There are many reasons why readers of all kinds love fiction. Some of them may be hoping to get a deeper understanding of the universal experiences that make up the human condition. They might be drawn to how characters so different from themselves can still seem relatable because of their experiences. It is no surprise, then, that people who read literary fiction and classics are shown to be more empathetic and perform better on tests that measure their ability to infer the emotions of others. Yet these same tests also show that people who read genre fiction (or popular fiction) have less impressive results.
So if there is no evidence that reading genre fiction will increase your understanding of the world, then why do people still read it? The answer is very simple: they are entertaining. They can be a coping method for people who are dissatisfied with their mundane daily lives and can seek these stories for the purpose of escapism. This certainly explains the appeal of the fantasy genre, but it can also explain why people enjoy another highly imaginative genre: historical fiction.
Commercial or genre historical fiction is often frowned down upon by literary critics who view it as a romanticization of the past or as cheap entertainment, but that doesn’t stop readers from enjoying it or from bookstores to stock up on it. (Image Source: Janna G. Noelle)
Historical fiction stories take place in a setting in the past, with characters that follow the norms and beliefs of the period and a plot that carries out during the time. Often the plot is connected to a real historical event such as a war, a plague, or a time of revolution. In 2013, the historical fiction author M.K. Tod conducted a reader survey to find out how people feel about the historical fiction genre. When asked “why do you read historical fiction?” the top two reasons included “to bring the past to life” and “because it’s a great story.” The third most popular response was a more serious reason, which was “to learn about the past.” But the response in the fourth place was again simply about entertainment, which was “it’s like time travel.” The same survey also found that within historical fiction, the type of stories that female readers tend to enjoy are focused more on romance while the ones that male readers prefer focus more on swashbuckling adventures and thrill-seeking.
Many readers of historical fiction especially female readers enjoy stories that have romance, which may explain the success of Diana Gabaldon’s novel “Outlander” about Claire, a talented doctor and healer who served as a nurse during World War II and then time travelled to the Scottish highlands in the 1700s where she met the love of her life. (Image Source: parade.com)
Literary critics often look down upon readers of genre fiction, particularly historical fiction, because they view it as cheap and “sexy” entertainment. Some works of historical fiction are guilty of romanticizing the past and portraying it in a culturally insensitive light, which has drawn criticism of the genre. The stigma attached to the genre makes it unappreciated and underrated by such critics, and talented contemporary authors of historical tales are overlooked as a result. Justin O’Donnell gives an example of how historical fiction as a genre is stigmatized in an article for Publishers Weekly. He explained that during his time working at a literary agency, he received several historical fiction manuscripts from authors who refused to use the term “historical fiction” to describe their work, knowing the way that critics often scrutinize the label. Instead, to improve their marketability, they opted for terms like “action-adventure.” The genre lags in popularity among serious literary critics and publishing agencies, but not necessarily with readers.
A scene from the TV adaptation of the book “the Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell. Cornwell marketed his book as “action-adventure” to avoid the stigma that publishers attach to the label of “historical fiction.” (Image Source: Netflix.com)
But historical fiction will never go away because there will always be readers who enjoy it. Instead, the genre will simply evolve to be fairer and more accurate in its portrayal of the past without compromising on the aspects of an entertaining story. For people who may be interested in immersing themselves in this fascinating genre, two avid readers of historical fiction have compiled this list of ten recommendations. We hope we can bring attention to the talent of these authors as well as increase interest in the time periods and cultures that these books describe.
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
WW2 Era, Germany
The Book Thief is perhaps one of the most well-known 21st century historical fiction books to explore the topic of the Second World War. The book was originally published in 2005 and has since been translated into 63 languages and sold over 16 million copies. Commercial success alone doesn’t make or break a recommendation, however. Rather, what makes this book worth reading, in my humble opinion, is the fact that it made me tear up while reading it and kept me engrossed the entire time. The book is chillingly narrated by Death, and their words paint a compelling and heartfelt narrative around the life of Liesel Meminger, a young German girl who develops a predilection for stealing books.
While the 2013 film did its best to capture the essence of the story, there are some things that just don’t translate to the screen, making a return to the source material worth the effort. This tale deals with how the German people struggled to handle what their country was becoming as well as their losses and their loyalty. It helps us understand how some people were able to stand in the streets and salute, while others were arrested and taken away, which is important, as they were victims of a different sort even though they did nothing to prevent the victimhood of others. The narrative voice commits unflinchingly to showing the horrors of war, and the story’s less common perspective of Germans who aren’t on the front lines all make this a unique tale that should be given due consideration for your next read.
Liesel as she was seen on film. (Image Source: The Daily Texan)
2. Eiriksdottir: a Tale of Dreams and Luck by Joan Clark
Viking Age 1000 AD, in what is now known as Newfoundland
The Norse exploration of North America is a period in history that is rarely discussed, as most history lessons about the colonization of the American continent usually start in 1492 with Christopher Columbus’s voyage. But did you know that the Vikings, led by the explorer Leif Eirikson, actually sailed to North America about 500 years before Columbus? The Vikings sailed to what is now Newfoundland and Labrador and gave Newfoundland the name “Vinland” and Labrador “Markland.” Today, the ruins of the L’anse aux Meadows settlement in northern Newfoundland are a national historic site and draw in lots of tourists to watch Viking reenactments. They stand as a testament to the first European settlement in North America.
L’anse aux Meadows was the first European settlement in the Americas. (Image Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia)
Perhaps the reason why this part of history is so frequently overlooked is because the settlement was so short-lived and was abandoned after a few years. There were encounters with the Indigenous Beothuk people, whom the Vikings called “Skraelings.” These encounters were sometimes violent. Yet Joan Clark, the author of the historical fiction novel Eiriksdottir speculates that the reason why the settlement failed was because of infighting among the settlers rather than because of fighting with the Beothuk. In Eiriksdottir, Clark tells the story of the first European settlement in the Americas through the eyes of a woman named Freydis Eiriksdottir who is Leif Eirikson’s half-sister. The two are the children of Eirik the Red, the Viking explorer who settled Greenland after being banished from Norway for murder. Freydis is a fierce and brave explorer. When Clark writes about the tensions between the Icelandic and Greenlandic members of the crew, Eiriksdottir is one of the only people who survives the conflict.
Clark also wrote another novel set in the same time period called the Dream Carvers which describes a fictional lost Viking boy who is adopted by the Beothuk. Both books are wonderful reads and started my obsession with Norse history and culture.
3. The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
1957 post Spanish civil war era, Madrid
Ruta Sepetys is currently making a name for herself at the forefront of the young adult historical fiction scene. Sepetys is a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellow and the first American writer of young adult literature to speak at both the European Parliament and NATO. While her other works are also fabulous in their own right, one that stands out as a must-read is The Fountains of Silence. The Fountains of Silence was published in 2019 and follows the story of Daniel and Ana, two young people from very different backgrounds trying to come together in Franco’s Madrid. The importance of stories like this lie in one easy-to-forget fact: fascism won in Spain. Francisco Franco ruled over Spain from 1939 to1975 from a series of heart attacks. The Allies didn’t defeat him—old age did. Spain, especially Madrid, was not an easy place to be during Franco’s rule, and stories like this bring that to light for readers who may have otherwise forgotten about the Spanish Civil War.
Plaza Del Callao, Madrid circa 1957. (Image Source: todocoleccion)
4. The Highlander by Zoe Saadia
1300s, earliest days of the Aztec empire
The empire we now call the Aztec empire was actually a triple alliance between three different city-states. The most prominent one was Tenochtitlan, which was located where Mexico City now stands. This was where the people known as the Mexica lived (whom we now call Aztecs). There was also the city of Tlacopan when the Tepanecs lived and the city of Texcoco which belonged to the Acolhua people. The most commonly discussed part of Aztec history is usually the fall of the empire in 1519 to diseases like smallpox, which were brought over by Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes. But in the Highlander, author Zoe Saadia brings the rise of the empire to life. She digs deep into the foundation of the triple alliance.
Map of the Aztec empire (Image Source: Paul Guinan)
The main character, Coyotl, is meant to be a younger version of the real historical figure Nezahualcoyotl who was the ruler of Texcoco. His face is on Mexico’s 100 peso bill. The cities of Texcoco, Tlacopan and the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan are all located in the lowlands of central Mexico. They have impressive architecture and extensive agriculture. Yet Coyotl befriends a foreigner named Kuini, whose people are a nomadic tribe from the deserts of northern Mexico. Saadia describes how these two boys get involved in the political intrigue of the time as a war rages on between the Tepanec and the Acolhua people and the Mexica are rising in power.
Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco is on Mexico’s 100 peso bill (Image Source: leftovercurrency.com)
As someone who loves Mesoamerican civilizations, I really appreciate how Zoe Saadia does justice to the Aztecs and doesn’t resort to the stereotypical image of them as bloodthirsty and uncivilized. She has written two series about the Aztecs as well as one about the Missisisipian culture and another about the Iroquois confederacy.
5. The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook
Era around the American civil war, Texas
At times, what draws you to a book is the fact that it’s short. This next recommendation, The Which Way Tree, must be recommended for its concision. While it clocks in at 288 pages, the tale within makes this a short but satisfying journey. In the time of the American Civil War near the Rio Grande, our story has little to do with the actual war. Instead, an unlikely posse of a young local girl, her older brother, a charismatic Tejano outlaw, a haunted but compassionate preacher and a tracking dog set off to hunt down the most notorious mountain lion in the area. Each has their own reasons for the hunt, but between the elements and a rogue soldier pursuing them, it won’t be an easy task. Between the engaging and sympathetic narrator, the classic tale of a ragtag group coming together to do what none of them could alone, and the short-but-sweet length, this pick will engage those who want a western unlike any other.
(Image Source: Goodreads)
6. The Hippopotamus Marsh by Pauline Gedge
Hyksos Rule of Ancient Egypt, c. 1630 BCE
Pauline Gedge, a Canadian author, is best known for her historical fiction works though she has experience in other genres such as sci-fi and fantasy as well. Her ancient Egyptian trilogy is an international bestseller and has been translated into 18 languages. The first book is called “the Hippopotamus Marsh” and takes place during the Hyksos rule of Egypt. The Hyksos were a people of Levantine origin who successfully conquered and ruled Egypt between 1650-1550 BCE. The book’s main character is the pharaoh Seqenenra. He is subject to humiliation from the Hyksos ruler and decides he has had enough of living under their rule. He dies in the attempt to free Egypt, but the Egyptians did eventually drive the Hyksos out of Egypt under the rule of Ahmose I who was Seqenenra’s son. The Hippopotamus Marsh is emotional, representing the struggle and desire for freedom and the ruling family’s disgrace under the rule of invaders. There is also no shortage of exciting battle scenes in this novel.
(Image Source: Amazon)
7. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Early 1700s, cross-European trip
If you enjoy a good road trip adventure, then you’ll get along well with The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, though fair warning: highways haven’t been invented yet. This Mackenzi Lee novel takes place in the early 1700s and spans several countries across Europe as Henry “Monty” Montague travels with his sister, his best friend, and a chaperone on a Grand Tour. This tour starts as a celebration of Monty’s final responsibility-free days, but develops into a real adventure with some romance. This book features some solid LGBT+ representation, fun and diverse settings, and characters you grow to love. Having a history novel that focuses on the follies of youth, doesn’t involve a war or revolution, and takes a step away from the traditional heteronormative route for its romance make this recommendation a worthwhile option to consider.
Antique map of Europe circa 1700s. (Image Source: Pinterest)
8. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell (Kingdom of Wessex 519-927 AD)
Bernard Cornwell has written extensively about several different time periods in British history, including a recreation of the Arthurian legends, a book about Shakespeare’s brother in Elizabethan England, and a story about an English soldier during the Napoleonic wars. But my favourite book by him is the Last Kingdom which is the first in his series called “the Saxon Stories.” The story takes place in England before it becomes England. There are several kingdoms such as Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. All are inhabited by Anglo Saxon people and all are threatened by Viking invaders. The main character is Uhtred Ragnarson, who was born a Saxon but was raised by Vikings. He ends up having to swear an oath to King Alfred of Wessex. The story is about Uhtred’s adventures to protect Wessex, the last kingdom that is free from Viking rule. There is also a popular Netflix series based on the books which is very entertaining to watch. But the inner feelings of the characters are better expressed in the books, which makes them worth reading.
(Image source: Amazon.com)
9. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman (70 C.E., Masada of ancient Israel)
This selection is one of the most historical you can get when talking about historical fiction.The Dovekeepers is a dramatization of true events, depicting the Siege of Masada which took place from 73 to 74 CE. In Hoffman’s novel, she tells the story of four women who all make their way to Masada, and what happens to them during that fateful siege. The Siege of Masada was one of the final events of the First Jewish-Roman War and is likely an event that many have never heard of due to its age. This novel and its 2015 mini-series (though the book is recommended over the show) help remind us of just how far back humanity has lived, loved, and suffered. This is a hefty title, coming in at 504 pages, but the setting, the characters, and the culture shine through and make it worth the time.
The ruins of what was once Masada. (Image Source: History Things)
As these recommendations should reflect, historical fiction is so much more than just World War Two nurses and Victorian Era romances (although those are nice too). History is vast and rich with stories, making it an easy place for writers to pour their soul into. Reading this genre is not technically educational, in the sense that most events handled are purely fictional or at least highly dramatized. But, there are shadows of truth that help color the imagination and shape some good reads. At the very least, some novels might introduce the reader to a place or a people with which they are unfamiliar.
It would be unwise to consider historical fiction as a fad or some diminished form of fiction. In fact, the genre’s history goes back farther than we might expect. For example, the legends of King Arthur of Camelot were not written when the man was alive and are filled with anachronisms. This means that the tales are filled with things that wouldn’t have existed during the time the stories are set, such as plate armour and castles. Thus, it wouldn’t be too much to say that the legends are a kind of historical fiction; they take the seeds of history and throw a bit of excitement over them. As such, the genre isn’t going anywhere, now is as good a time as any to give it a try if you haven’t already.
Public opinion is a fickle thing and the naysayers might consider this genre as ancient history, pun intended. But, as Paul Lynch writes, “we read the “historical novel” and marvel at its simulation of the past. But pay attention and you will see the historical novel can speak with cool clarity about what is timeless in the present”. Throughout historical fiction, we view the world as it was through lenses crafted today, and that can have more meaning to a reader now than a contemporary novel could. The stigma surrounding the genre may one day shift, but for now the best way to ensure that historical fiction is given the attention it deserves is to read. Read Phillipa Greggory, read Ken Follett; read Chevalier, Doerr, Mantel, and so many more. Come to your own conclusions about what lies behind the covers we recommended and see what there is to see.