History is anthroplogy for the past. Great historical fiction brings you into that past world and makes it accessible. Would life in thirteenth century Wales chew me up and spit me out? No doubt. But that doesn’t mean I can’t spend many happy hours living there. I am also partial to the fantasy element of historical fiction in part because I acknowledge that past lives are truly inaccessible to me and if I wanted to read about something that was absolutely true, I would get the non-fiction version. That said the following are some of my most favorite books:
Sherwood by Parke Godwin. He’s written a lot of books, but this one has always pulled me in. I’ve read it innumerable times. From Publisher’s Weekly: “Godwin sets his highly satisfying retelling of the Robin Hood legend in the time of William the Conqueror, when the bastard of Normandy was pacifying his unruly new country. After the Saxon thane of Denby is killed at York, his son Edward Aelredson, nicknamed Robin, succeeds to the land, located next to Sherwood Forest. The young thane is outraged by the blinding of one of his men in retaliation for poaching King William’s deer; when his attempt to reason with the sheriff of Nottingham turns to violence, Robin is outlawed. Before fleeing, Robin marries his love, Marian Elfrics, who is then sent to serve William’s queen. Robin and four followers–Welsh woodsman Will Scatloch, blacksmith John Littlerede and Father Beorn and his sexton Tuck–commence the exploits that make them famous and give heart to the downtrodden Saxons. Denby is given to the sheriff, who falls in love with Marian and begins to develop a grudging respect for Robin. An attempt to enlist the two men in a treasonous plot draws them together unwillingly but fatefully. Godwin ( Waiting for the Galactic Bus ) depicts these epochal times vividly and colorfully, with carefully etched characterizations of Normans and Saxons.”
Avalon by Stephen Lawhead. There are thousands of books about King Arthur, but this is one of the few that was actually fun. Hint–he doesn’t die in the end Publisher’s Weekly liked it too: “In this rousing postcript to Lawhead’s bardic Pendragon Cycle (Taliesin, Merlin, Arthur, Pendragon, Grail), such a monstrous evil stalks near-future Britain that an ancient Welsh prophecy will be fulfilled: the Thames will reverse its course, Avalon will rise again from the cold gray sea and Arthur will return. A series of Royals so rotten that the Brits can’t wait to dump the whole stinking lot enables scheming Prime Minister Waring to creep trick by political dirty trick toward Magna Carta II, the abolition of the monarchy. Far in the Highlands, though, former career officer James Arthur Stuart feels destiny stir within him. He is Arthur, come again to exalt Britain and its grand old values: goodness, compassion, mercy, charity and justice. Accompanied by his enigmatic adviser Embries, his boon drinking buddy Calum McKay and the lissome Jenny, James struggles to come into his own, proving his mettle against modern monsters: skinheads armed with pit bulls, the fickle hydra of the press and the redheaded “total dish” Moira, Arthur’s old witchy nemesis who destroyed Camelot. By the time James ousts Moira’s insidiously treacherous buffalo-wing- and pizza-chomping politicos, Lawhead makes even aristocracy-phobes want to stand up at the skirl of the pipes and cheer on the eternal virtues James represents. In revisiting nearly every romantic Arthurian clich? and playing off snappy contemporary derring-do against the powerful shining glimpses of the historical Arthur he created, Lawhead pulls off a genuinely moving parable of good and evil.”
1632 by Eric Flint. This is the book that sparked a series, many of which are not actually written by Flint, but it’s the best of the bunch. 20th century people plunked down in 1632 Germany. Awesome. It’s even available for free download at Amazon right now: http://www.amazon.com/1632-Ring-of-Fire-ebook/dp/B00BEQLQNE/ref=zg_bs_6157855011_f_2
Brother Cadfael’s Penance by Ellis Peters. I’ve read all her books multiple times, and she saved the best for last. “In Brother Cadfael’s 20th chronicle, Peters deftly binds the medieval monk’s new adventure with family ties, moving from issues intensely public to problems determinedly private. Olivier de Bretagne, who (unknown to himself) is Brother Cadfael’s son, has been taken prisoner during England’s dynastic war between two grandchildren of William the Conqueror. Cadfael is determined to find Olivier, although to do so he must leave the monastery without his abbot’s “leave or… blessing.” The search begins badly when, at an unsuccessful peace conference, Yves Hugonin, Olivier’s hot-headed brother-in-law, picks a fight with Brien de Soulis, a commander who may know where Olivier is held-but won’t say. When Brien is found murdered, Yves is abducted by one who holds him responsible for the killing, and then Cadfael has two men to find. In the process, he delicately explores puzzles related to Brien’s death and to shadowy deeds in the larger political scene. While Cadfael does his usual excellent sleuthing, Peters succeeds at an equally subtle game, demonstrating how personal devotion can turn to enmity-and how such enmity can be forestalled by justice and mercy.” This book is out of print and not available on Kindle. Ellis Peters’ heirs, if she had any, are losing out.