Do you prefer lopping off heads from horseback on the Mongolian steppes or delivering subtly devastating rejoinders over tea in a Victorian drawing room? This site features reviews of novels old and new to suit your taste. See below for the latest, or check out the Book Review Directory. Author interviews are featured from time to time. Those that no longer appear below can be found via the Articles page.
Cecelia Holland is one of the premier historical novelists, known for the authenticity of her settings. A goal of mine is to have every one of her novels reviewed on the website. It's come one review closer to fulfillment today with David Maclaine's review of her 1969 novel Until the Sun Falls, an exceptional portrayal of life among the Mongols after the death of Genghis Khan. For more about this novel, see David's review of Until the Sun Falls.
Would you have guessed that in 1795 the twenty-six-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte wrote a love story? He did. More than 200 years later, his novella Clisson et Eugénie finally found a publisher in France. An English edition from Gallic Books has just been published, as well. What kind of a writer was Napoleon? See the review of Clisson and Eugénie for my humble opinion.
This was the year I moved to a new city with my true love, set up an AirBnB guest cottage, got involved in starting a new Arts Center, and began working once again on a novel I've been trying to write for several years. So I didn't have quite as much time for reading as I've had in some years past. I did, however, manage to squeeze in some excellent historical novels.
This year's list, The Best Historical Novels I Read in 2013, is as varied as past years' lists, including everything from literary novels to a mystery, a novel for teens, and a couple of historical romances. It includes novels newly published in 2013 as well as some novels published in the past. They're all well worth reading!
Harry Sidebottom's Warrior of Rome series covers a period of Roman history otherwise neglected by historical novelists - the third century, when Rome's eastern Empire came under attack by a variety of other peoples and almost fell. In The Wolves of the North, the threat which the novel's hero must contend with comes from horse warriors from the steppes. For more about this novel, see David Maclaine's review of The Wolves of the North.
This week, James McBride, author of The Good Lord Bird, won the U.S. National Book Award. The novel, set in the Kansas Territory in 1857, is about Henry, a young slave, who joins abolitionist James Brown after Brown and his master get into an argument that turns violent. Henry is still with Brown in 1859 during the raid on Harper's Ferry, one of the turning points in history that led to the Civil War.
This is not the first historical novel McBride has written. Song Yet Sung is the story of a slave woman who escapes into Maryland's swamps, where she uses a code to communicate with other runaway slaves.
Novels about witches are not always beautifully written, but Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate is a genuinely literary novel that subtly guides readers to share - at least while immersed in the novel - some of the more eerie imaginings of early seventeenth-century England. The characters are based on real people, most of them either the persecutors or the persecuted in the 1612 witchcraft trials in Lancashire County, England. For more about this short, intense novel, see the review of The Daylight Gate.
A goal of mine is to have reviews of all of Cecelia Holland's historical novels on this website. David Maclaine, another reader who appreciates her work, is helping me move toward that goal. Today's new review is of The Earl, one of Holland's earlier novels, set during the war between Stephen and Matilda for England's throne, and published in 1971. I read it decades ago and can still vividly remember my impressions of certain characters. For more about this novel, see David's review of The Earl.
Coming soon: a review of Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate
It's a sad fact that the best of a year's crop of historical novels are not necessarily sent to me as review books. That was the case with a novel that will appear near the top of the forthcoming "Best Novels I Read in 2013" list. The Son, by Philipp Meyer, dives into Texas history with a ranching family stemming from a man whose natural survival instinct was honed by captivity and adoption by a band of Comanches. The novel dissects the Texas way of life - and by extension the American obsession with rugged individuality - as a product of its decidedly unromantic frontier history. For more about this novel, see the review of The Son.
That notorious family of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Italy, the Borgias, are at either the center or the periphery of numerous historical novels. David Maclaine reviews what must surely be one of the best: Cecelia Holland's City of God. Holland is a novelist for connoisseurs of historical novels who care more about the characters being true to their time and place than sympathetic to modern sensibilities. Ruthless, amoral characters often figure in Holland's novels, and it would be hard to find anyone more ruthless or amoral than Rodrigo Borgia, the man who was Pope Alexander VI. This novel views him through the eyes of an ambassador's secretary who reports home to another celebrated figure of the time, Niccolo Machiavelli. For more about this novel, see David's review of City of God.
Coming soon: More reviews and an annotated list of the best historical novels I read in 2013.
The Châtelet Apprentice is the first in a mystery series originally published in France which now includes ten novels, six of which have been translated into English and published in the U.K. Now Gallic Books has published The Châtelet Apprentice in the U.S. The series has been popular in France, but reviewer David Maclaine found the novel lacking. See his review, check out the novel's opening pages at Amazon.com (along with the very mixed reviews there), and judge for yourself whether this mystery is likely to turn you on or off.
One of the more intriguing episodes of the early Middle Ages is the gift of an elephant from the Caliph of Baghdad Haroun al-Rashid to the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne. Tim Severin's second novel in the Saxon series, The Emperor's Elephant, just published this August, is a tale of travel, discovery and suspense crafted around that episode. Reviewer David Maclaine finds a "great charm" in its "look into the mentality of a bygone age, when creatures now extinct walked the earth, but wild fantasy still crowded the received knowledge of natural history." For more about this novel, see his review of The Emperor's Elephant.
Author Anthony McCarten proves historical novels don't have to be 500-page doorstoppers to be intensely imagined and thought-provoking. Brilliance portrays inventor Thomas Edison and the moral quicksand he becomes mired in after joining forces with financier J.P. Morgan to market electric light. The novel was just published last month by Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts of Portland, Oregon. Readers wondering if today's small presses are all just fronts for exploiting writers and readers for a quick buck can rest assured that small presses do still exist which are committed to publishing high quality literary works in a polished manner that respects both author and reader. For more about this superb novel, see the review of Brilliance.
With the new "Pacific Northwest" page, the "Travel by Novel" section now includes seven destinations. Whether you're planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest area - Oregon, Washington, and parts of Idaho and Montana in the U.S. and British Columbia in Canada - or simply want to visit vicariously through the pages of a novel, this new page features a handy list of historical novels set in the Pacific Northwest. For many, there are links to reviews so you can get a better idea whether the book suits your reading fancy.
Other pages in the Travel by Novel section are: Austria, Ireland, Morocco, New Orleans, Paris, San Antonio and Washington D.C. Readers - if you're planning a trip to somewhere rich in history, please let me know via the contact form - time permitting, I may be able to create a "Travel by Novel" page for your destination.
Some historical novels beg to be taken seriously as cautionary tales for our own time. Reviewer Annis finds that Jim Crace's Harvest is one of these, a beautifully written tale of the disaster that ensues when the landowner in a small village (probably in the Tudor era, a time of widespread enclosure of what had previously been common grazing land) breaks faith with old custom and the needs of his tenants. For more about his novel, see Annis's review of Harvest.
Just published today, Caribbee is #14 in Julian Stockwin's Kydd series about a British seaman during the Napoleonic Wars. Reviewer David Maclaine finds "a special glow to the author's recreation of the Caribbean Islands as they were in the early nineteenth century." Readers with a craving for sweets will appreciate the importance of the Caribbean sugar trade to the British at the turn of the nineteenth century - and it's Napoleon's effort to disrupt it that occupies Captain Kydd in this novel. For more about it, see David's review of Caribbee.
The Officer's Prey is the first in a series of detective novels by French author Armand Cabasson featuring an officer in Napoleon's army as sleuth. A new English edition in paperback of The Officer's Prey appeared this month from Gallic Books in London. This is not a typical murder mystery - as Napoleon's army pillages its way across Europe toward Moscow, the irony of looking for one murderer among an army of conscripts and volunteers with orders to kill is a strong theme. For more about this mystery novel, see the review of The Officer's Prey.
Betrayal, #13 in Julian Stockwin's Kydd naval adventure series, takes readers to South America during the Napoleonic Wars. Reviewer David Maclaine says it will "keep readers hooked." So if you're as hooked on this series as David, you'll be glad to know the next novel in the series, Caribbee, is coming out next week - David's review will be posted Friday. Meanwhile, here's his review of Betrayal to keep your appetite whetted.
A group of recently published novels has been added to the Ancient History page, most of them military adventure novels set in the Roman Empire by authors like Conn Iggulden, Ben Kane and Harry Sidebottom. But there are also two new Christian-themed novels in the "Biblical/Ancient Middle East" section:
Stephanie Landsem, The Well (2013), about a Samaritan woman and her reviled mother, whose lives are changed by the Jewish teacher Jesus.
Diana Wallis Taylor, Claudia, Wife of Pontius Pilate (2013), a novel which imagines the life of Pontius Pilate's wife; Christian message.
More new listings will be going up over the next few days, as well as several new reviews and a new "Travel by Novel" page.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the British and French battled for control of the Dutch colony at Cape Town, South Africa. After defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar, the British sent a fleet back to Cape Town, once again under Dutch rule. Conquest, the title of novel #12 in Julian Stockwin's Kydd series, tells the final outcome of this venture - but this British victory was by no means assured or easy. Reviewer David Maclaine found the novel "grippingly suspenseful." For more about the story, see his review of Conquest.
I just answered a serious survey about how readers approach historical fiction. Author M.K. Tod designed it in collaboration with Richard Lee, Founder of the Historical Novel Society. It's a thoughtful survey that's fast and easy to respond to. If you're interested, the link is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/JCG7NYP.
Before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon dominated Europe through his victories on land. The British dominated the sea. At Trafalgar, these two powers came together in a naval battle that would determine the course of history. Admiral Horatio Nelson, commanding the British Navy, decided on a daring and unusual battle plan, engaging the French Navy head-on. A number of novels portray this battle. Today, David Maclaine reviews Julian Stockwin's Victory, which takes its hero through the chase leading up to Trafalgar, with the great naval battle as the novel's climax. David says readers will "share the keen suspense felt by men engaged in a crucial search for an elusive enemy, so much so that we begin to forget that we know very well how this grand dance will end." For more about this novel, #11 in the Kydd Sea Adventures series, see the review of Victory.
Tomorrow: a new Travel-by-Novel page: America's Pacific Northwest
It's hard to imagine having a more difficult job than Charles Sanson, chief executioner of Paris in the years leading up to the French Revolution. By all accounts, he was a compassionate man who gained a surprising amount of respect in a time when there was little to respect about the French legal system. Susanne Alleyn's latest novel, The Executioner's Heir, is about his early life, from the time he had to take up his father's profession as a young teenager into his late twenties. This is a skillfully written self-published novel by an author whose past work has been published by New York houses like Minotaur and Soho, and it compares favorably with other traditionally published novels, both in the quality of the writing and in the high standard of the publication values. For more about it, see the review of The Executioner's Heir.
October is a good time of the year for those of us in northern climes to travel closer to the equator. Thanks to website visitor Fiona Hurley, who compiled a list of novels set in Morocco, our new "Travel by Novel: Morocco" page offers reading for travelers (by air, sea, land or the pages of a book) planning a visit to this fascinating country. It's our seventh "Travel by Novel" page, joining pages on Austria, Ireland, New Orleans, Paris, San Antonio and Washington D.C. Readers - if you're planning a trip to somewhere rich in history, please let me know via the contact form - time permitting, I may be able to create a "Travel by Novel" page for your destination.
In Invasion, #10 in Julian Stockwin's naval warfare series, Kydd, Napoleon's invasion of British waters is imminent, and the British are considering a horrible new weapon invented by American Robert Fulton which could give them an edge over the French - if the French don't get it first. For more about this novel, see David Maclaine's review of Invasion.
Professor Bruce Holsinger of the University of Virginia is offering a free online course in historical fiction, Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction, through the Coursera website. I've never taken a course through this website, so can't endorse it based on personal experience, but the description of the course looks good - and it's free to anyone 18 and over who signs up. Professor Holsinger has lined up five authors of historical fiction to discuss their work: Jane Alison, author of The Love Artist (see our review); Geraldine Brooks, author of The Year of Wonders and other historical novels (see our review of People of the Book); Yangsze Choo, author of The Ghost Bride; Katherine Howe, author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (see our review); and Mary Beth Keane, author of Fever. I've signed up for the course, because there's always more to learn about historical fiction!
The first book my new book discussion group has chosen to read is The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Set in Barcelona during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the plot turns on events which occurred during the war. It's both a thriller and a love story, as well as a coming-of-age novel, and the suspense never lets up. My book group meets this Sunday, and I expect we'll have a lot to talk about. For more about this novel, see the review of The Shadow of the Wind.
Coming soon: Two new "Travel by Novel" pages, a review of Susanne Alleyn's new novel about a Paris executioner, and more reviews of the Kydd naval adventure novels by Julian Stockwin
David Maclaine's series of reviews of Julian Stockwin's Kydd series continues with #9 in the series: The Privateer's Revenge. In the early months of 1804, there really was a plot to kidnap Napoleon Bonaparte. The embroilment of Kydd's friend Renzi in this plot is only one of the adventures in the novel. For more about them, see David's review of The Privateer's Revenge.
Coming soon: a review of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Tracy Barrett's 2010 novel King of Ithaka, an original interpretation of Homer's Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus' son Telemachos, is soon to come out in paperback. Full of adventure and peril, it's likely to appeal especially to teen boys, who have fewer historical novels written for them than girls do. For more about this novel, still readily available in hardcover, see the review of King of Ithaka.
After Command, reviewed last week, the next in Julian Stockwin's naval warfare series set in the Napoleonic era is The Admiral's Daughter. In this one, #8 in the Kydd series, the hero faces a new "ship" challenge in addition to his challenges at sea - courtship. For more about this novel, see David's review of The Admiral's Daughter.
Prolific and skilled storyteller Christian Cameron recently took a break from the ancient Greek world to write a novel set during the Hundred Years' War. The Ill-Made Knight is about a London apprentice who gives up his chance for peaceful employment to pursue his dream of becoming a knight. "War is never what you expect it to be," he says, recalling his eventful life. For more about this novel, see Annis's eloquent review of The Ill-Made Knight.
Readers who love fairy tales, especially the darker versions of the classic Grimm's Fairy Tales, will enjoy Carolyn Turgeon's new YA novel, The Fairest of Them All. It offers a twist on two well known (and originally very dark) tales: "Rapunzel" and "Snow White." For more about this novel for teens, see the review of The Fairest of Them All.
Next in Julian Stockwin's Kydd series after Tenacious, reviewed on Friday, is Command. Reviewer David Maclaine finds the author's own "command" of the storytelling art has grown more assured with each novel. For more about this tale of seafaring in the early nineteenth century, see David's review of Command.
Coming tomorrow: a review of Carolyn Turgeon's new YA novel, The Fairest of Them All
Tenacious is #6 in Julian Stockwin's naval warfare series, Kydd, and reviewer David Maclaine enjoyed it as thoroughly as he enjoyed the other novels in the series. In this one, the hero finally joins Admiral Horatio Nelson's squadron, although the grand battle at Trafalgar is still several novels away. For more about this action-filled novel, see David's review of Tenacious
The rich historical texture that brings the setting of Original Death to life is only one of the reasons to immerse yourself in this mystery. Unlike most novels set in Colonial America, which revolve around the tensions building toward the Revolutionary War, this one is set squarely in its time period during the French and Indian Wars, and focuses on the complex relations between white settlers and the Indian tribes of the Northwest, and of the relations between the various tribes, as well. For more about this fascinating - and suspenseful - novel, see the review of Original Death.
David Maclaine continues his reviews of Julian Stockwin's naval warfare series with a review of the fifth novel in the Kydd series, Quarterdeck. As Kydd begins to wonder whether he's cut out for life as an officer, his ship is sent to Nova Scotia, where new possibilities occur to him. For more about this novel, which David enjoyed for its "many intriguing dilemmas," see his review of Quarterdeck.
The Age of Ice is not the first historical novel about a character who lives a longer-than-normal life span. It is, so far as I know, the first to portray the 1785-1794 Slava Rossy expedition, a hunt for a sea passage between the Atlantic and Pacific that turned into a nightmare of sub-zero weather and cultural misunderstandings. Author J.M. Sidorova writes about ice with magical facility. For more about this novel, published this summer, see the review of The Age of Ice.
Fans of Viking fiction will not want to miss this: David Maclaine's list, with links to reviews, of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age. An interesting twist is that several of these novels were written during or shortly after the Viking Age - Icelandic sagas which David recommends as some of the best Viking fiction around. Modern classics also appear on the list, from Edison Marshall's 1951 novel The Viking, to Cecelia Holland's two novels about the eleventh-century conflicts between the Irish and invading Vikings, to Robert Low's 2012 novel Crowbone, the latest in his "Oathsworn" series.
Two new reviews have been added to the website, both in David Maclaine's Viking series. Fin Gall is an adventure tale by a modern author, James L. Nelson. Heimskringla is a collection of sagas by the medieval Icelandic bard Snorri Sturluson. David recommends both for readers who enjoy Viking adventure tales. For more about these works, see David's reviews of Fin Gall and Heimskringla.
Coming soon: The best 45 novels to read for an overview of Viking history
A guest post two weeks ago by author Frances Kazan (scroll down to read it) explored her memories of Turkey in the 1980s during a visit with her husband, noted film director Elia Kazan, who was born in Turkey. Her novel The Dervish explores an earlier period in Turkish history, the time immediately following World War I, when Turkey was under British occupation and the Turks under Kemal Atatürk were fighting for independence. It's a sequel to her previous novel Halide's Gift, about a remarkable Turkish woman, Halide Edib. For more about Kazan's new novel, see the review of The Dervish.
Have you seen the campy 1964 adventure movie "The Long Ships" with Richard Widmark as a mischievously daring young Viking and Sidney Poitier as his Moorish sidekick? The movie was based on a novel published in the 1940s by Swedish author Frans Gunnar Bengtsson. Reviewer David Maclaine says that if you could read only one Viking novel, The Long Ships would be the one to read. For more about it, see his review of The Long Ships.
The 12th-century Celtic "history" The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill is really an early novel, almost as long as Wolf Hall and as partisan toward its hero, the Irish high king Brian Boru, as any classic Western toward its gun-toting, law-upholding marshal. For more about this story of Brian Boru's struggle against Viking invaders, see David's review of The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill.
David Maclaine's series of reviews of novels set in the Viking era continues with Poul Anderson's 1997 novel War of the Gods, based on the medieval saga of Hadding. Anderson, a celebrated writer of science fiction who won seven Hugo and three Nebula awards, shifted toward historical fiction later in his life. War of the Gods is a hybrid which incorporates both supernatural elements borrowed from Norse sagas and a realistic historical setting. For more about this novel, see David's review of War of the Gods.
Nobel prizewinner William Golding, best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, wrote several historical novels. The Double Tongue is set in ancient Greece. It's about a woman who becomes one of the last of the Delphic Oracles. Golding had completed a second draft at the time of his death in 1993, and it's this second-draft version that has been published. It's well worth reading, though it would certainly have been polished further had Golding lived longer. For more about this novel, see the review of The Double Tongue.
It's a great pleasure to acknowledge a donation from website visitor Cláudio Frederico da Silva Ramos. His generosity is much appreciated and provides support for the hours necessary to research and add listings for newly published historical novels to the website. Visitors who wish to support HistoricalNovels.info can donate through PayPal by using the button on the home page. Because the website is not a nonprofit organization, donations are not tax-deductible; they are, however, greatly appreciated!
One of Cecelia Holland's early novels, The Kings in Winter is set in medieval Ireland and revolves around the Battle of Clontarf, when Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, clashed with Norsemen allied with rebellious Irish clans. Reviewer David Maclaine says it already displays Holland's "great gift for making a distant time come to life." For more about this novel, see his review of The Kings in Winter.
Coming this week: a review of William Golding's last novel, The Double Tongue
About a Scottish woman sent into slavery among the Norse, The Winter Serpent is, like The Typewriter Girl (see below), a historical novel about a woman's life that doesn't fit the "romance" category. Author Maggie Davis originally published it in 1958 under the name "M.H. Davis," presumably to avoid having the novel dismissed as women's genre fiction. Reviewer David Maclaine calls it "finely crafted." For more about this novel, see his review of The Winter Serpent.