Thursday, February 28, 2013
Reading Historical Fiction
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?