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Historical Fiction: Five of the Best

July 25, 2008

Historical fiction is another area if ascendancy right now. Just as the ‘hard sf’ writers are making that genre interesting, so the ‘hard historical’ authors are writing believable well-researched fiction that remains true to its time. As with science fiction, there’s a lot to choose from here.

1. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson
Along with its sequels, The Confusion and The System of the World, Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is a stunning achievement, and more importantly and excellent story to boot. Set in the time of change and revolution, this saga spans the time of years just after the English Civil War (1645) to the ascension of the House of Hanover to the throne of England in 1714. This series is not entirely concerned with England, with much of the action taking place elsewhere, and as such shows much of the world as it was at that time.

2. Temeraire by Naomi Novik
Hornblower with dragons. I can’t be the first to say this, in fact I suspect Novik was when she first pitched the series. An eminently readable series set in Napoleonic times. The same players are at one another’s throats – England, Prussia, revolutionary France, however this time each country has dragons as well as an army and navy on its side. The role of a true air force has not been realised, with most countries using their dragons as fast messengers, or to intercept the dragons of others. However Napoleon was always known as a master tactician…

3. Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell by Susannah Clarke
As with Temeraire this novel is set in England during Napoleonic times. However this novel covers the last two magicians in England, and their dealings with one another. I enjoyed the pace of this novel, but others who have read it found it too slow.

4. I Claudius / Claudius the God by Robert Graves
What Quicksilver does to the seventeenth century I, Claudius does for ancient Rome – brings the time period to life with stunning clarity.

5. Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden
This series covers the rise of Ghengis Khan in the thirteenth century. So far it has two books, but a third is on the way – next year, maybe? Already this is a great saga.

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