J Lynn Else is one of the awesome Rochester Fantastical Women (local author group including little old me), and besides being an excellent writer, she also has some recommendations of historical fiction that don’t cause groans and winces.
The Historical Fiction Triple Threat by J. Lynn Else
World building is a fine art that can make or break books of certain genres. Examples of books with truly transportive world-building include the Harry Potter series, the Land of Stories books, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Ender’s Game, the Legend Of Drizzt Do’Urden Series, among others. When you think of constructing fantastic worlds for readers, typical genres that come to mind are Science Fiction and Fantasy, as the examples above attest to. But I’d like to propose another genre that can be equally immersive and astounding: historical fiction.
My kids groan when I mention history. They don’t understand my obsession with the past. But if it’s done right, historical fiction can be just as addictive and engaging as the latest fantasy novels flying off the Barnes and Noble shelves.
The added challenge with historical fiction is getting into the mindset of historical figures. Many recent historical fiction novels I’ve read have painted a clear picture of the setting, but the characters think in too modern of terms. For example, when reading a couple stories set in ancient Egypt, you typically do not want your characters to feel “ice” running through their veins or complain that your caravan is moving at a “glacial” pace. References like that, so out of place in their ancient world, instantly takes me out of the reading. I also came across an example of an ancient Greek woman’s face being described as “heart-shaped.” Sigh… the heart/valentine shape wasn’t a thing until the end of the Middle Ages.
Granted, there are some mindsets you don’t want to explore – like a slave owner from the pre-Civil War era or a Nazi working in a concentration camp, etc. Those would not be fun excursions. What I look for is depth of characters that I can relate to AND depth of time period. And it’s hard, as a writer, to keep the mindset of your historical characters as accurate as possible.
While I don’t expect 100% accuracy, with the examples listed above, the glaring wrongness of those few words quickly ejected me from the narrative. For instance, instead of a heart shape, the more appropriate comparison would have been to compare the woman’s face to a fig leaf shape. That’s historical accurate and something modern readers can visualize (or quickly Google!).
So here are a few recommendations I have for historical fiction that are triple threats: character, setting, and historical details (specifically regarding to character choices and plot flow).
These are not ranked in any particular order, but simply listed as they came into my head:
1) Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
China, 19th Century
Being able to keep the narrator relatable while also keeping the historical mindset was a challenge that I think See accomplished brilliantly. While foot binding is a practice I could not begin to comprehend along with seeing the “beauty” of having small feet, back then it was a means to a husband, family, and a better life (but also another way in which women were kept submissive and secluded). Foot binding was accepted by the women of that time, and I felt the culture. Cultural details were told in a matter-of-fact manner in the narration (“this is the way it is”), but I felt like I was breathing along with Lily and experiencing her hardships with her. See’s imagery was fantastic, particularly the intricately embroidered messages, the slow peeling open of a fan, the look and feel of the homes, etc.
On a personal note, right before the start of my 4th grade year, my family moved to a new city. I was overwhelmed, sad, and had difficulties making friends. But I had pen pals. Each time a letter arrived, my heart lifted. We would tell each other our dreams and our hopes for the future. I felt this same gush of excitement all over again as Lily received her fan from Snow Flower. I think the power of a friendship through writing, where you have to wait for the letters to be delivered versus instant messaging, is really a lost art. I knew what Lily felt when she opened that fan. I think the power of that is what really drew me in to this story. Yet, it’s not just an incredible tale of friendship, it’s also about what it means to be a woman and what defines a woman’s life.
2) The Highlander (The Rise of the Aztecs #1) by Zoe Saadia
Pre-Columbian America, Late 14th Century
The names in this book take a while to get used to, but I find this is true for ancient Egyptian names as well and can relate to Saadia’s work as in author in that unique way!
Saadia brings out the beauty of Pre-Columbian America. While human sacrifices are mentioned (which is probably one of the most famous facts about this society), life within the city is lively and fun. Reasonings for things like sacrifices and warfare in ancient civilizations can be hard to understand to a modern thinker. However, Saadia is able to give understandable motivations and intentions. This story encompasses elements of romance, family secrets, politics, friendship, and war. History is made quite interesting in this book.
3) The Mark of the King by Jocelyn Green
French colony of Louisiana, 1720s
As my review for this book hasn’t been posted via the Historical Novel Society yet, I cannot share too much. However, suffice to say, I was completely swept up in this unpredictable storyline. The time period and the historical details were fantastic. This has been one of my favorite reads of 2017 thus far!
4) The Forgotten: Aten’s Last Queen by J. Lynn Else
Kemet (the ancient Egyptian name for Egypt), 1341 – 1258 B.C.
Yay me! Why wasn’t this book first in my mind? I’m not sure. My mind goes to wild and crazy places some days.
Now instead of tooting my own horn, because if you get me started talking about this time period, I may not stop, instead, let me quote a review from the Historical Novel Society (www.historicalnovelsociety.org): The richly-detailed narrative centers on the figure of Ankhesenamun, the young princess who became the wife of King Tut and navigated with him the pomp, intrigue, and danger of the royal Egyptian court in the wake of the tumultuous era of the Heretic King, Akhenaten, and his queen, Nefertiti. All the familiar characters of King Tut fiction are here, from arch counsellor Ay to General Horemheb, all of them fleshed out and presented in wonderful detail. But Else’s most successful fictional creations by far are Ankhesenamun herself, a passionate and believably textured character, and Tutankhamen, who is equally complex and interesting. The result is a tremendously readable novel that is also the first installment of a series.
5) Jade Dragon Mountain (Li Du Novels #1) by Elsa Hart
The mountainous border of China and Tibet, 1708
Hart brings history to life with apparent ease. She creates honest characters in an authentic setting. I loved the storyteller’s performances, was intrigued by the investigation undertaken by Li Du (our main character), and was excited to meet the Emperor at the end of the story. Hart’s details were written like a beautiful Chinese proverb. Every character observation was like breathing in the aroma of a perfectly steeped cup of tea. I so much appreciated the strong and lovingly portrayed culture wrapped around the plot line like a soft, snuggly blanket. The clothing and buildings and foliage and parties were all skillfully and artfully painted into exquisite pictures – a feast for the imagination! Gorgeously written and full of surprises, Elsa Hart delivers a book laced with magical tales, a nefarious murder, and engaging characters.
6) A.D. 30 (A.D. #1) by Ted Dekker
Ancient Palestine & Arabia, A.D. 30
Dekker’s characters are well-written and complement each other. The different societies you come upon bring fresh perspectives to the beliefs and cultures of the time as well as different ways to interpret Jesus’ message. The main character, Maviah, is from a culture with a similar Jewish belief system but in which women are born into shame simply because they are women. From the way houses are built in Nazareth to the roads the travelers walk on to the colors in Herod’s palace, there is so much fine detail that brings the grit and majesty of this world vividly to life. A truly gorgeous and thought-provoking novel with incredibly inspiring and engaging prose to boot!
7) Grave Goods (Mistress of the Art of Death #3) by Ariana Franklin
England, 12th century
This is actually the third book in a series, but I could not tell. While there are references to the main character’s past, this is no more than any stand-alone novel would elude to, which to my mind this book truly could be. The main protagonist, Adelia, is a type of medieval forensic pathologist trained at a school in Salerno (which was actually the world’s first medical school). The dialogue and settings were so strong that I really felt history come alive as I read. While at times it was hard to decipher what the less-educated characters were saying, it felt so authentic and fit right in with what I was reading (even though the author did modernize the language a bit), so it really did not distract me from the overall plot development. There was so much detail to the characters as well as the social setting. From the classes (from tithings to lords and ladies), rituals about life and death, living qualities, court proceedings and laws, weaponry, medicines, etc., all this was amazingly ripe with historical fact.
8) Gwendolyn’s Sword by E.A. Haltom
Cornwall, England, 1193
Haltom weaves together interesting and complex characters in a world on the brink of war and does a wonderful job at creating characters I wanted to get to know. In terms of the setting, I loved the details Haltom provided as her characters walked through castles or traveled through towns and cities. The places and language detailed in the storyline felt genuine to the period. Haltom does a fantastic job of balancing the dichotomy of Gwendolyn’s unique place on her family’s lands versus the place a woman holds in England at large. Because she carries a sword, Gwendolyn is accused of being a witch. Most women were viewed as property to be used by the Queen as favors to men in her court and/or to secure alliances. This book provides some girl power moments that you might be surprised fits into a historical book!
9) Rivals of the Republic (Blood of Rome #1) by Annelise Freisenbruch
Ancient Rome, 70 B.C.
This debut novel possesses an engrossing historical atmosphere. Historical people are thoughtfully brought to life alongside Freisenbruch’s creations (namely Crassus, Cicero, Julius Caesar, and Pompey). I relished the rich details in this story, like the creation of wills and the equipment of scribes. The main character, Hortensia, moved plausibly within the constraints of her time. Her mindset was, perhaps, slightly progressive but also historically accurate, and her strong voice immediately pulled me into the story. This book transports readers to the streets of ancient Rome. It is an extremely satisfying blend of fact and fiction with plenty of surprises.
10) Death on the Sapphire (Lady Frances Ffolkes #1) by R.J. Koreto
London, 1906/Edwardian era
The characters and setting of this book breathe so deeply that readers are easily drawn into the story. The dialogue and character mannerisms build up the novel’s authenticity in an enchanting way. With a memorable heroine, rich atmosphere, and intriguing mystery, Koreto has created a book that will engage and entertain readers.
Do you have historical favorites you’d like to share? I hope you found something new for your “to-read” list. Happy reading! And remember: history is cool! Go ahead, say it out loud.
Show your hist fic pride! Feel free to tweet #histficpride on Twitter with any recommendations you may have for me! I can be found @JLynnElseAuthor and would love to see you out there in the cyberworld!
J LYNN ELSE is the author of two historical fiction novels set in ancient Egypt, The Forgotten: Aten’s Last Queen and The Forgotten: Heir of the Heretic. Her book, The Forgotten: Aten’s Last Queen, was named an Indie Editor’s Choice book by the Historical Novel Society in 2016. J LYNN loves reading and writing about awesome women from antiquity. She reviews books for both the Historical Novel Society and NetGalley. Besides history, J. LYNN also gets nerdy with Star Wars, Star Trek, MST3K, Harry Potter, etc. She is currently querying her third book, which involves famous wizards, legendary swords, and mythical lands. Learn more about J. LYNN and her upcoming release at:
Website: http://www.teasippinnerdymom.com (that’s “tea-sippin’ nerdy mom”)