Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reading Historical Fiction

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I want a break from reading mysteries, I often turn to historical fiction, sometimes with an element of crime in it, but not necessarily. Evidently, I’m not the only one for whom the two genres are compatible.

Among my recent reads are two straight historical novels by very good mystery writers. One is The Course of Honor by Lindsey Davis, author of the delightful Marcus Didius Falco series, set in ancient Rome. In this novel, she tells the love story of the Emperor Vespasian and Caenis, a freedwoman who started out as a slave trained as a scribe.

The other is Kerry Greenwood’s Out of the Black Land. The Australian author writes two mystery series, the very popular Phryne Fisher books (themselves historicals with a Roaring Twenties setting) and the Corinna Chapman series, one of my favorites, set in a bakery in present-day Melbourne. Here, she turns to ancient Egypt: her protagonists, Nefertiti’s half-sister Mutnodjme and the Pharaoh Imhotep’s royal scribe, Ptah-hotep. All of these characters (except Vespasian, about whom more is known) are fictional imaginings of  real people, built from the faint partial prints they have left on the sands of time.

One of my all-time favorite fell-in-love-with-it-swept-me-away series is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, set in 18th-century Scotland and America: so far, from 1743, two years before the Battle of Culloden, to 1778, the middle of the American Revolutionary War—and since they’re time-travel novels, selected moments in more recent history from 1945, just after the end of World War II, to the mid-1970s. Gabaldon’s scope is enormous, and she has the knack of making every detail interesting.

Another brilliant series, also spiced up with some whopping mysteries and a little very subtle magic, was the late Dorothy Dunnett’s books about Francis Crawford of Lymond, a fictional Scottish nobleman, adventurer, and man of destiny. The series is set between 1547 and 1558, starting when Mary Stuart was a child queen in France and Henry VIII’s short-lived son Edward on the English throne. Dunnett’s detail is even richer than Gabaldon's. Her settings include not only the European countries most familiar to us but the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent and the Russia of Ivan the Terrible.

Dunnett wrote another massive series, the House of Niccolò books, set a century earlier and focusing on the rise of the great merchants and bankers rather than the rulers, soldiers, and statesmen of the time. That series was equally brilliant but not quite as compelling to me.

I’ve been learning the substantial amount of history I know primarily from novels my whole life. My first library book was about a little girl captured by Barbary pirates. I know a lot of American history from Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg books, about an extended family in America and England from before the Revolutionary War through World War II. I must have checked those books out of the library dozens of times.

Like many of my fellow genre fiction writers, I absorbed as much about Regency England from Georgette Heyer as from Jane Austen herself. I’ve read countless novels set in Plantagenet and Tudor times—the same period covered by Shakespeare. I adored Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece and finally “got” the Romans thanks to Colleen McCullough, as well as the mystery writers Steven Saylor, John Maddox Roberts, and, to come full circle, Lindsey Davis.

What are your favorite historical novels? And how much of your knowledge of history, like mine, comes from reading fiction?


Anonymous said...

In my teens & early 20s, read and enjoyed Thomas B. Costain. Sharon Kay Penman would be my favorite, currently writing, historical novelist. Recently discovered Bernard Cornwell's "1356" at my public library and went on to read his "Agincourt." My sister gave me her Diane Gabaldon books and I read them twice. Not sure how much credence I would put in the "facts" presented in a historical novel; might be motivated to read a nonfiction account of events.

Donis Casey said...

Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series is one of the most beautifully written historical mystery series ever. And as for straight historical fiction, I loved Colleen McCulloughs series on Rome, Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire and subsequent novels set in classical Greece, Stephen Saylor's Gordianus series, and Pauline Gedge's Egyptian books. Oh, so many, I could go on and on.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

If we're going back decades, how about Mary Renault's remarkable novels set in ancient Greece? She had the gift of convincing the reader it must all have been exactly the way she imagined it.

Anonymous said...

Dorothy Dunnett's Francis Crawford series and Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels are my favorites and I've re-read each series more times than I can admit even to myself. It's easy to get lost in Dunnett's and O'Brian's worlds.

I thought that Diana Gabaldon's first 3 Outlander books were brilliant but by The Fiery Cross, I started to lose interest. I think that she's turned strong characters and compelling history into dullness. I realize that I'm in the minority here!

I liked Lindsey Davis's Rebels and Traitors, her historical novel about the English Civil War, but I didn't finish her Master and God, which takes place in Domitian's Rome. To me, her historical novels lack the wit and spark that make the Falco series fun to read. I'll look for Kerry Greenwood's novel; I'd gladly read her grocery list.

We can disagree on authors and books but I think we all feel that historical mysteries and novels are the best way to time travel.