Historical Reading Suggestions

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Here are my Historical Reading Suggestions for history buffs and fans of JRR Tolkien’s writings.

This page may be a bit off-topic from the theme of this site, which is centered around author JRR Tolkien and his writings. But occasionally I feel the need to insert some of my personal opinions into the content.

I read a wide variety of books, spanning many genres. I love reading classics and fantasy, but I also find myself reading a fair amount of historical fiction, particularly pre-industrial history (this is certainly some part of Tolkien’s appeal, the lack of an urbanized and industrial culture).

My most frequent taste is for renaissance & medieval history, though I have read some fabulous novels set both earlier and later.

I have always felt a fascination with history…with the drives and desires of our ancestors; their beliefs and faith; their brutality and tenderness.

Again, like the other reading lists on the site, this is not an all-inclusive list. It reflects both my personal tastes and the narrow spectrum of my reading. There are certainly many other great historical novels that I either haven’t read or don’t have room to list here.

As with the other genre-related novels, I’ve adopted a star-rating system, with five stars being the best rating a novel can receive.

***** The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Sure, I tout my love of pre-industrial historical fiction, then lead off my list with a novel set in industrialized Victorian England.

Well…that only happens to be because Faber’s novel is about as good as a historical novels gets. It is distinctly modern in its own sense…it is rife with sex and class politics, Dickensian and yet certainly more graphic than Dickens would ever have been, even were he writing today.

The Crimson Petal and the White was supposedly twenty years in the writing, and it shows the type of attention to detail and extensive historical research that would make that claim entirely believable.

It is the story of the prostitute Sugar, who lives out the dream of every impoverished prostitute when she is “taken in” by a wealthy patron.

Only the dream isn’t what Sugar imagined it would be…she lives in comfort, but nearly as a prisoner.

This is a very long book at right around 750 pages, but doesn’t seem half as long as it looks. Highly recommended.

***** An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

This is the best historical mystery I have ever read, and that includes Umberto Eco’s masterful The Name of the Rose (see below).

Set in Renaissance England, Pears’ novel is broken into four parts, each part a different eyewitness account of the same murder.

Each of the eyewitnesses tells a very different version, pointing toward a different culprit. Only in the end, when all four accounts have been read, do the signs finally point in a single direction.

This is a masterful and extremely intelligent novel that explores how our motives, perceptions, and personality traits influence and change the ways in which we view a given events.

****1/2 The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This is another historical “whodunit” with much larger themes than its simple mystery exterior implies.

A professor of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols) at the University of Bologne, Eco is one of the most intelligent historical scholars in the world, and this extensive knowledge base pervades his works and can at times be very daunting.

The novel occasionally bogs down in extensive lists and exhaustive descriptions, both of which are used to convey the importance and relevance of signs and symbols.

The novel’s hero, the English Franciscan monk William of Baskerville, is a wonderful amalgam of his two namesakes, William of Occam (a medieval Franciscan and one of the foremost thinkers of his age) and Sherlock Holmes (the Baskerville reference).

The novel is set in an isolated medieval Monastery, where a series of murders have occurred. William uses his acute sense of logic and deduction to help solve the mysteries.

This book succeeds on numerous levels. It rewards re-reading, as new layers can constantly be peeled back, revealing another layer beneath.

**** The Last Kingdom (Book One of the Saxon Chronicles) by Bernard Cornwell

I could have just as easily suggested any of Bernard Cornwell’s historical novels, and chose this one only because it is the most recent that I have read.

Set in late ninth-century England, as the English Saxons attempt to fend off the raids of brutal, land-hungry Danes, it follows the story of Uhtred, a Saxon captured as a child by Danes and incorporated into their culture. He struggles with his allegiances and his desires.

Cornwell is one of the most entertaining and prolific historical authors out there. His history is always impeccably researched, his characters well-grounded in their time, and every plot rife with action and the pure brutality of history.

Cornwell never flinches from that brutality…it was always there, this bloodlust of the human race. The urge to go to war over a scrap of land, to raid out of boredom, to rape and pillage, to love and weep and desire. It is stomach-wrenching, repulsive, and exhilarating all at once.

No one quite captures the often primitive drives, ambitions, and desires of historical people as well as Bernard Cornwell.

I also highly suggest any of his Sharpe’s novels, his Grail Quest Series set during the Hundred Years’ War, or his Arthurian Series.

**** The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon

This series is often marketed by bookstores as a “romance” novel, and while it may contain elements of that genre, it quite clearly belongs with the very best of the historical genre.

Gabaldon is a fantastic and intelligent writer, who has extensively researched her time period (early 18th century Scotland) and brought it to life.

Gabaldon’s novels are actually “time-travel” historicals…Claire Randall is thrust from her own time (post WWII England) into Jacobean Scotland, where she meets and falls in love with Scottish rebel Jamie Fraser.

The problem is, Claire is already happily married in her own time, and stuck in the past with Jamie they are pursued by the vengeful ancestor of her husband.

Not as complicated as it sounds. Just a great read.

**** The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant has written two excellent historical novels set in fifteenth century Italy, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan.

The Birth of Venus follows the life of Alessandra, the daughter of a cloth merchant and an aspiring artist in Renaissance Florence, the epicenter of the Renaissance art world.

The real strength of both this book and the other mentioned is certainly the lush and detailed backdrop against which the events are set. Fifteenth century Florence comes to life in all its vibrancy.

Once you have read these novels, you truly feel that you have walked there. You can’t ask much more from a novel than that.

**** The Camulod Chronicles by Jack Whyte

Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles are a fairly extensive series of books retelling the Arthurian legend from a historical perspective (leaving out the stories fantasy elements). They succeed on a number of levels, bring post-Roman Britain to life in all its glory.

Whyte’s characters are first rate, both Publius Varrus, the ex-Roman soldier and blacksmith, and his later offspring, Caius (Merlyn) Brittanicus.

The stories detail the decay of order after the leaving of the Roman legions and the slow, step-by-step building of a secure, Arthurian colony by those who are left behind to defend themselves against barbarian Celts, Picts, Hibernian Scots, and plundering Saxons.

Well-written and highly recommended.

**** Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Another well-written historical involving the world of Art. Griet is a servant to 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

Slowly throughout the course of the novel, she becomes his muse and the subject of his most well-known painting – Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The novel traces the complex knot of tensions and desires within the household. The writing is beautiful and suspenseful, taking on some of the artistry of its subject.

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