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5 Great Historical Fiction Books for Summer

5 Great Historical Fiction Books for Summer

Ahh…historical fiction! If you’re like me and you’re super interested in learning about historical people, places and events, but have the attention span of a small child, this genre is a godsend. Straight-up facts, dates and historical figures tend to be a little too dry to spark my imagination, but throw in some character development, drama — maybe even a little romance — and almost any subject matter can come alive in an enjoyable and memorable way. Here are some of my recent favorites to add to your reading list this summer.

1. The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts

Discovered by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., this novel is the only known and perhaps first manuscript written by an African American female slave. The author, Hannah Crafts, details the life of a slave girl educated in secret, mistreated by her owners and charged with the task of helping her mistress escape from a mysteriously troubled past. Largely autobiographical, this book gives us a glimpse of what life for an intelligent, self-possessed house slave yearning for freedom must have been like.

2. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Definitely not a light-hearted read, but still worthwhile at any time of year. Ngozi Adichie writes about Nigeria in the 1960s and the struggle for Biafran independence. Her main characters — a professor, two upper-class sisters, a British ex-patriate and a houseboy from a rural village — give a many-faceted perspective of the friction and ultimate civil war between the Igbo and Hausa in the Southeastern corner of the country.

3. The Sultan’s Harem by Colin Falconer

If you like intrigue, conspiracy, blackmail and — as the title implies — pleasures of the flesh, this one’s for you. Falconer details the life and rule of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, leader of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 16th century. He not only paints a vivid picture of the absolute power held by sultans of this time, but also the high-risk political games women of the harem seemed forced to engage in in order to gain some semblance of status and (if they were lucky) freedom.

4. Alexander Volume I: Child of A Dream by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

This is the first in a three-part series detailing the life of Alexander the Great. The first installment barely contains the famed Macedonian ruler’s youth, from his supposed birth under a powerful omen and princely upbringing, up until the murder of his father and the transfer of power into his young but willing hands. Manfredi definitely takes the liberty of fleshing out the prince’s personality and gives us an idea of how enormous the weight of world must have been on Alexander’s shoulders.

5. The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon

Definitely a case of save the best for last. This is actually a collection of seven books — Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager, Drums of Autumn, The Fiery Cross, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, and An Echo in the Bone — with an accompanying graphic novel and an eighth book supposedly in the works. Even though each volume is somewhere between 700 and 1,000 pages, I’m pretty sure I’ve read most of them at least three or four times.

Gabaldon does an amazing job of weaving complex yet logical story lines that pass both within and among the seven books. She starts off in post WWII England, moves on to 18th century Scotland and France, dabbles in 20th century Boston for a few pages, and ends up — so far — in the American Revolutionary War. Aside from the sweeping historical scope, the best feature of this series is definitely her characters.

The heroine is a strong-willed, no-nonsense WWII nurse (by far my favorite) and is accompanied by a huge range of equally intriguing costars. It’s also got a little bit of everything: time travel, mystery, history, melodrama, adventure and of course, romance. Hands down, my favorite books ever. It’s like hanging out with old friends every time I open a cover.

What are your historical fiction favorites? Leave your comments below.

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3:09PM PDT on Aug 25, 2012

I love Margaret George.. memoirs of Cleopatra was the first I read. I have read all of her books.. they are amazing

8:15AM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

I can't believe that I haven't heard of these. So glad I stumbled across your site. I am just finishing up "The Romanov Stone" by Robert C. Yeager... another great historical fiction that centers around the royal Romanov family. Once I am finished, I will definitely be checking out some of the books from your list.

1:37PM PDT on Jun 3, 2012

I also love Gabaldon's books, and would like to recommend Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series, beginning with "The Beekeeper's Apprentice", introducing a young American woman taken under the wing of the (more or less) retired Sherlock Holmes. Although perhaps troubling to Holmsian purists, particularly as Holmes and Russell's relationship develops, they are well written and fascinating, painting a rich tableau of early 20th century Britain, India, the Middle East and the US.

10:31AM PDT on Jun 3, 2012

Ellis Peters 'Cadfael' books; Elizabeth Chadwicks novels (though somewhat 'romantic' - good background for early medieval; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry for a solid look at the changing West. Can't think of any more!

9:43PM PDT on Jun 1, 2012

Gabaldon's series is pretty darn good.

I cannot recall any others at this moment...

4:50PM PDT on May 31, 2012

Dorothy Dunnett, especially The Lymond Chronicles, starting with The Game of Kings.

10:14AM PDT on May 31, 2012

Ditto on the Brother Cadfael books. I'll also recommend Kenneth Roberts' books. Some of the attitudes are a bit dated, but most of his characters are quite believable. He is one of the few authors to write a sympathetic and accurate portrayal of a British loyalist during the American Revolution. (Oliver Wiswell, in case you're curious)

4:46AM PDT on May 31, 2012

. "Katherine" by Anya Seton and the Ellis Peters Cadfael series.

2:03AM PDT on May 31, 2012

These come to mind:

Sir Walter Scott, "Ivanhoe" (the original historical novel).

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Scarlet Letter" (tied with "Moby Dick" and "Huckleberry Finn" as best American novel of the 19th century).

Mary Renault, "The Last of the Wine" (about Socrates' circle in Athens during the Peloponnesian War), and "The Persian Boy" (about a sex slave of Alexander the Great), but anything by her is good.

Sigrid Unset, "Kristin Lavransdatter" (the life of a woman of medieval Norway).

Willa Cather, "Death Comes for the Archbishop" (a Frenchman becomes the first archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the mid-19th century).

7:17PM PDT on May 30, 2012

Diana Gabaldon rocks! I cannot wait for the next in her series. It is suppose to be out next January.

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