Which centuries are the most popular in 2013’s historicals?

Sarah Johnson

The Historical Novels Review, the quarterly print magazine of the HNS, organizes its reviews primarily by century.  Novels set in ancient times (BCE) are grouped by broader historical era, and we have separate categories for multi-period novels, timeslips, historical fantasy, and alternate history. (We also review children’s titles and nonfiction.)

Earlier this year, I did a breakdown of the number of adult fiction titles reviewed in our Feb 2013 issue according to these groupings and posted the results in our Facebook group.  A lively discussion ensued, and people replied with questions and comments.  When did the 20th century get to be so popular?  (Actually, it always has been.)  Where did all the medievals go?  Is this trend due to the prevalence of Downton Abbey-style novels and fictional biographies about early 20th-century figures?   Is the reign of the Tudors over?

And so I thought to widen the timeframe and look at adult novels covered by the HNR over the entire past year.  The following table shows the results, which include numbers for our upcoming May 2013 issue – both print reviews and  “online exclusives.”  A disclaimer: we’re counting all adult mainstream/small press novels sent to us by publishers over this period and reviewed, not necessary all historical novels published in the US and UK… but the magazines aim to be as comprehensive as possible.


HNR titles by century


Some observations:

  • The 20th century strongly dominates, with the 19th century in second place.
  • The “Dark Ages” are pretty dark.  Historical novels set in the early medieval period aren’t very common, at least until you get up to the 11th century (with 1066, and all that).
  • There’s a large blip in popularity with 1st-century titles, most of which have Roman settings and/or cover biblical fiction set around the time of Christ.
  • Moving forward, once the 16th century rolls around, we start to see greater quantities of historicals.  It’s not just Tudor England, though; this covers about half of the 16th-century total (and Tudor royalty about 1/3 of the total).  The rest are set in locales as diverse as Italy, Japan, Jamaica, Bohemia, India, and North America.
  • There are fewer novels set in medieval times (5th through 15th centuries), total, than in the 16th century.
  • Multi-period novels have a strong showing.  These are nearly all novels with parallel timelines: one set today, one in the past.
  • Historical fantasy novels are set all over the place.  No setting has a majority.
  • If you count up the number of novels set between the 17th and 19th centuries, they still don’t add up to the number with 20th-century settings.
  • 40% of all adult novels reviewed over the last year are set in the 20th century (1960s and earlier).  Another 28.4% are set in the 19th century.

Here’s a chart that shows the breakdown for the last year in visual form.

Popularity by Century

What are your thoughts on the above?  Does this reflect your reading preferences?  What time periods would you like to see more (or less) of?

In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissioned for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.