Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss, by Gary Worthington
In a current literary climate that tends to emphasize the latest works, it can be easy to forget that so many good historical novels were published years ago. They may no longer be prominently displayed in your local bookstore but they’re still definitely worth seeking out and reading.
This is likely my last posting in this series, so I wish you the best of luck. I’m always on the lookout for additional unique, well done historical fiction, so I look forward to seeing your own published work!
Here are a few historical novels that have inspired me over the years. I learned something about writing from each, and I’d bet that you will too.
Balogh, Mary. Truly. 1996. An historical romance set in 1840s Wales. The hero returns after a ten year absence to claim his estate but finds that his tenants hate him because of his ruthless managers. He takes up the cause of the tenants and the poor in general by assuming the disguised role of “Rebecca,” who leads the peasantry in various acts of rebellion against the power of the gentry. The romantic details and complications are sometimes from stock romance fiction, but those flaws are more than compensated for by an exciting plot with plenty of suspense.
Barber, Noel. Sakkara. 1984. A novel of 20th Century Egypt, narrated by the son of a wealthy British envoy growing up in Cairo and in love with an Egyptian neighbor’s daughter who is promised to his brother. Impressive for the detail and flavor of the times and Egypt’s struggle for independence.
Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders. 2001. Realistic-feeling experiences of the inhabitants of an English village that quarantines itself during a period of bubonic plague in 1665. Narrated by a young widow and mother, the challenges and suffering of the residents result in compelling reading with an added dimension of religious conflict.
de Bernieres, Louis. Birds Without Wings. 2004. Outstanding depictions of villagers and their daily lives in Turkey during a challenging period of change at the beginning of the 20th Century and World War I. A remarkable cast of strong characters, all very different, with encounters between ethnic Greeks and Armenians and Muslim Turks.
Grieseman, John. Signal & Noise. 2003. Epic in scope, depicting influential engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs during major events in the 1850-60s such as laying the first trans-Atlantic cable and solving London’s “Great Stink” with drainage and sewers. Some minor flaws in that characters’ motivations aren’t always entirely clear and shifting points of views can slow momentum. But still impressively done.
Harris, Robert. Pompeii. 2003. A young roman aqueduct engineer goes to Pompeii in AD 79 to try to restore water flow to the nearby cities, where he faces mystery and danger culminating in the massive eruption of the volcano. A romance element and the excessive power of a newly wealthy man seem somewhat improbable, but on the whole the work is suspenseful and intriguing.
Mackin, Jeane. Dreams of Empire. 1996. Mystery novel of the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt, with a French woman artist heroine and her philanderer husband accused of trying to poison Napoleon. The pursuit of a major artifact from the time of Alexander the Great adds to the adventure. Excellent for the flavor of the time and romance and intrigue.
Michener, James A. The Source. 1965. This huge tome, a bestseller in its time, firmly established the template (similar to that of Michener’s earlier Hawaii) for that author’s later historical novels and for those of James Rutherfurd. It also was the inspiration for the format of my own India Treasures and India Fortunes. A series of novellas set in various historical periods let the reader experience an overview of the historical evolution of the land that is now Israel. The stories are focused especially on the site of the ruins of a fictional ancient town, and the excavations of the various layers by an archaeological team in the 20th Century tie together the tales from the earlier eras. Not a fast read, but well worth the investment of time for an understanding of the roots of this area of the Middle East.
Rufin, Jean-Christophe. The Abyssinian. 1999. Translated from French. In 1699 the young hero is sent on a mission from Egypt to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) to establish a French mission there despite the ruler being hostile to Westerners. The lowborn hero also hopes for success so he can win the hand of the French consul’s daughter. Though somewhat heavy on narrative, the extensive details of caravan life and of sights on the route and in the capital are impressive.
Wood, Barbara. Virgins of Paradise. 1993. Novel of women in a wealthy Egyptian family living in a huge joint family house and gardens in Cairo. Excellent for the details of life in a Muslim household from the women’s perspective, and how the changing political climate severely impacts the family over half a century.
Gary Worthington’s author website: www.garyworthington.com
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