Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Heaping Helping of Historical Fiction!


A list has been suggested, called for, even implored, and we here at Stevereads never turn away from a good juicy list. We consequently fired off the appropriate memos and admonitions to the pertinent research departments, telling them to postpone our upcoming Best and Worst Books of 2007 listings (and, it need hardly be added, cancel their own squalid Holiday plans, which were never all that important in the first place), and we've come up with a list - not a definitive list, since such a thing would be beyond the scope of even this site, but a meaty list all the same. Here are thirty-odd kick-ass historical novels, books which, should you encounter them on the bargain carts at the Strand, will suck you in and keep you enthralled from first page to last. These are some of the best books historical fiction has to offer, offered in no particular order:

1. Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge - the evocative tale of the great Egyptian pharaoh Hatchepsut, a woman in the ultimate man's job.

2. Clodia by Robert DeMaria - a bouncy, chatty novel about Catullus in Republican Rome; the history here is rock-solid, and even the sensibilities are almost perfect.

3. The City of Libertines by W.G. Hardy - another great novel of Caesar and Catullus and the fall of the Roman Republic.

4. The Emperor's Virgin by Sylvia Fraser - a lively, literate look at the lamentable reign of the Roman emperor Domitian.

5. I, Claudius by Robert Graves - well of course this book had to appear on the list, even though it basically sucks as a work of fiction, because it's so successfully anecdotal and conversational - reading it feels like coming to some kind of historical-fiction home.

6. Gold for the Caesars by Florence Seward - chronicling the sad reign of the emperor Domitian - and the new dawn of the military emperor Trajan.

7. Mr. Midshipman Easy by Captain Frederick Marryat - a rattling good naval yarn set in the Napoleonic, although this place could equally be given to any of Captain Marryat's novels, all of which are as fine and stirring now as when they were written.

8. The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth - set mostly in colonial America and featuring a wildly tangled plot and a hilarious, scandalous version of Captain John Smith.

9. Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian - another novel set in the Napoleonic era, but this one is like nothing else on this list, as odd and scintillating historical novel as we here at Stevereads have read in many a year.

10. The Antagonists by Ernest Gann - the gritty, heavily detailed story of the first century Roman siege of the Jewish fortress Masada.

11. Entered from the Sun by George Garrett - the greatest of George Garrett's three great historical novels, and also the best novel about Christopher Marlowe (beating even Anthony Burgess' twilight work Dead Man in Deptford) ever written, even though Marlowe appears nowhere in it.

12. The Kingdom of the Wicked by Anthony Burgess - a panoramic view of the first century, centering on a fledgling Christianity and a fumbling, corrupt Roman Empire, this is basically the Acts of the Apostles as written by a chain-smoking drunken word-besotted genius.

13. The Right Line of Cerdric by Alfred Duggan - a richly realized novel of Alfred the Great, by far the best fictional treatment of that enigmatic figure - although all of Duggan's works could stand here with equal justification.

14. The Alexandrian by Martha Rofheart - of all the innumerable novels written about Cleopatra, this is the best, the one that comes closest to capturing accurately the characters of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Marc Antony.

15. The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey by John Dickson Carr - the veteran mystery-writer turns his hand to historical fiction spread lightly on a bed of tightly-researched fact, all revolving around the mysterious death of Edmund Berry Godfrey, which was used by the odious authors of the so-called 'Popish Plot' to further their witch-hunt. Never was such a horrible disgrace so engagingly written-of.

16. Three Years to Play by Colin MacInnes - A really good, vigorously archaic novel of Shakespeare, full of 'thees' and 'thous' and enough no-longer-current contractions to satisfy the most romantic among you. Sorry, amongst ye.

17. Shakespeare by John Mortimer - Here is John Mortimer, creator of the immortal 'Rumpole of the Bailey,' writing the novel to a mini-series that never amounted to much despite starring Tim Curry and a roster of other notables. This is the best, most sensitive novel about Shakespeare ever written.

18. The Man on a Donkey by H.F.M. Prescott - Quite simply the greatest Tudor novel yet written. Not to be missed.

19. The Conspiracy by John Hersey and The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder - no sense dealing with these two books separately; they're both highly enjoyable, they're both epistolary, and they both deal with the people and the events leading up to the assassination of Caesar.

20. Imperial Governor by George Shipway - the feelingly-narrated story of the sorry folk who were unlucky enough to be in charge during Boadicea's ill-fated revolt against patriarchal Roman rule.

21. The Sheriff of Nottingham portrayed in 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves' by a ham-on-wry Alan by Richard Kluger - a thoroughly unpretentious and involving look at the man most of you will know as the villain who plagues heroic Robin Hood (inimitablyRickman, gleefully snarling lines like "no more table scraps for widows and orphans - and Christmas is cancelled!") but who features in this book mainly as a good man with the singular misfortune of being an English official in the reign of King John.

22. Jem (& Sam) by Ferdinand Mount - a fun and frolicsome (and bounteously intelligent) Restoration romp starring Samuel Pepys and our main character Jem, an actual historical personage and lineal ancestor of our author, who is here utilizing a lifetime of learning to have his fun.

23. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry - calling this magnificent work the best western ever written automatically demeans it, even though such a statement is nothing less than the truth. In fact, this story of two redoubtable Texas Rangers leading a cattle-drive from Texas to Montana is one of the most instructive and powerful novels written in America in the 20th century. Alone of all the books on this list, it's required reading for all Americans.

24. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara - an electrifying, kinetic recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, in which the entire cast North and South (all of whom, unprecedently for historical fiction, are actual historical figures) are brought completely to life.

25. Romola by George Eliot - the great novelist tries her hand at Renaissance historical fiction, with generally admirable results. The Italian Renaissance still hasn't received the great fictional epic it deserves, but Romola comes closer than any of the other contenders.

26. Salaambo by Gustave Flaubert - Another famous novelist trying his hand at historical fiction, in this case the theater of ancient Rome. Flaubert here is at his most gaudy and melodramatic - you'll feel guilty reading it, but you'll eat it up nonetheless.

27. Deus Lo Volt! by Evan S. Connell - Here one of America's greatest writers throws himself into the tone and mindframe of the great Crusade chroniclers - a supremely odd concoction that at first had its packagers calling it history and now has them styling it as fiction, although in reality this remarkable book isn't quite either. Connell has been subverting genres his entire career, and this amazing book is no different. Read it and be amazed.

28. The Winds of War/ War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk - this two-volume opus is the final word on the 20th century prewar era (with all of the war thrown in).

29. The Persian Boy by Mary Renault - Almost her best novel and certainly her longest, the heartfelt story of Bagoas, the Persian castrati who was captured into the train of Alexander the Great and, according to our lady

30. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault - We end with Renault's best work, a thoroughly adult and intelligent love story between two men, taking place against the tumultuous backdrop of the Peloponnesian War. This is first-rate, beautiful writing combined with impeccable historical research to yield a book you won't want to end.

24 comments:

Beepy said...

I want them! I want them all!

I've read 5 off Steve's list:
"I, Claudius", "The Sot Weed Factor", "Master and Commander", "Killer Angels" and "Salaambo". Steve is right about 4 of them.

Locke Peterseim said...

Ooh! Ooh! Mista Kott-air! I have a genuine QUESTION! My sis says that my 11-year-old niece wants "historical novels" for Christmas (lest you think she's some sort of bookish little freak, the request is FAR down the list, below, of course, everything ever made having to do with Miley Cyrus or Zac Efron)... From what I can tell, most of her historical fiction reading has been along the expected lines of "young girl growing up in _________ (insert era and location)" (she spent the first half of last summer reading HOLOCAUST books)...

I've read or am familiar (as in, "Steve bought them for me years ago and they're on my shelf") with more than half the titles on this list, and I know that most of them are NOT going to either a) appeal to or b) be easily read and understood by a 6th-grader. And I know that Steve's insight into the inner lives of tweener girls is about as in-depth as his love of house cats. But still, if he or any of the rest of you have any suggestions for historical fiction (classic, old, new titles, whatever) that an 11-year-old girl (who's non-High School Musical and Hannah Montana interests include dinosaurs and oceanography, and, I guess, the Holocaust) might enjoy, fire away! Otherwise, I'll just wander into the Young Adult section of B&N or Borders next week and start pulling titles off the shelf that have the shiniest covers...

Locke Peterseim said...

And yes, before you respond, Steve, we all know that YOU were reading Tacitus and Erasmus in the 6th Grade, but let's just assume that my niece is a little more, um, NORMAL (although I'm sure that you and her could spend many an hour discussing whales, dinosaurs, and Zac Efron's bangs)

JEaton said...

Howzabout "Johnny Tremain"? I also had a great fondness around 6th grade for "The Iceberg Hermit" by Arthur Ross.

I've got six off The List if you count each Herman Wouk book (probably not allowed). Besides those I've read the Sheriff of Nottingham, Master & Commander, Mr. Midshipman Easy, and Lonesome Dove. Lonesome Dove really is stunningly good.

Carrie said...

Hi Steve,

I am 3/4 through Claudius the God and actually like it better than I Claudius. Hope you and the dogs are well.

- CM

Locke Peterseim said...

Too funny -- when I thought of historical fiction for middle-school-age kids, the first thing that popped into MY head as well was good ol' Johnny Tremain -- I think there's a mini-generation of those of us of a certain age who ALL had to read it in 8th-grade American History class...

As for Steve's list, I've actually read Claudius (and God), M&C of course, Sheriff of Nottingham, Lonesome Dove (and am hoping for a re-reading sometime in '08), Killer Angels, and both the Persian Boy and Last of the Wine (oh, you kids -- if you'd known Steve back in the heady college years, you'd have been FORCED, at Steve-point, to read ALL the Renault books before he'd even deem to allow you a seat at his cafeteria table).

I should note that I THINK every book on that list, I read because Steve either gave it to me or recommended it.

And then there are these, the ones he gave me and still sit, unread, on my shelfs... but someday... someday: Sot-Weed Factor, Kingdom of the Wicked, and not one, but TWO copies of Jem & Sam... both from Steve (he's gotten dotty in his old age and sometimes forgets which books he's foisted on whom)

steve said...

As far as recommendations go, what about 'The Book Thief' by Marcus Zusak? It'll certainly tap into all that Holocaust-interest, and it's a really great read too.

steve said...

As far as 'High School Musical' goes, I ASSUME you'll be buying her the DVD of 'HSM 2' - the second-greatest movie EVER MADE (after 'HSM,' of course)...

steve said...

And as far as my 'dotty' old age goes - do I need to post another picture of my stone-cold super-hottie self? Is that what I'm hearing?

Locke Peterseim said...

Well, my first browse through the Young Reader Historical Fiction shelves (all two of them) at Borders today was discouraging. (And yes, I went to Borders first, because it's closer and more of a central social hub in my 'hood, but mostly just to make Steve and the rest of you B&N Bots squeal.)

Most of what little I saw seemed to be variations on "Young Girl Has Uplifting Encounter with ___insert name of politically correct soft and fuzzy American minority culture___."

Thanks for all the suggestions -- I'll be checking them out in upcoming bookstore forays, especially anything that might involve other countries, ships, and civilizations and empires older than the U.S.

Locke Peterseim said...

And no, I'll probably let someone else get her the HSM2 dvd this year -- I got her the HSM "live concert" dvd last summer for her b-day, so I've done tithing to the Disney Machine this year... But don't worry -- there's no possible way she'll emerge from the holiday season without at least ONE copy of it (and Hairspray, and whatever the current Hannah Montana cds and dvds are) given to her by various relatives. She will not have to suffer the season Efron-free...

Locke Peterseim said...

Oh, and yep, our old Revolutionary pal, Johnny Tremain, was still there on the Borders shelf...

Beepy said...

B&N Bots! Locke, ya kill me!

Steve, what are those historical teen novels about the Tudors? I'm thinking that the author's name begins with T - Travers? Would those be any good for Locke's niece?

sam said...

I really liked 'I, Claudius,'--I thought it was wickedly funny and engrossing pretty much throughout. It even has a strong , gradual build-up of tension, as the emperors get progresively more capricious and insane. In what way does it suck as fiction?

Locke, I like Cynthia Voigt's "Dicey" books, "Dicey's Song" being the most well-known. They're not historical, but they're good reading and any bookish niece would probably really like them.

Locke Peterseim said...

I did read one or two of the Dicey books back in grad school (yeah, it was a real heavy lifting program, English Ed masters) -- I might toss that in there...

and the Tudor books sound very intriguing -- as a practicing Anglophile, I'd much rather give her something about English history... (but I'd also be curious if there's any good, age-appropriate stuff about ancient China or India -- and she does love ancient Egypt... Rome? Greece?)

Beepy said...

Okay, maybe what I was thinking of is a series by Caroline Meyer. The books have titles such as "Doomed Queen Anne" and "Mary, Bloody Mary". I don't know if they are any good.

To be honest, I read a lot of junky historical fiction as a teen. It may not have been great stuff but it fed my imagination and I remain interested in history to this day.

Kevin Caron said...

Barnes & NoBots?

I think my little sister was big into the Anne of Green Gables book around 11 - never read them myself, though I used to have a crush on the redhead playing her in the movies.

I believe I've read a total of zero of the books listed - most of the historical novels I've read lately are by Gore Vidal, who's apparently not list-worthy.

brian said...

I've read two from the list. 'Master and Commander' and 'Killer Angels'. Both excellent. I seem to remember reading a Burgess story about Atilla the Hun. Am I crazy, or did this really happen?

brian said...

Why no, I'm not crazy. The story is from 'Devil's Mode'. Steve, I believe you gave that to me back in our downtown crossing days. I shall revisit it soon.

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Locke Peterseim said...

Hey Adam, thanks! I need to make lots of good money, and I'm pretty good at typing stuff!

steve said...

Spamming AND not making any book-suggestions? The nerve!

Kevin Caron said...

It's one of those Deadly Barnse&NoBots!

Run away!

Locke Peterseim said...

For those vaguely interested, here's what I've bought for my niece's xmas gift so far: The Book Thief, Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, and Shakespeare's Secret (which is technically not historical, but will hopefully spark a wee bit of interest in the Bard). (And you B&N Bots will be thrilled to know I bought them all at the Mothership!) I may pick one or two more titles up tomorrow if I find anything interesting at the Iowa City B&N. And yes, I am also probably going to get her the Hairspray DVD (turns out, Steve, she doesn't even WANT the HSM2 dvd! seems Disney's strategy of forcing tweens to watch it non-stop on the Disney Channel for two months might have backfired in a bit of burn out!)