the Revolution. Not everyone was pleased to have Napoleon take over from the Jacobin revolutionaries.

See Review


10. Percival's Planet by Michael Byers (2010)

Pluto has been in the news lately, demoted from a full-fledged planet to a mere dwarf planet, so this story of Pluto's discovery just before the Great Depression smacked down on the U.S. is timely. Even if it weren't, the cast of characters would be enough to make this novel a treat. A high-school-educated Kansas farm boy persistent enough to grind his own telescope lenses, an amateur paleontologist and a ravishingly beautiful girl with a psychotic delusion are just three of the fascinating characters who converge on the second-rate observatory in the Arizona desert where Pluto was about to be discovered.

See Review


11. Ransom by David Malouf (2009)

This slender, poetic novel is far from slight. Malouf revisits the story of the Iliad from the perspective of Priam, King of Troy. Like a poem, this novel especially rewards readers who slow down to let the images and ideas unfurl, because there's a richness of meaning here that takes time to absorb.

See Review


12. Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase-Riboud (1979)

This novel about the young slave woman who almost surely bore children to Thomas Jefferson over the course of a long relationship was published just five years after Fawn Brodie's controversial biography of Jefferson burst on the scene and made the case for their relationship. DNA evidence didn't confirm the genetic connection between Hemings's children and Jefferson until 1998. But this is not a novel about genetics and evidence. It's about the human heart and the complications of love between a man and a woman struggling with an inhuman system.

See Review


13. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (2008)

Readers who love novels about family secrets will love the slow unraveling of the secrets in this novel, which revolve around the love of mothers for daughters and the heartache of not knowing who one really is. We call many things love; some of them damage, and some of them heal. This novel is about three generations of women and the painful secret that must be revealed at long last before the healing can come.

See Review


14. Ross Poldark by Winston Graham (1945)

Readers of a certain age may remember the "Poldark" TV miniseries on Masterpiece Theatre. Well, the book is better. The hairstyles and the women's make-up don't get dated, and a novel lasts longer than a one-hour television episode. There's a love story here, with the ambitious waif Demelza setting her cap for none other than the master of the house, Ross Poldark, but there's a lot more. Readers will get a thorough, heart-wrenching portrayal of the divide between the relatively rich and the dreadfully poor in the Cornish mining country of the late eighteenth century.

See Review


15. A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell (2010)

The first half of this novel is better than the last half, but the first half is good enough to land the whole novel on this list. It's a romp featuring a young oculist, a beautiful but neurotic young woman, Sigmund Freud and a dybbuk - a wandering dead soul capable of possessing the bodies of the living. It's funny, tragic and, given the story's general outrageousness, astonishingly true to history. And it's not that the second half of the novel is bad - it just pales by comparison with the first half.

See Review


16. Dissolution by C.J. Sansom (2003)

I kept hearing good things about Sansom's mystery series featuring a hunchbacked lawyer in Henry VIII's England, so I finally made time to read this first installment. It works as a mystery in every way, but has as much depth and perspective as a solid, serious historical novel. Shardlake, the sleuth, works for Thomas Cromwell, so this novel makes superb reading for anyone anxiously awaiting Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall. The Cromwell of this novel is darker than Mantel's Cromwell but by no means a cardboard villain, and Dissolution is set during the later period of Cromwell's ascendancy to be covered in the Wolf Hall sequel.

See Review


17. The Edge of Ruin by Irene Fleming (2010)

This is a really funny mystery, if you like just a touch of the macabre in your humor. The heroine's husband comes home one day and announces they're going into the movie business. This is in 1909 when movies, still produced mainly in New York and New Jersey, were in their infancy and more likely to be a ticket to poverty than to wealth, especially since Thomas A. Edison was determined to keep movie-making as his own private monopoly. To tell the truth, I can't remember whodunnit any longer, but I do remember how hard I laughed and what I learned about the early days of moving pictures.

See Review


18. The Convict's Sword by I.J. Parker (2009)

There's nothing like an exotic setting, and medieval Japan is as exotic as they come. And yet, despite their exoticism, the characters in this mystery often feel as familiar as the folks down the street (assuming a few of them are rather thuggish). Akitada's struggles with the bureaucracy in his government job seem quite twenty-first-century despite the elaborate court gowns and imperial hierarchy involved. The suspense of his hunt for a ruthless killer will have readers glued to the page.

See Review


19. A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters (2010)

There's a reason why the Amelia Peabody mystery series has so many devoted fans. Passionate turn-of-the-century archaeologist Amelia is a character who simply can't be topped. She has a sharp and witty tongue to match the sharp tip of her umbrella, a weapon as handy in its own way as Dirty Harry's revolver, but she's as likely to use her tongue and wits in the pursuit of righteous compassion as in the lashing of unwary idiots (usually men). Reading this mystery, #19 in the series, inspired me to track down #1 (Crocodile on the Sandbank, see review). I'll be reading more of them.

See Review


20. Requiem in Vienna by J. Sydney Jones (2010)

This mystery is full of well-drawn characters, some fictional, some based on historical figures. It's also a puzzler that will keep readers guessing. And it offers some scenes of hair-raising suspense. But the real star of the show is fin-de-siécle Vienna. Jones lived in Vienna for some years and has written nonfiction about the city, but it takes real writerly magic to conjure up the Vienna of the past, and he does it so masterfully readers will almost feel they're physically there (and are likely to wish the food the characters tuck into was physically in front of them).

See Review

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Best Historical Novels 2009

The Twenty Best Historical Novels I Read in 2009

1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

This rich, intelligent novel won the 2009 Booker Prize for good reason. Wolf Hall offers a fresh, fascinating perspective on a period one might think had been done to death: the years when Henry VIII of England struggled for a papal dispensation to set aside his queen of many years, Katherine of Aragon, so he could marry the luscious vixen Anne Boleyn and obtain a son in legitimate wedlock. Mantel audaciously chooses Henry's minister Thomas Cromwell as her entry point into the controversy and paints a compelling, sympathetic portrait of him in contrast to a not-so-saintly Thomas More.

See Review


2. The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover (2008)

Luminous and utterly unlike any other novel set in the Middle Ages that I have read, The Jewel Trader of Pegu is about a Venetian Jew, still mourning the untimely death of his wife, who travels to exotic Pegu (later part of Burma) on a jewel-buying expedition for his uncle. Here he is a much greater curiosity to people for being European than for being a Jew. As he sheds the part of his identity shaped by being an object of prejudice, he begins to shed his own prejudices as well. I loved this novel because of the vast sense of compassion emanating from it.

See Review


3. Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell (2008)

Few novelists write as well about warfare as Bernard Cornwell. Agincourt, about the battle the army of Henry V fought near that location in 1415 during the Hundred Years' War, strikes just the right balance of fear, courage, pride, the exhilaration of survival, and horror at war's carnage. He also conveys the medieval mind, a mixture of ruthless practicality and proneness to superstition and mystical visions, with unusual skill. I would want to be any closer to the real thing than Cornwell brought me in this novel.

See Review


4. The Wet Nurse's Tale by Erica Eisdorfer (2009)

The spunky, plain-spoken but funny heroine of this novel is no beauty. I fell in love with her partly because of that – and also because of her combination of survival instincts and generosity of spirit. I knew that aristocratic women of the past often gave their babies into the care of wet nurses to be suckled and raised for the first few years, but I knew very little about the lives of the wet nurses themselves. This well-researched novel opened my eyes to the wrenching dilemmas many of them faced.

See Review


5. Devil's Dream by Madison Smartt Bell (2009)

Unlike his fellow Confederate generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest was born into poverty, raised himself to a position of wealth through the distasteful occupations of slave trading and land speculation, and had no formal military training. Hthe had courage and intelligence to spare, though, and a more complex relationship with his slaves than stereotypes might suggest. Madison Smartt Bell does him justice in a novel that keeps circling back to the Fort Pillow Massacre, one of the most searing, shocking events of the American Civil War, adding layers of meaning each time.

See Review


6. Quakertown by Lee Martin (2001)

Quakertown is the story of a black girl whose overabundant compassion lands her in trouble when she falls in love with a white boy and also a proud black World War I veteran. It is also the story of a thriving black community betrayed by one of its most respected members, a man who meant well but loved his magnificent garden just a little too much. Though many of the characters behave badly, no one in this graceful, inspiring novel, black or white, can be easily condemned.

See Review


7. Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland (2008)

Many novels have been written about the mistresses of kings, but Gulland's tale stands out because the love story between young Louise de la Vallière and King Louis XIV plays second fiddle to the love story between Louise and a remarkable white horse. Absolute monarchy breeds narcissism, and it's a rare king who did not break the hearts of the women who loved him. Here, the precise, insightful writing and the story of woman and horse add dimension and a note of spiritual triumph to what might otherwise have been a tale of depressing familiarity.

See Review


8. The Scent of Sake by Joyce Lebra (2009)

Readers can't help but empathize with the eager-to-please, sensually alive sake brewer's daughter in this novel of nineteenth century Japan. Rie lives for her father's goal of making their family brewery the best in Japan – even though, as a woman, she is forbidden to enter the brewing rooms lest her unauspicious presence sour the brew. But as we follow Rie's story, we gradually become aware what she does to herself is more tragic than what others do to her. More depth and complexity emerge from this novel than its easy-to-follow story would suggest.

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9. The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan (2009)

Bess, the daughter of a man who worked in the management of the Niagara Falls power plant, and Tom, the young riverman she falls in love with, are everyday people, loving and lovable, interesting and individual. Even Tom, modeled after a historical figure who could seem larger than life, has a simplicity that makes his unusual abilities and his heroism seem perfectly natural. Sometimes lyrical, the prose is also straightforward, so that the beauty of the way something is said never obscures the meaning of what is being said. The novel's theme deals with death and spirituality in a graceful way that never preaches.

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10. Pallas and the Centaur by Linda Proud (2004)

A sequel to A Tabernacle for the Sun, which appears on my "Best of 2008" list below, this novel delves more deeply into the conflicts between old ideas and new at the beginning of the Renaissance. Too often, philosophy seems like a dry, abstract endeavor without direct application to people's lives in the real world. Even more than A Tabernacle for the Sun, this novel shows how intensely, wrenchingly emotional the ramifications of the new ideas that gave birth to the Renaissance could be and how powerfully they affected people's daily lives.

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11. The Fire of Origins by Emmanuel Dongala (1987)

It can be tempting to attribute Africa's problems entirely to its history of being exploited under colonialism (or entirely to the failings of Africans). The surrealism of this slender novel is, ironically, what allows it to grapple so perceptively and realistically with the roots of Africa's problems not only in the brutality of the colonizers, but also in the greed and passivity of Africans who enabled the colonization process. Time is condensed for its hero, who lives through the history of Africa from before Europeans arrived until after Africans finally won their independence, and reaches a point of genuinely joyful insight.

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12. Rifling Paradise by Jem Poster (2006)

The best historical novels are directly relevant to modern issues, illuminating dynamics so entrenched they may seem immutable by tracking back to their origins in the past. Some of the characters in Rifling Paradise are sympathetic, some appallingly unsympathetic, but both types of characters play a role in the exploitation of Australia's primeval natural environment. Weaving through this gripping, suspenseful story are subtleties of language and incident that offer important clues to additional layers of irony and insight, a treasure trove for the thoughtful reader who enjoys tracing them.

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13. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)

This novel is remarkable for its atmosphere, so thick and foreboding you could cut it with a knife. Two young women, each psychologically deformed by the differently exploitive ways in which they were brought up, meet, grow close, and make a desperate bid for freedom. In dreams, a house is often a symbol of the self, and Fingersmith mines the tradition of the Gothic novel to create a house whose isolation, mystery and confining atmosphere reflect the lives of its inhabitants.

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14. Arabella by Georgette Heyer (1949)

Sometimes, you don't need or want a book to be deeply reflective or psychologically or morally illuminating. You just want it to be great fun. Deliciously witty and full of dilemmas that grow more excruciating by the page, Georgette Heyer's Regency romances supply fun in abundance. WhiArabella is like a tasty dessert, it's also the result of meticulous research, so readers who "know too much" about nineteenth-century English mores and customs won't be tripped up by anachronisms.

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15. Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton (2009)

Pirate Latitudes plunges readers into a death-defying adventure. Like Arabella, it's a novel to be read for pure fun, but the flavor is red meat rather than chocolate mousse. It's violent, fast-paced and full of plot twists to keep you on the edge of your seat. Improbable encounters and last-minute escapes from the jaws of death are supported by a wealth of well-researched details to provide that crucial illusion of reality that fosters suspension of disbelief.

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16. The Cavalier of the Apocalypse by Susanne Alleyn (2009)

Set on the eve of the French Revolution, this is a prequel to other mysteries in the "Aristide Ravel" series that take place after the Revolution, and it can easily be enjoyed as an introduction to the series for readers who haven't read the others. Along with a genuinely intriguing mystery and a portrayal of one of the most remarkable (but little known) historical figures of the time, it offers insights into the pre-Revolutionary period that go deeper than the usual pat explanations of what led to the Revolution.

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17. Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie (2009)

This novel is remarkable in portraying both the pagans and the Christians of Roman Britain and Gaul with respect and sympathy. The third in a series, it centers on a Roman army physician and his mistress, a woman of the Brigantian tribe in northern Britain. Their misunderstandings about each other as she gives him crucial assistance in unraveling a difficult mystery reflect the clash of cultures between Roman and Briton. The novel is also very funny.

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18. Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom (2006)

Winter in Madrid captures the exhaustion and diminished sense of hope in Spain after its Civil War. Amid the floods of novels about World War II, the Spanish Civil War has been relatively neglected by novelists. Reminiscent of Graham Greene, this mystery of slowly building intensity, which becomes a thriller in the later chapters, portrays with unsparing realism the tragic interplay among politics, war, and the desires, hopes and cruelties of individual humans.

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19. Cézanne's Quarry by Barbara Corrado Pope (2009)

An inexperienced judge left in charge during the August vacation season in Aix-en-Provence must find out who murdered a beautiful young woman and left her body in a quarry where the artist Paul Cézanne had been painting. It seems she had been his mistress. Skillful prose makes the stifling midsummer heat in nineteenth-century Provence almost physically present for the reader, and the setting echoes the characters' suppressed, hothouse emotions in this psychologically astute novel.

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20. Race for the Dying by Steven F. Havill (2009)

Less a mystery than a meditation on the frailty of the human body, the power and limits of ego, and the temptations of the medical profession, Race for the Dying is about a naive young doctor who joins the practice of an old family friend in a small, late-nineteenth-century logging town on the Washington coast. It is all too relevant to the modern world in showing how easily people can fool themselves and others into believing exploitation is really altruism.

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Best Historical Novels 2008

The Ten Best Historical Novels I Read in 2008

1. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (2008)

The novel opens with a modern man wrecking his car, which bursts into flame. I fell in love with the woman who visits him in the hospital burn ward. Somehow, it's beside the point that we never know quite who she is (a time-traveler? a reincarnated fourteenth century German nun? a sweet but delusional mental patient who has researched medieval German mystics much too thoroughly?). She's a rich and multi-dimensional character, and I felt like she was right in the room with me as I read. Plus, I learned a lot about fourteenth century German mystics.

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1. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann (2001)

This is another novel that puts readers right inside the skin (unburned this time) of its main character, a man of violent impulses and a deep yearning for love. He's not a nice guy, but his clumsy, often counterproductive efforts to find a human connection won my sympathy without winning my approval. This novel introduced me to the seventeenth century Diggers movement, an idealistic but poorly organized group that, amid the carnage of the English Civil War, tried to take over uncultivated land to develop agricultural communes.

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1. Conceit by Mary Novik (2007)

Also set in the seventeenth century, Conceit couldn't be more different from As Meat Loves Salt, except that once again the characters sprang to life as I read. You don't need to know or admire John Donne's poetry to appreciate his daughter's yearning to experience the kind of passion he wrote about, or her frustration with his insistence (now that he is Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral) that such emotions are unworthy of himself and his family. There's no violence, unless you count the hazards of falling cathedral beams during the Great Fire of London.

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1. A Tabernacle for the Sun by Linda Proud (2005)

Right away, the beautiful prose in this novel made me feel I was in the hands of a master. Shortly thereafter, the story of a young man's search for fulfillment in Lorenzo de Medici's Florence fully won me over. Most novels set in Renaissance Italy irritate me with the superficiality of the characters' desires. Renaissance Florentines were indeed wealthy beyond the dreams of most Europeans of their day. Many of their concerns were indeed superficial. For some, though, wealth provided an avenue to learning and philosophy. Young Tommaso burns with desire for two incompatible but decidedly unsuperficial things: revenge for the Florentines' destruction of his city, and spiritual understanding.

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1. Great Maria by Cecelia Holland (1974)

Sometimes the plot flows underground through stretches of this novel as Holland focuses on Maria's daily life in medieval Norman Sicily, but it does flow. Immured in her marriage to an equally strong-willed husband who, as men of his time did, considered wives to be under the dominion of their husbands, Maria requires patience and cunning along with her will and determination in order to win a measure of control over her own life. The power of this novel is in the power of Maria's personality, and also in Holland's extraordinary ability to convey not just the external world of a past time, but also the internal attitudes of its people, something few writers are able to achieve so thoroughly and gracefully.

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1. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931)

Buck won a Pulitzer Prize for this novel in 1932. She deserved it. Her characters are simple farmers living in the last decades of Imperial China. Her prose is plain and earthy, but singing. Readers experience everything through the viewpoint of the man Wang Lung, who marries a former slave girl. Because he is so poor, he feels lucky to get her, but she has no beauty to excite his heart. He treats her as a workhorse. The novel seems to be about Wang Lung's struggle to rise out of poverty, but by the time I reached the end, I thought it was really about his wife's ever-so-patient campaign to win his respect. And then, of course, there's the land …

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1. The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman (1982)

This is a splendid, big novel with a love story at its center that will thrill readers looking for heart-wrenching romance. It's no literary novel: the characters are bigger than life, and the prose is competent without being lyrical. But the characters' passions, whether romantic or political, are rich, lusty and infectious. Most people remember this novel for its controversial portrayal of Richard III as a paragon of virtue who, far from murdering his nephews (the famous Princes in the Tower), treated them with consistent kindness. But it's almost as much about his brother Edward, king before him. It's a compelling novel of the Wars of the Roses.

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1. The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton (1958)

This was the first Anya Seton novel I read as a teenager, when I relished the stirring (not very graphic) love scenes. It sparked a Seton binge, and this novel and Katherine have lingered in my memory for decades. Rereading it this year, I was delighted to find I enjoyed it as much as ever. It's not really a romance, but a novel about a woman's life amid the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Company and migrated to the American Colonies, and of her struggle to exchange the harsh and unbending Puritan view of religion for a more gentle, mystical and consoling experience.

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1. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008)

I'm not usually a big fan of sweep-of-history novels that dip into one time period with a brief story, then skip ahead a century or so to the next one. Brooks makes this work, though, because each of her stories is in itself a beautifully written, absorbing tale that would be worth reading even if the rest of the book were not. But it is. The stories are linked by the passage through time and place of a unique, illustrated Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book. The novel was inspired by a real Haggadah that, like its fictional counterpart, survived the bombing of Sarajevo.

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1. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (2007)

This mystery novel has been criticized for its portrayal of a medieval woman whose work resembles that of a modern coroner perhaps a little too much for the medieval context. I was willing to suspend disbelief, because the character is engaging and does come from southern Italy, where the Arabic-influenced approach to medicine was less benighted than in the rest of Europe. It's worth reading even for those fussy about such details, because the portrayal of King Henry II near the novel's conclusion is nothing less than brilliant. Ariana Franklin is a pen name of Diana Norman, whose well-regarded 1980 novel Fitzempress' Law, also about Henry II and his legal reforms, has never been published in the U.S. and is scarce as hens' teeth here.

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