Posted by: Michelle Mitton | September 18, 2008

My Favorite Historical Fiction

If you held me down and twisted my arm I’d admit that despite my tendency to more literary avenues if given my choice I’d read historical fiction. I like mysteries, I like classics, I even like some good ol’ fashioned hobbit-hoppin’ fantasy but my true love is a story from long ago.

With the kids back in school and no supervision I’m afraid you’d find me wantonly crawled up on the couch by the fire, ignoring my housework and computer, with some of my favorite novels. Here are a few. And as I’m always looking for good recommendations feel free to leave yours–the pictures I’m including are all from movie versions of the novels. Seems like good historical fiction always finds its way to the screen and most of these are ripe for revival.

Queen Margot by Alexander Dumas Pere1. Queen Margot by Alexander Dumas (pere). I know Dumas is more famous for The Three Musketeers (also a great story) or The Count of Monte Cristo but I found the setting for this lesser-known novel more compelling, vivid and interesting than Louis XIV’s France. Filled with the intrigue surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 Dumas has Catherine de Medici, the Duke d’Anjou, Charles IX of France and (of course) Margeurite de Valois in full technicolor to keep me reading. Good, good stuff.

There are assassinations, poisonings, political turmoil, persecution of the Hugenots (French protestants) and all sorts of juicy, juicy stuff that makes me glad to live in 21st century America. Safe and happy with my indoor plumbing, cold cereal and heated garage.

Ethan Fromme by Edith Wharton2. Ethan Fromme by Edith Wharton. Don’t read this if you’ve got a prescription for Prozac lined up because it’s not exactly good for what ails you but nonetheless it’s one of my favorites and it’s short enough to start and finish with a sniffle in one day (Don’t forget the Kleenex). You might not think of it as historical fiction because it was written nearly a century ago but it still qualifies since it set much earlier than Wharton’s time–New England in the mid 19th century–and it kind of reminds me that The Scarlet Letter is also technically an historical novel and was written long after the Puritan colonists were dead and gone, ditto for Silas Marner which is another short yet wonderful read.

The Sea Hawk by Raphael Sabatini3. The Sea Hawk by Raphael Sabatini. You like pirates? Well this one delivers. Sir Oliver Tressilian is a man’s man who is dashing, handsome, great with a sword, fair and good to all–oh and did I mention he’s rich? In short he has everything going for him including the scheming younger brother who’s pretty much a waste of skin and a girlfriend who is as stupid/gullible as she is beautiful.

The Cornish knight gets sold into slavery and . . . I can’t give away any more but it’s a page turner that makes you want to sail around the Mediterranean on an old-fashioned schooner. As if I needed any more reasons to want to run away to the Mediterranean right now.

And then right up there with The Sea Hawk, Bellarion is another of Sabatini’s novels set a little earlier and is a rags-to-riches story (rather than a riches-to-rags-and-back-to-riches story) about a young medieval scholar who leaves his monastery and finds he’s sharp as a tack when it comes to military matters. I like my heroes larger than life and Sabatini always delivers. The only flaw his characters have is a tendency to get involved with irritating Lois Lane-type women who can’t seem to see the obvious. You know, the kind of woman who will stick by her evil, erring, infected villain of a brother despite all indications that he’s a slime ball? A girl who refuses to believe that the monument of a man she’s in love with is the more trustworthy of the two and that anyone with half a brain would believe her fiance over her idiot brother? Wake up and smell the coffee dear!

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone4. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. A historical novel about the life and art of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni. Yes, that Michelangelo. It follows him through his early apprenticeship with the great sculptors of 15th century Florence to his patronage by the scheming house of Medici and his struggles with contemporaries such as Raphael, DaVinci and Pope Julius II.

Not only is it fascinating it’s well-written and informative and if you enjoy this novel you ought to try Stone’s Lust for Life about Vincent Van Gogh. Stones novels remind me somewhat of the towering epics by Michener and Clavell yet they are more personal as they focus more on the individual rather than a cast of thousands.

The only time I’ve tried to read Michener was when I tackled The Source which is about an archeological dig in Israel where each excavated layer of dirt gets retold into its own epic story of the Hebrew people. It gets a little plodding and it has a hard time starting off with any kind of a bang. Maybe that’s Michener’s problem, starting with the Big Bang. He always seems to go back to the VERY beginning at the dawn of time and there never seems to be much happening at the dawn of time. It must have been a pretty boring time to live.

6. The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson. Sometimes you forget that RLS was all about historical fiction. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Blackarrow–his most famous books are all period works full of swashbuckling adventure and intrigue. This one is about stolen fortunes and plots surrounding the Jacobite uprising of about 1750 and is so fun they’ve made it into several movies–my favorite was the one with Oliver Reed if memory serves.

Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor7. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor. I won’t say too much about this one as I mentioned it earlier in my list of favorite banned books but it’s set in 17th century London and follows Amber St. Clare through a slough of men she uses and abuses to sleep her way to the top of the social scene. It helps that she’s smokin’ hot.

Anyway, she’s kind of got that Scarlet O’Hara thing going where she loves one particular guy who is really all wrong for her but she’s too wrapped up in herself and too stupid to realize the obvious. The novel really is a lot like Gone with the Wind because it focuses on some of the social upheavals of the time: the great fire of London and the Black Plague for example. Howvever, the biggest difference in the two books is that Amber isn’t as easy to like as Scarlet. That’s saying something right there folks–this is one nasty, nasty lady.

I will add a side note here: I love historical fiction but I have little tolerance for fake sequels. You know, where someone writes an amazing achievement such as Pride and Prejudice and then some yokel off the street thinks Austen should have written more so they take it upon themselves to “finish” the story. I love a good story, I love it when a good story ends–and ends appropriately–but I don’t love it when someone merely tries to prolong something that was completed by a master. It never works. Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice–why is it that publishers think the characters need finishing? Let alone finishing by an inferior? I’m okay with satire, I’m okay with retellings, I’m okay with cinematic versions but I refuse to read hackneyed sequels designed to make a buck. So there.

Wow. I never knew I had such strong feelings on the subject until I wrote that paragraph.

7. The Last Hero by Peter Forbath. I’m a little hesitant to include this one on my list but it’s one of those books that is so amazing, so gripping, so WOW! that even though it loses steam two-thirds of the way through and gets into some very odd things (involving doped up young men in African harems that shall remain discreetly unmentioned here) that I have to at least give this a nod of acknowledgment. This is a fictional account of the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley who leads an expedition to save the Emin Pasha, ruler of Equatoria, who was the very last colonial hold-out against the invading Mahdi armies that were cleansing Africa from European invaders (all true).

The book opens with the infamous assassination of General Gordon during the fall of Khartoum in 1885 and Victorian England rising to call Stanley out of semi-retirement to lead the rescue party which he does by fighting his way through the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa up the Congo. The beginning paragraphs of this book are probably the most exciting and compelling paragraphs of any novel I’ve ever read, they hook you in immediately and by the time you’ve finished the first page you’re stuck. As I mentioned, towards the end it gets a little dodgy and it falls apart in some ways but if nothing else read the opening chapter or until you get enough. That’ll still satisfy.

Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge8. Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge. On the Channel Islands between France and England lived a family with two beautiful daughters named Maguerite and Marianne. The girls fall in love with the same man who ships out to colonize New Zealand but who isn’t very good with names because he writes home to request the hand of his One True Love . . . and mixes up her name with her sister’s.

He gets a bride alright, but not the one he bargained for. The story, which I believe is losely based on a true story, is interesting and moving and at times quite profound as the relationships between the characters develop. There is crisis and battle, complete with Maorie wars, as the characters work to live in an untamed place and come to their own peace.

I’ve heard Goudge has written other wonderful books and I enjoyed this one so much that I’ve meant to read some of her other novels but haven’t got around to it yet.

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye9. The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye. I’m just about to finish this 1200 page epic for the second time. I read it as a teen and had forgotten most of what happened but even a second time around it did not disappoint.

It’s about a boy, Ashton Akbar Pelham-Martyn, whose English parents die, leaving him orphaned in 19th century India to be raised by a Hindu woman. It’s also about a girl, Anjuli-Bai, princess of Gulkote in northern India. Ashton is torn between his English family and his Hindu upbringing and his forbidden love for the beautiful princess (whom he saves from a horrific death) doesn’t help him to sort his complicated life out any. Full of mutinies, uprisings, prejudice, tradition and sweeping scenery this love story definitely is a page-turner.

Chris at Book-a-rama recently posted her review of the novel and I’ve been waiting to see if I agreed with her assessment that the last half was slow and overly stuffed with political details (I just couldn’t remember from my first reading) but I’m about 150 pages from the end and have found it just as interesting to follow the 2nd Afghan-Anglo war (1878-1880) as the love of Ash and Juli so I’ll have to politely disagree.

Captain from Castille by Samuel Shellabarger10. Captain from Castille by Samuel Shellabarger. Somehow I manage to sneak this book onto nearly every one of my book lists–probably because it’s a huge favorite of mine–and this time is no different. If all my hinting and talking about it doesn’t convince you to give it a try then I’m doomed. Can’t say anything else that might do the job. But if public burnings, the Spanish Inquisition, Hernando Cortez, the New World, theft, bribery and deceit don’t convince you to read then maybe the promise of thousands of bloodthirsty Aztecs, a few bloodthirsty Spanish cardinals and a lot of gold might do the trick. A seriously good book.

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