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The best historical fiction books transport me into the past as effectively as a time machine. While often educational, the stories are so involving that I don’t feel like I’m learning about what things were like back then, but rather living it. While the historical novels that I write feature central romances, my favorite historicals by other authors often don’t feature a romance at all.
Here’s my list:
1) I Claudius by Robert Graves. So much better than the mini-series, which is not to put down the mini-series at all. This book changed not only the way I saw ancient Rome but human nature itself. Twenty years after reading it the first time, I still often think about this book when watching what goes on in politics and the world today.
2) Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Okay, there are long, tedious parts in the middle, the heroine is despicable, and the view of the Civil War from the Southern perspective is hardly politically correct, but the story is unforgettable.
3) The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. “They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere….” This book is everything a swashbuckler should be. I love, love, love this book! It’s in the spirit of The Three Musketeers (another of my favorites) but probably more accessible for modern readers and definitely far more romantic!
4) Centennial by James Michener. Really, I could put anything by James Michener on this list (except The Source, which for some reason I couldn’t get into). I don’t agree at all with those who say his books are too long; I enjoy every bit of them, even the prehistoric stuff. Claims that parts were researched and maybe even written by people who worked for him don’t bother me. The master painters had students paint parts of their greatest paintings, and nobody complains about that: the works speak for themselves. I learned so much more from reading Michner’s books than dull textbooks that I think they should be taught in schools, to ignite students’ interest in history.
5) Anything by Georgette Heyer. Okay, I’m cheating here, but I can’t just pick one. She single-handedly started the genre of Regency novels, and hers are unparalleled in wit and authenticity. She shows you don’t have to be vulgar or risqué to tell a compelling, romantic story set in the past.
Many others deserve to be on this list: Lonesome Dove, the Hornblower series, Mutiny on the Bounty and its sequels, lots of great classic children’s books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, Johnny Tremain and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and lots of newer novels. But these are the ones that most influenced me and started my ongoing love of historical novels.