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Historical Fiction (without naval guns, horses and indians or "World War . . .")

Historical fiction isn't all about boys with guns, on horseback, on board ships or in wartime battalions. Mind you, there is a time and a place for those kinds of books, too, so I'll be developing some recommendations for them soon. Meantime, here are some suggestions that will entertain and fascinate and excite the imagination, without a single pirate in sight . . .

Nash Robbins

Margaret Elphinstone - The Gathering Night

Families struggle against the elements and against one-another in this extraordinary imagining of  prehistoric life and love. Elphinstone clearly draws on modern understanding of archaeological evidence, but the science is worn lightly. Mainly, this is a social novel of manners – before manners were invented (although they could be a matter of life and death). The humanness of the Mesolithic tribes connects them beautifully to our modern understanding of humanity; but the deeply 'other' time is vividly described and believable, with the mystical elements kept tame - but potent.


Hilary Mantel – A Place of Greater Safety

I loved Wolf Hall, of course; but A Place of Greater Safety left me wrung out and weeping. It is a vast, thick, commitment to the French Revolution, but the pages spin past. The characters in the history books suddenly become three-dimensional, their lives and motives given sympathetic settings that make the sheer awfulness of the revolution all the more horrifying.

David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Dutch stolidity meets Japanese mysticism in trading colony struggling to make money and make sense of a very foreign culture. Mitchell’s description of Japanese manners is edifying and believable; so is his understanding of the political and economic hopes and dreams driving his characters. I will admit to some unease with how some elements of mysticism develop in the tale. But as a social document about the nature of otherness; the understanding of good and evil; the burden of personal responsibilities; and the ways that love grows in the most unlikely places – as, in short, a page-turner about a fascinating place and time, it is a terrific novel.

Sophie Gee - The Scandal of the Season

Suddenly, The Rape of the Lock isn’t just a mannerly poem about toffs. The people of Alexander Pope’s universe come to life in this sympathetic and riveting tale of love, sex, honour and loss. Glittering, gossipy, gorgeous - a pleasure to spend time with!

Tracey Chevalier – Remarkable Creatures

It's 1810, and Mary Anning is scrabbling to feed her family by selling mysterious bones found in the chaulky cliffs around Lyme Regis. She’s no questing scientist, but a practical, earthy woman with her own concerns that don’t always align with those of the scientists and aristocrats who buy the bones she uncovers. Social politics and religious questioning mix and clash; reputations are built and broken; and the world changes just a bit with every new discovery.

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