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The 5 Most Accurate (And Entertaining) Historical Fiction Novels
By Alan Brightside
May 13, 2014
When it comes to portraying history, writers are notorious for bending truth to tell the story they think their audience wants to hear. A character’s villainous or heroic traits are exaggerated, the timing of events are fudged, and once-popular opinions that offend modern sensibilities are left out completely. The worst offenders, almost invariably in Hollywood, spin whole alternate histories from thin air and present them as a more-or-less accurate portrait of events (I’m looking at you, Braveheart).
The claim that bad history should be excused ‘because it makes a better story’ doesn’t hold as much water as it once did – mostly thanks to the efforts of authors in the last twenty years who’ve made a name for themselves with both storytelling talent and their fidelity to the historical record.
Here are some of their most outstanding works.
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
One of the most highly regarded works of the last decade, Wolf Hall is an ambitious retelling of Henry VIII’s tempestuous struggle with the Catholic Church, English aristocracy, and his own wife. Though the story of the King’s divorce is well-trodden territory for both fiction and non-fiction, Mantel embraces the perspective of the quintessential outsider Thomas Cromwell, a man whose common origins and meteoric rise to power represented an almost unprecedented episode in Tudor-era England. With its detailed portrayal of competing court factions and the vigorous rise of Protestantism, Wolf Hall bypasses the salacious details of Henry’s romances in favor of painting a portrait of a European court gripped with the fever of religious and secular reform.
The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell
Jonathan Littell’s harrowing epic of the Second World War is told from the perspective of one of literature’s most conflicted protagonists – a scholar and an SS officer, an idealist and a murderer. His fictional character of Maximilian Aue embraces fascism out of his disenchantment with the Weimar regime and post-War Europe, only to see its promises of reform and cultural rejuvenation ground to dust in the horrors of the Eastern Front. As a veteran of the Einsatzgruppen and later a senior officer in the Nazi Party’s intelligence service, Aue’s perspective allows the reader to explore the evolution of the “Final Solution” as it’s first haphazardly applied in the wake of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, then codified and industrialized during the latter years of the war. The degradations and horrors that Aue both suffers and inflicts during the course of the war leave him as a deeply unreliable narrator, but Littell’s fidelity to documented facts of the conflict leave this as an invaluable primer on Fascism, the Holocaust, and the Eastern Front.
The Winter King, Bernard Cornwell
If you want to write a historical novel set in a period where there will be few facts to contradict you, consider the post-Roman period of Britain. Historians know less about this violent and chaotic time than the full millennium that preceded it, giving rise to fantastical legends like the tales of King Arthur and his knights. Cornwall, a writer whose novels of the Napoleonic war are wildly popular in Britain, excels by forgoing fantasy in favor of the humanization of fantastic characters, placing them in a well-researched and believable world. Instead of Camelot, Cornwall’s Arthur lives in a wooden hall, and spends his days summers fighting Saxon invaders from mainland Europe rather than elves and giants. Cornwall’s image of Britain in the 6th century is rooted in solid scholarship and may represent the most accurate fictional portrayal of this time period in literature. In many ways, The Winter King mirrors a contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction – its characters live in the ruins of a once-great Roman civilization, learning to live without the technologies and social structures which their world was once built upon.
A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel
Though it’s been overshadowed by her latter work, Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety is one of the most complete retellings of the French revolution in the English language, and an invaluable guide for understanding the events of that period as they unfolded. By vividly illustrating the backgrounds and personalities of the lawyers, writers, and aristocrats who played a central role in overthrowing the ancien régime, Mantel conjures up the spirits of the life-or-death struggle that played out across the political landscape of 18th century France. Borrowing heavily from the text of speeches and attributable comments, Mantel illustrates with startling color how the incremental reforms introduced by Louis XVI unleashed a flood of opposition to the regime, and the spiraling conflict as the forces of revolution and counter-revolution both vie for ascendancy.
Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth
If Sacred Hunger has one lesson to impart, it’s that the mid 18th century was a challenging time to be a progressive – even a rich one. Working men and women were ground up like grist in the mill of the British Empire, and the institution of slavery was accepted as readily as neo-liberal economics is today. Sacred Hunger explores the contradiction of ‘enlightenment’ Europe indulging in the transatlantic slave trade with horror-inducing detail, from the counting houses in London to the shores of West Africa and further. Without missing a beat, Unsworth jumps between the lives of aristocratic gentlemen in London and downtrodden British tars off Florida, tying them together in an inexorable web of commerce and compulsion- all in the service of the hunger for profit, which “…justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.”
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