Guides – Historical Novel Society Historical fiction reviews, features, guides and member news Thu, 29 Jun 2017 06:59:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Defining the Genre Wed, 15 Feb 2012 02:02:41 +0000 There are problems with defining historical novels, as with defining any genre. When does ‘contemporary’ end, and ‘historical’ begin? What about novels that are part historical, part contemporary? And how much distortion of history will we allow before a book becomes more fantasy than historical?

There will never be a satisfactory answer to these questions, but these are the arbitrary decisions we’ve made.

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

We also consider the following styles of novel to be historical fiction for our purposes: alternate histories (e.g. Robert Harris’ Fatherland), pseudo-histories (eg. Umberto Eco’s Island of the Day Before), time-slip novels (e.g. Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay), historical fantasies (eg. Bernard Cornwell’s King Arthur trilogy) and multiple-time novels (e.g. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours).

Other definitions:

There are a number of essays which aim to define or discuss historical fiction. These are the ones we have collected so far. Information or text for any others would be most welcome.

Jerome de Groot: Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction: The New Time-Travellers
Sarah Johnson: Masters of the Past: Twenty Classic Historical Novels and their Legacy (from Bookmarks Magazine, Jan/Feb 2006 issue)
Allan Massie: The Master of Historical Fiction
Oregon State University Seminar: What is Historical Fiction?
Richard Slotkin: Fiction for the Purposes of History

Alternate History Thu, 31 May 2012 14:24:59 +0000 As a big alternate history fan, I get asked often to recommend a good alternate history books, but that is like asking me what my favorite film is.  There are just so many to choose from that it is hard to pick just one.  For the sake of all the current and future alternate historians, however, I will do my best to come up with a good list.

The best place to start is with Harry Turtledove.  You just can’t go wrong with the “master of alternate history”.  If there is a point of divergence you want to see, he has probably written about it.  Not to sound like a hipster, but I would recommend his earlier novels over his recent works.  I suggest you start by reading In the Balance the first entry in the four-book WorldWar series (and the first work of alternate history I ever read), where an alien race invades the Earth at the height of World War II.  The series is followed by the Colonization series set in the 60s and the epilogue novel Homeward Bound, but I will only recommend those books to readers who first read and enjoyed WorldWar first.

Want something a little more plausible?  Then you should try How Few Remain the first of the Timeline-191 (or Southern Victory series), the epic eleven volume series where Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders 191 were not discovered by Union soldiers, resulting in a Confederate victory at the Battle of Antietam and a victory in the American Civil War.

If you are not willing to make the commitment to a multi-book series, you should try some of Turtledove’s stand-alones.  There is Ruled Britannia, where the Spanish Armada was victorious and Britain is once again Catholic, but is under Spanish occupation.  Only the bard himself can win England’s freedom in a story that mirrors Czechoslovakia’s liberation from communism.  Then there is The Two Georges, which he co-wrote with actor Richard Dreyfuss, where the American Revolution never happened thanks to cooler heads coming to a negotiated settlement that kept the colonies in the empire.

My personal favorite has to be In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which is set in the near future in a timeline where the Axis won World War II.  The story focuses on a German bureaucrat, his family and the secret they keep.  What really makes this story worthwhile, however, is how Turtledove captures the “banality of evil” that was (and could have been) Nazi Germany.  These were not monsters or comic book super-villains scheming to destroy the world.  There were regular people caught up in something horrible.

While Turtledove is good, if you want to try someone who really knows how to world build and be a little controversial, then the works of S. M. Stirling are for you.  Stirling is probably best known for Domination of Draka series, a four book series set in a world where the Loyalists of the American Revolution settled in South Africa instead of Canada.  There they build an empire based on putting every human who is not a Draka into the bonds of slavery.  Plausible?  The space-filling empires, spaceships and other alternate history clichés, does not make this the most plausible work on this list. Nevertheless, the series makes the cut by being absolutely horrifying.  Many readers will find themselves cheering for the Nazis, because even the worse they planned for humanity is nowhere near as bad as what the Draka have in store for all of us.

Then there is there is the Nantucket trilogy where island of Nantucket and a Coast Guard ship are sent back in time to the Bronze Age.  While some characters just want to survive in the past, others want to use their advanced knowledge to build an empire.   The first novel in the trilogy, Island in the Sea of Time, is one of the more influential books in the genre.  The acronym of the title, ISOT, is used by fans to describe any instance of time travel, whether by an individual or an entire nation.  There is a parallel series called the Emberverse set on the Earth that Nantucket left behind.  It is an excellent post-apocalyptic fantasy epic that I highly recommend, but alternate history content is minimal.  If you enjoy a good alien space bat story and always wondered what would happen when all the lights went out, then you will enjoy the Emberverse. I would just like to point out that NBC’s Revolution has nothing to do with this story.

Like Turtledove, Stirling has his own stand-alone novels that I want to recommend.  The first is Conquistador and though it is a slow start, it paints an amazing picture about what someone and his buddies would do if they had access to their own alternate Earth.  While Conquistador is good, The Peshawar Lancers is superb tale and reminds you why Stirling is such a great world builder.  The point of divergence is in 1878 when a heavy meteor shower impacts the northern hemisphere from the Ural Mountains to the Rockies.  There is a huge die-off, but thanks to a quick-thinking Prime Minister Disraeli, much of the British upper class and military are relocated to India, South Africa and Australia.  More than a century later, the Angrezi Raj is the world’s most powerful empire, but the demon-worshipping, cannibalistic Russians are scheming to break apart their empire.  It is an engaging story that harkens back to the old adventure stories of Mundy and Kipling.

So I covered the big two, but I do not want to mislead you.  There are many other authors who write in the genre.  For series, read 1632 by Eric Flint where the fictional town of Grantville, West Virginia is sent back in time and space to Germany in the Thirty Years War.  Flint was kind enough to open up the universe to other writers giving us almost a dozen full-length novels and a lot of short stories, all focusing on what time-misplaced Americans would do in the past.  Another multi-book series you should check out is The Hammer and the Cross trilogy by Harry Harrison and John Holm.  It is an intriguing story of how an English slave becomes a king and unites Medieval Britain with the lands of the Vikings.  There is also The Children’s War and its sequel A Change of Regime by J. N. Stroyar set in a universe where Hitler never ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany rules all of Europe.  A little implausible, but it has an excellent message about human dignity and how the various resistance movements of World War II could have survived a German victory in Europe.

Some stand-alone novels I recommend include Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp.  This is one of the most influential novels in the genre and several AH authors name it as the inspiration for their own works.  In this story a modern man is mysteriously transported to 527 AD and decides to help forestall the Dark Ages by sharing knowledge from his own era.  Then there is the The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon set in a world where the United States allowed Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany to settle in Alaska and it probably has some of the best dialogue found in the genre.  Nuclear war enthusiasts should read Resurrection Day by Brendan Dubois.  In that timeline the Cuban Missile Crisis goes hot leaving a world where the former Soviet Union glows and the United States is becoming increasingly fascist.

I also need to give credit to Alison Morton for recommending these following novels, each of them having more in common with mainstream literary fiction then science fiction. Through them the authors were able to examine social, cultural and political events in an alternate history setting. First we have Fatherland by Robert Harris. This classic alternate history features a murder mystery where our hero stumbles onto a horrible secret deep inside the Third Reich. Then there is Pavane by Keith Roberts which features several personal short stories set in a world where post-Armada, Catholic England. Will the Church reign supreme or is rebellion in the air? Finally we must not forget The Alteration by Kingsley Amis where we find another Catholic England and young boy about to lose something very important. In these books we do not find troop movements or global politics, but normal people living their lives and making tough decisions against the backdrop of alternate history.

Up until now I have discussed books that have been character based narratives.  The great thing about alternate history, however, is that books can be written as textbooks and still be entertaining.  These books tend to focus more on crafting a well-researched, plausible scenario over telling a good story.  One of the most famous examples of these fictional textbooks is For Want of a Nail by Robert Sobel, where the Americans lose the Battle of Saratoga and the American Revolution.  The British established the Confederation of North America over their North American colonies, while unrepentant rebels flee to Jefferson (Texas) where they later seize control of Mexico and form the bilingual United States of Mexico.  It even comes complete with fictional footnotes to in-universe historians and books.  A more recent example is When Angels Wept by Eric Swedin.  Another Cuban Missile Crisis divergence, the story is written by an alternate version of the author who survived the global nuclear war.  It discusses the events up to the crisis and how a change in the weather forced world leaders to make drastically different decisions that resulted in the death of millions.

I could go on and on, but I think I have given you a good list to start with.  If you want more examples of alternate history I recommend three sites.  First, Uchronia: The Alternate History List, an online database of over 3000 alternate history titles.  It is managed by the same guys who run the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, so they have a pretty good idea what counts as good alternate history.  Second, Wikipedia has a long list of alternate history books, series, anthologies, short stories and other works of alternate history.  Finally, you should check out my AH blog, Alternate History Weekly Update, specifically the Review Archive where you can see what I and other contributors have to say about old and new works of alternate history.

Hopefully my recommendations help you find something you like in the alternate history genre, but remember not just to take my word for it.  If you see something that might be interesting, try it out.  Alternate history books are portals to alternate dimensions and you might be pleasantly surprised with what you discover on the other side.

Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a volunteer editor for Alt Hist magazine. His fiction can be found at Echelon PressJake’s Monthly and The Were-Traveler. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

Forthcoming Historical Novels Sun, 08 Apr 2012 17:20:12 +0000 forthcoming 2017 titlesThe Historical Novel Society has been tracking forthcoming historical novels for many years.  These lists of historical fiction titles are based on publishers’ catalogs, publisher home pages, Publishers Weekly forecasts, Amazon, and information supplied by authors. Titles and dates are subject to change.

We list upcoming mainstream and small press titles set in the 1960s and earlier. Details for the adult fiction lists are compiled by Sarah Johnson (US) and Sarah Cuthbertson (UK). The children’s/YA lists are compiled by Fiona Sheppard.

The current list for 2017 is a work in progress, and  previous lists from 2016, from 2015, from 2014, from 2013 and from 2012 can also be found here and via the menu at right.

See also our newest lists of forthcoming children’s and young adult titles for 2017 and for 2016, as well as our archive of children’s and YA titles from 2015 and from 2014.

The English Civil Wars Sun, 22 Apr 2012 18:38:27 +0000 The English Civil Wars is a period rich in opportunities for the author.  There is the breakdown of political society culminating of the trial and execution of the King, charged with maliciously making war on his own people.  There are in fact three civil wars and not just involving the English.  The Scottish, Irish and Welsh were all involved too, with the Scots first fighting with Parliament against Charles I in the First Civil War and then with the King(s) against Parliament in the Second and Third Civil Wars.  Then there’s the political and religious radicalism with the Levellers and Diggers, Fifth Monarchists, Ranters and Quakers.

With this as a backdrop most historical novels focus on either the fighting or the romance.  Those in the romance category often slant towards love against all odds across the political or religious divide.  Novels by Pamela Belle, Janet Mary Tomson, Cheryl Sawyer and Joanna Hines fall into the romance category.

In the military category, popular with ECW re-enactors such as the Sealed Knot, we have authors such as Nicholas Carter and more recently Michael Arnold and Giles Kristian.  Here we can see cynical, war-hardened veterans of wars on the European continent come home to fight, perhaps even without believing in either the King or Parliament’s cause.  Or we can have the divided family theme with son against father or brother fighting brother.

A third category is the novel which explores deeper themes, for example religion, traditional beliefs and witchcraft and the links between all three.  Ronan Bennett’s ‘Havoc, In Its Third Year’ is such a novel and much more, as although set in the 1630s it explores contemporary issues.   While setting his book in the 1660s and therefore just outside the period of the English Civil Wars, another author tackling weightier issues is Iain Pears in his ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’.  Exploring the ideas of political radicalism with the Diggers we have ‘As Meat Loves Salt’ by Maria McCann.

In my collection of over a hundred historical novels, I only have seven set between 1603 and 1660 and only four of these are actually set during the English Civil Wars.  Why can it be that a period so fascinating does not have more historical novels?

‘History is written by the victors’ and the pleasure loathing Puritan winners of the English Civil War did not like novels.  Perhaps a bit of an anachronism, but it makes the point that the English Civil War has often been portrayed in simple black and white terms,  Puritan Roundheads versus romantic Cavaliers.  This could be one of the reasons why we have such a lack of novels set during this period.

One problem from an author’s point of view is that it is far easier to write about war or politics if there is a nice convenient enemy.  Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels feature the imperialist and sometimes atheist French which hardly upsets many British people, but to write about the English Civil Wars is difficult as it there is no convenient enemy.  English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish were all involved, not always on the same side.  Not only is it confusing it’s also potentially divisive, where’s the market in terms of readership?

Certainly we do seem to be experiencing a renaissance of the English Civil War novel with impending releases from Giles Kristian and Michael Arnold .  We have come a long way from the Gadzooks and gainsaying type of novel which tried, and often failed to recreate authentic seventeenth century dialogue.  Long may the renaissance continue.

[This contribution is from Ian Saunderson,  author of Child of Aetos, one of the newer breed of historical novels of the war. In Child of Aetos narrator Paul Morrow tells of his service to his lord through the conflict, and it is for the reader to decide if this service caused the death of his master, the Earl of Derby.]

Christian Historical Fiction Tue, 24 Apr 2012 20:08:11 +0000 Christian fiction is a publishing genre with its own distinct publishers, and Historical Christian fiction is a subset within that. You can find these books on this site tagged Inspirational. Other faiths are also tagged here, but you’ll quickly see that the Christian fiction is numerically dominant. Distinct publishers who specialize in this genre are Bethany House and Revell.

The sub-genre requires a basic faith in God. You don’t have to be any particular denomination of Christian to enjoy these stories, but you will need to believe that God exists. The novels take you on their historical journeys, whatever they may be, and it is as a side note that you find the characters have doubts, beliefs, and questions regarding faith and morals. Of course, every book is different and there are novels with a more in depth view of God or spirituality. Themes of sacrifice, passion, sin or faith-under-fire often feature in the stories. Bible quotations can be important: sometimes a new chapter begins with such a quote. Some of my favorite books this year are from this sub-genre, as they offer dramatic stories set in eras I want to learn more about. Christian historical fiction can easily mix with other sub-genres, as some may have a bit of mystery or suspense built in, and some work as historical romance (without the bodice ripper stigma). What you won’t find are tawdry sex scenes or explicit violence, but instead you’ll get your drama and history with a bit of inspirational insight.

I first came to appreciate Christian Historical fiction because I felt I couldn’t read one more novel about yet another King, Queen, or other noble person. I found this genre to fill an entertainment gap for me, and the quality of writing along with complex storylines has been superb thus far. Many of the novels can follow a certain formula regarding the faith aspect, but as with any other novel the stories are indicative of the author’s creativity and the other themes they present. Very generally speaking, popular settings are of the American pioneer or Western setting as well as later periods such as the aftermath of the American Civil War. Alternatively, there are stories ranging from the high seas (Mary Lu Tyndall) or those with the Regency era (Kaye Dacus) that have been put on many readers’ favorites lists. Two much loved and prolific Christian historical novelists are Janette Oke and Stephen Bly, the latter a Christy Award winner. The Christy awards were inspired by another forerunner of Christian Historical fiction, Catherine Marshall, and her 1967 novel Christy. The annual Christy Awards are presented to Christian fiction authors in several sub-genres, including Christian Historical fiction.

Some authors at the top of my own list are Julie Klassen, Deeanne Gist, Ann H. Gabhart, Tamera Alexander and Amanda Cabot. And if you are worried that these books can be a bit preachy, they’re not. Christianity and prayerfulness are more an underlying theme – and the reader can either see a deeper meaning, recognize certain lessons to be learned, or choose not to. Give them a try!

Marie Burton (author of this guide) is addicted to historical fiction, coping with the fact she can’t seem to enjoy reading anything that isn’t set some time long ago.

The Philosophical Historical Novel Wed, 02 May 2012 16:39:52 +0000 Philosophers of the past so aroused the societies they lived in that they were often persecuted, executed, or hired to teach scions of the ruling class. Socrates drank hemlock. Cicero was declared Rome’s enemy and murdered. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. Some fine historical novels revolve around these ancient philosophers: Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and The Mask of Apollo, about Socrates and his student Plato; Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean, about Aristotle and Alexander; and Imperium by Robert Harris, first in a trilogy about Cicero, are among them.

The seeds of the Renaissance lay in philosophy. A philosopher taught Lorenzo de’ Medici, who became ruler of fifteenth-century Florence. His tutor Marsilio Ficino translated Plato and other pagan scholars, reintroducing them to the Christian world and creating controversies that led to a heresy accusation and, ultimately, the German Reformation. Linda Proud’s trilogy beginning with A Tabernacle for the Sun brings Ficino’s ideas, some of them startling even in our own time, to life. Ficino also plays a role in Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, a young-adult novel by Mary Osborne which revolves around the philosophical roots of alchemy.

The American and French Revolutions originated with ideas inspired by philosophers like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Novelists rarely treat these philosophers’ lives directly, although the intricately philosophical mystery An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is set in the Oxford of Locke’s time, and Lion Feuchtwanger’s ‘Tis Folly to Be Wise features the dying Rousseau eleven years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. Novels about these revolutions can hardly avoid the philosophical ideas that ignited them. Two of many are Jeff Shaara’s Rise to Rebellion, about the early events of the American Revolution, and Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, about the infamous trio of French revolutionaries, Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins.

Philosophy has never been an exclusively European phenomenon. The Gardens of Light by Amin Maalouf is about third-century Mesopotamian prophet Mani, whose philosophy came to the West in a distorted form as Manichaeism. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, set in ancient India, illustrates the origins of Buddhist philosophy.

by Margaret Donsbach of

1066 Wed, 15 Feb 2012 11:04:30 +0000

Harold Rex Interfectus Est

Supposedly the last date when the English were conquered, 1066 has long been iconic, long a favoured subject for historical fiction. It is a bloody, romantic, culturally fascinating, and important event on a truly European scale.

These are the main ways that writers have tackled the subject.

(1) Invasion novels. From Norman or English point of view, novels have tackled the pivotal issue: how did William win? How did Harold lose? These books follow the strategic movements and highlight the turning points on the road to war, and are a strong subject for political and military novels.

(2) Before and after novels. Again, either from the Norman or English side, novels have addressed the conquest on a more personal level. What is it like to be settled and Anglo-Saxon, then suddenly to live under different rule? What is it like to have been an adventurer knight and then to be trusted with becoming one of the rulers in a hostile country? Many romances have been written with this subject, but it is also an imperialist subject that allows authors to address many questions of colonies and colonised.

(3) Bayeux Tapestry novels. These can be as part of the earlier two categories but centre on interpretations of how one of the great resources for the period came into being, and how some of its featured characters fared. Often favoured by literary novelists.

(4) Resistance novels. The ongoing fight against the Normans, usually from the point of view of the English, often elegaic for lost peoples, customs, freedoms. Military novels will follow the heroes who still fought William after the Battle of Hastings. Sometimes there is also the more passive resistance of exile – for example to the Byzantine court, where some Anglo saxon nobles became Varangians.

The Knights Templar Thu, 23 Feb 2012 12:00:19 +0000

Templars playing chess (from 'Libro de los juegos')

Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, villain of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, early established the role of the Templar in historical fiction – a proud Christian fanatic corrupted at heart by the East.

His general appearance was grand and commanding; but, looking at him with attention, men read that in his dark features from which they willingly withdrew their eyes.’

Since Scott (whose influence is incalculably huge), there has been little deviation from this general theme. Templar stories are almost always associated with religious fanaticism (hero Templars reject this), East-meets-West (hero or villain Templars embrace this), secrecy, conspiracy, feats of arms and, quite frequently, treasure. Since Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code there has also been a ubiquity of Templar-type ‘inner’ organisations that pre-date or post-date the dissolution of the Order.

Contemporary authors of Templar historicals are Maureen Ash, Robyn Young, Colin Falconer,  Jack Whyte, Paul Doherty, Jan Guillou, and James Jackson. Michael Jecks, in a 20+ book series, and Tim Hodgekinson both feature Templars who survive the dissolution to live different lives.


Ancient Rome Wed, 29 Feb 2012 09:12:14 +0000 This is way too big a subject for one guide, and will no doubt get divided into many subsections in due course. In addition we have reviews tagged here, and our browse buttons allow you to explore by century or genre if you wish.

Ancient Rome was a frequent subject of Victorian historical fiction and also popular throughout the 20th century. It was similarly popular in movies, though it fell out of fashion for a couple of decades until the game-changing success of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, released in 2000. Since then the floodgates of fictional Rome have been torn open.

Pollice Verso, Jean-Leon Gerome

But Rome means different things to different people. For some it is a military story of imperialism and war in foreign lands. For others it is the victim-tale of the conquered (especially if the conquered happen to be British or Judaic). For others it is broadly cultural: how could people be so similar to us and so different? There is a broad strand of historicals that touch on the New Testament stories, including many new ‘gospels’ and a wealth of faith stories, as well as some militantly anti-Christian novels. There are Roman detective novels, military historicals, sea stories, epics, and literary novels.

Biographical novels are perhaps the richest vein – for literature and ‘box office’.

James Hawking wrote us a great introduction to Rome for our first edition of Solander in 1997.

King Arthur Tue, 28 Feb 2012 15:43:33 +0000

Feasting - 15th Century 'The Launcelot Romance'

I once spoke with the senior fiction editor at a New York publishing house who held the opinion that every decade there is a new dominant interpretation of the Arthurian cycle. In the 1970s, she said, it was Mary Stewart’s trilogy, narrated by Merlin: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment (other titles followed later). For the 1980s, it was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist reinterpretation, The Mists of Avalon (other co-authored titles followed later). For the 1990s, it was Bernard Cornwell’s gritty Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, The Enemy of God, Excalibur).

We spoke at the end of the 90s, and I don’t know which book or series she felt was ‘dominant’ in the noughties.

What is inescapably true is that Arthur is ALWAYS being reinvented. Since the early romances of Chretien de Troyes to the latest film or television outings (Merlin; Camelot), the ‘matter of Britain’ seems endlessly reworkable.

From the point of view of historical fiction, the Arthur mythos has always pin-pointed the fault-line between history and story. The historians pull in the direction of a realistic, celtic post-Roman world. Their Arthur is without magic, without high-Catholic symbolism, and without chivalry. The fantasy authors pull the other way, setting the stories in a time outside time, often depicting a battle between Christian ‘magic’ and pagan ‘magic’, plundering the myths for narrative and atmosphere. Literary authors tend to stand one foot in both camps, enchanted by the magic realism and epic poetry at the heart of the stories, but wanting to give emotional consistency and humanity (usually historical humanity) to the protagonists.

All approaches can be successful – though not always to the taste of all.