Historical fiction isn’t a genre I read a lot of. But whenever I do, I love seeing how the author intertwines real facts with fiction. When done skillfully, the fiction parts of the story start to feel like facts that nobody was there to see.
- Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth. I originally read this book as an assigned reading for a subject I did at university called Genre Fiction (guess which genre it was for). The subject was excellent, and so is Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens. The book tells the story of three women (Charlotte-Rose de la Force, Margherita, and Selena Leonelli) in relation to the fairy tale Rapunzel. Charlotte-Rose is a real historical figure, known for being one of the first historical fiction writers, and also for being the one to popularize the story of Rapunzel. In the novel, as in real life, Charlotte-Rose is a minor noble in the court of Louis XIV until she is banished to a nunnery for a series of indiscretions. At the nunnery she encounters an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her a story about a young girl (Margherita) who is sold to a witch (Selena Leonelli) for a handful of bitter greens. The novel intertwines the stories of Selena, Margherita, and Charlotte-Rose in a way that brings new depth to the story of Rapunzel, and reveals the struggles of women in the 16th and 17th century.
- The Royal Diaries series, especially the Elizabeth, and Cleopatra ones. While these
books are mostly aimed at younger readers I had to put them on the list. Each book is written as if it is the diary of a famous female royal figure. The books are normally set during the woman’s childhood, or teenage years. Each book also contains a brief biography of the woman’s life after the diary finishes. You can find a full list of the diaries here. Most of the books are written by different people, with a few recurring authors, but the tone remains consistent. They all present an honest feeling representation of the struggles of youth, and femininity within the royal families of the world. One of my favourite things about the series is how they weave documented events together with thoroughly researched estimations of what life would have looked like ‘behind the scenes’. While the series occasionally feels a bit Euro-centric, there are almost equal numbers of European and non-European Royalty (the numbers are equal if you count Cleopatra as non-European, but technically she was Greek, so I’m on the fence about where to place her). For me these books were my first examples of historical fiction done well, and they stoked my love of history.
- Once by Morris Gleitzman. This book, while aimed at children, takes on a whole new dimension when read by and older audience. The story follows Felix, a young Jewish boy living in Nazi occupied Poland. The son of Jewish booksellers, he embarks on a quest to find his parents after he witnesses a book burning at the Catholic orphanage where he lives. He meets a little girl called Zelda in the wreckage of her home. As they travel through Nazi occupied territory, Felix tells Zelda stories to explain away some of the terribleness that they encounter. Every chapter starts with the word ‘once’, and the entire story reads similar to a fable. As an adult reading the story you can hear the truth behind Felix’s stories, and the book takes on layers awfulness that readers with little knowledge about the Holocaust wont perceive. The story is both hopeful and tragic, and provides a fascinating look at the horrors of WWII as seen through the eyes of a child.
- Hitler’s Daughter, and Lady Dance by Jackie French. I’ve already talked a bit about
Lady Dance here (INSERT LINK TO CHILDHOOD FIVE FAVE), so go check that out if you’re curious. Hitler’s Daughter is about a girl called Anna telling her friends the fictional story of Hitler’s daughter Heidi. Heidi was born with a large birthmark on her face, forcing the perfection obsessed Hitler to have her raised in seclusion. As Heidi begins to discover more about what her father has been doing, she struggles with how she should respond. Heidi’s struggles cause Anna’s friends, and thus the reader, to question what they would do in the same situation. Hitler’s Daughter, like most fiction aimed at children, serves an important dual purpose of entertainment and education. History seen only as dry facts doesn’t help anyone.
- Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. If you wish that the movie 300 was more realistic, then this is the book for you. Gates of Fire tells the true story of the Battle of Thermopylae in all it’s extremely badass glory. While walls of corpses are pretty impressive, I much prefer the historically accurate awesomeness on display in Gates of Fire. As well as an in-depth and accurate representation of the battle itself (which as a bonus doesn’t demonize Persians as literal monsters), the book also provides a fascinating look at the warrior culture of Sparta. From surprising amounts of gender equality to the immensely practical two king system (one for politics, one for war), the book reveals a far more three-dimensional image of one of histories most famous warrior cultures.