Over the annals of history, there have been countless amazing real events that have inspired fictional tales against their magical backdrop. There are innumerable historical fiction novels out there and here we take on the near-impossible task of picking a top 10 from the genre. We haven’t let the enormity of the job put us off however and by reading on, you’ll discover those we feel deserve a special mention.
Set in the midst of the mid-19th century French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities is a novel by the Great Charles Dickens that tells the story of Manette, a French Doctor who’s released from an 18-year stint in Paris’s infamous Bastille prison and makes his way to London for a new life. This is perhaps Dickens’ most successful historical fiction work, having sold over 200 million copies and the epic journey it takes you on, through this tumultuous period in European history, places it firmly in our top 10.
If it’s an epic fictional tale set in a far away land you’re after, then Shogun by James Clavell most certainly fits the bill. In this tale, you’ll find war, passion, death, a meeting of cultures and a love story set during Japan’s rich Imperial past. Having spent time in a Japanese concentration camp himself, Clavell was well placed to create a fiction that captures the sights and sounds of the age and the tale itself follows main protagonist John Blackthorne who commands 5 dutch trade ships as he attempts to break a portuguese stranglehold on trade with Japan. What ensues is a monumental story of politics and intrigue and one we’d heartily recommend.
Who can forget the immortal words by Clark Gable “frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” from the film adaptation of the epic novel by Margaret Mitchell. Gone With the Wind was published in the mid-1930s and was set in civil war Georgia, with Scarlett O’hara – a brat daughter of a well-to-do owner of a plantation – finding herself impoverished, looking for a way out and being torn between the affections of Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes. A truly great historical fiction novel that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.
Again paying a visit to America during the civil war, we look at Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. This is a modern classic that sees Inman, a wounded Confederate Soldier who deserts his post on the battlefield to make the treacherous trip back to his home in Cold Mountain. This amazing story sees Inman try to make his way back to his sweetheart, Ada, with the South about to lose the war. As Ada struggles to make a living at home and Inman making his journey, neither know if the other has survived. A brilliant book that needs to be part of your list.
Inspired by the real-life story of Mary Boleyn – sister of Anne Boleyn, the Other Boleyn Girl walks through the story of the annulment of one of the most famous marriages in history between Catherine of Aragon and King Henry VIII. As you move through the story, you get an inside view of the claustrophobic nature of palace life in Tudor times and for those who love a period tale, this work of fiction is a wonderful read and well worth a look.
Another contemporary masterpiece features on our list and it’s Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Again set during wartime – this time War World II – this captivating tale tells the story of 4 very different people; a thief, a British Sikh Army sapper, an Army nurse and a badly burnt man. They find themselves in North Africa and as the details of how the injured man became injured reveal themselves, it has a huge impact on the emotions of the others. A fantastic book that needs to be read to be truly appreciated.
Adapted into numerous blockbuster movies over the years is The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Written in the mid-19th century, it’s a swashbuckling tale that follows D’Artagnan as he travels to Paris to fulfil a life-long ambition to join the Musketeers of the Guard. Whilst his attempts aren’t immediately successful, his brave actions soon see him befriended by three of the most decorated musketeers – Athos, Aramis and Porthos. As a result, D’Artagnan becomes a central figure in royal affairs. A true great of the genre that represents a great way to spend an afternoon.
A fictional tale that crosses the barriers of time in more ways than one now with Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. A 2nd World War nurse named Claire Randall visits a mystical stone in Scotland only to find herself transported back to the 18th century. If this trauma weren’t enough, whilst there she crosses paths with one of her husband’s ancestors, who turns out to be not as honourable as her modern-day spouse. This book depicts a romance that stretches across the centuries and will leave you unable to put it down.
We move even further back in time now to 12th Century England for Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. Depicting witch trials, outlaws, romance and medieval tensions between Christians and Jews, this seminal book led to many others in the genre being written and is even cited as having an influence on mainstream perceptions of King John, Richard the Lionheart and even Robin Hood. In terms of historical fiction, Ivanhoe is right up there with the greats and had to be included on our list.
Remaining in the Dark Ages, our final book is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco which sees a tale of murder mystery play out in a 14th-century monastery. Originally written in Italian, it was only translated to English in 1983 and has since sold over 50 million copies. A deeply intriguing story that will leave you guessing until the end against a setting that you wouldn’t normally associate with the genre. A great read and one that we enjoyed ourselves.
So, there you have it. 10 greats from the historical fiction genre. We know that you’ll have a rare old time working your way through the list and we hope that you come out the other side with a deeper appreciation of historical storytelling.