Monday, 13 January 2014

Jess Suggests | Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is a genre which I love but a genre I am also very fussy with. There is a lot of fantastic Historical fiction out there, but there are also many books out there which, to me, are nothing more than royal family fanfiction which try to romanticise fairly brutal periods of our past. There must always be some fabrication - to an extent - to enjoy a piece of Historical fiction as a story rather than simply a list of facts, but when it isn't executed well it can be cringe-worthy.
I don't claim to be an expert, but as a lover of history (and someone who's currently working on a Historical fiction novel) I think I know a good piece of Historical fiction when I see one. So, without further ado, here are five Historical fiction novels you simply have to read:

by Celia Rees

Welcome to the world of young Mary Newbury, a world where simply being different can cost a person her life. Hidden until now in the pages of her diary, Mary’s startling story begins in 1659, the year her beloved grandmother is hanged in the public square as a witch. Mary narrowly escapes a similar fate, only to face intolerance and new danger among the Puritans in the New World. How long can she hide her true identity? Will she ever find a place where her healing powers will not be feared?

This is the novel which really got me into Historical fiction, as such it has a very special place on my bookshelf; particularly since I was lucky enough to meet the author and get my copy signed a couple of years ago. 
I first read this book when I was around thirteen, I saw it on the bookshelf and was drawn in, as many people are, by the haunting photograph on the cover. I've always loved history, particularly religious and supernatural history (even as a child, due to my somewhat morbid fascination with the weird, the wonderful, and the cruel) so this book was perfect for me. After the execution of her beloved grandmother, the enchanting Mary Newbury, blessed with peculiar healing powers, travels to the New World with a group of Puritans so as to save herself from the gallows. There she is caught between two cultures: the new settlers who may still hang her if they believe her to be a witch, and the Native American people who see themselves in her talents.
Witch Child is a marvellous mash-up of genres; it's both a piece of Historical fiction and also a YA novel told through Mary's insightful diary entries. So if you find Historical fiction boring, intimidating, or a little difficult to get into I highly recommend starting with this book! 

by Sebastian Faulks

Set before and during the great war, Birdsong captures the drama of that era on both a national and a personal scale. It is the story of Stephen, a young Englishman, who arrives in Amiens in 1910. Over the course of the novel he suffers a series of traumatic experiences, from the clandestine love affair that tears apart the family with whom he lives, to the unprecedented experiences of the war itself.

During the first year of my A Levels I was lucky enough to study war literature - specifically the First World War - and it was fascinating. Unfortunately Birdsong wasn't one of the texts on our course, but it was given to us to read anyway and I'm so glad it was. This book is stunning.

This novel uses the technique of telling the story through two different protagonists in two different time frames. This technique is often used in Historical fiction, and is ideal for readers out there who find history intimidating by giving them a modern day protagonist who is as curious and unsure about the past as they are. The reader follows both Stephen, a soldier fighting in the First World War, and Elizabeth, Stephen's granddaughter living in the 1960s who is trying to find out more about her grandfather.

Whether you're a fan of history or not this book will stay with you forever. It's haunting, moving and both incredibly brutal and very touching. This is one of those books you simply have to read before you die, but don't read it without a box of tissues nearby!

by C. J. Sansom

It is 1537, a time of revolution that sees the greatest changes in England since 1066. Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church. The country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers it has ever seen. And under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be oneoutcome: dissolution. 

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwells Commissioner, Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege.

Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell to uncover the truth behind the dark happenings at Scarnsea. But investigation soon forces Shardlake to question everything that he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes...

Historical Crime fiction is an undoubtedly popular strand of Historical fiction, and as far as I'm concerned C. J. Sansom is one of the best authors of this particular strand.

Dissolution is the first book in the Shardlake series, of which there are currently five books: Dissolution; Dark Fire; Sovereign; Revelation and Heartstone. Each book is a separate story in and of itself, but it involves the same characters who gradually develop over time, so I would recommend beginning with Dissolution and reading them in chronological order.

Our main character is lawyer Matthew Shardlake, a Reformer and hunchback living in Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII. In Dissolution, Matthew is sent to a monastery in the south, which is in the process of being dissolved, to look into the murder of Cromwell's commissioner. Here his wits, his loyalty and the religious beliefs he holds most dear are put to the test.

If the Tudor era interests you then you should definitely give this series a try! Having studied History at university Sansom delivers an accurate portrayal of what living in Tudor England was like at a time of tremendous religious change.

This is easily one of my favourite series of all time.

by Markus Zusak


1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.


It's a small story, about: a girl, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.


The Book Thief is aimed towards younger audiences in the same way that Witch Child is, but that doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed by people of all ages. The protagonist, Liesel, is a child, but Liesel is not the narrator of the story. Instead our narrator is the age old figure of Death, and given that the novel is set in Nazi Germany during the Second World War Death is a very busy guy.

What makes this novel so wonderful is the way that it's told. Because our narrator is the all-knowing figure of Death we are often told about events - including character deaths - long before they happen, and yet when they do happen they're still heartbreaking even though we have spent the entire book expecting them. Zusak weaves an entire town of characters for his readers to fall absolutely in love with, and we fall in love with them because they're ordinary people living through an extraordinary era of history.

If you're a fan of fiction set during the Second World War but are a little tired of the typical narrator, this book is for you!

by Susan Fletcher

The Massacre of Glencoe happened at 5am on 13th February 1692 when thirty-eight members of the Macdonald clan were killed by soldiers who had enjoyed the clan's hospitality for the previous ten days. Many more died from exposure in the mountains. Fifty miles to the south Corrag is condemned for her involvement in the Massacre. She is imprisoned, accused of witchcraft and murder, and awaits her death. The era of witch-hunts is coming to an end - but Charles Leslie, an Irish propagandist and Jacobite, hears of the Massacre and, keen to publicise it, comes to the tollbooth to question her on the events of that night, and the weeks preceding it. Leslie seeks any information that will condemn the Protestant King William, rumoured to be involved in the massacre, and reinstate the Catholic James. Corrag agrees to talk to him so that the truth may be known about her involvement, and so that she may be less alone, in her final days. As she tells her story, Leslie questions his own beliefs and purpose - and a friendship develops between them that alters both their lives.

I started this post with witches, so it feels right to end it with witches.

Unlike Witch Child, Corrag is not a YA novel and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to people who prefer fast-paced novels. Fletcher takes her time to set the scene - her descriptions of the landscape are stunning - and coax you into the story, but it's so worth it.

The story follows Corrag, who has been imprisoned for witchcraft and murder following the Glencoe Massacre. She is one of the sweetest, loveliest fictional heroines I have come across in a long time - it's incredibly difficult to not fall in love with her.

She, of course, has her own story as to what happened the night of the massacre, and when she is visited in prison by Jacobite Charles Leslie, who longs to see the Catholic King James back on the throne, she has the chance to tell her side. Her storytelling is interwoven with letters that Leslie writes to his wife, and over the course of the novel a beautiful friendship develops between the two of them.

This book is very close to my heart. It's just beautiful, so if you haven't already please pick it up and give it a try!

There we have it! I hope this has been somewhat helpful in your search for Historical fiction. If you already read the genre then I hope you read even more this year, and if it's a genre you tend to stay away from I hope 2014 is the year you give it a go!

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