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Why read Historical Fiction?

Author, historian and chair of the award’s judges Alistair Moffat said that writers like Robert Harris on ancient Rome or Hilary Mantel on 1520s England were “far better at conveying what life was like than some university history lecturers”.

“They are giving history back its stories,” he said. “The best way to understand the past is often to read a novelist rather than an historian. We need to know where we came from, what kind of people our ancestors were … What people in the past believed – such as the absolute certainty about heaven and hell in the Middle Ages – is every bit as important in telling us what they were like as what they left behind in the historical record.”[Booker rivals clash again on Walter Scott prize shortlist | Books | guardian.co.uk]

Among the recent historical fiction I read, The Bellini Card did not impress as much as as The Snake Stone or The Janissary Tree. The Martyr was well written and was a good introduction to Elizabethan England. After reading 50 pages of The Sheen on the Silk, realized that this book is not for me.

Any recommendations?

Update: One book I can recommend is Gore Vidal’s Creation. The main character travels to India and meets Mahavira and Buddha and goes to China and learns from Confucius. Fascinating read.

27 Responses to Why read Historical Fiction?

  1. Chandra April 8, 2010 at 6:41 am #

    I’ve read only two books that come close to historical fiction (they are more like sci-fi):

    Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
    Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephension

    Doomsday Book has the plague epidemic in medieval England as the background. Cryptonomicon features the allied forces’ efforts to decrypt the German Enigma messages during WWII.

  2. Kedar April 8, 2010 at 7:21 am #

    There is a Tome (1000 odd pages) by the name “The Return Of the Aryans” by Bhagwan Gidwani. I didnt like it (couldnt go beyond the first few pages), but just letting you know of the book’s existence.

    Of course, there is also the recent book written by a deracinated guy (just a value judgement, I dont know him) about how a tribal warlord named Shiva became a God (forget the name).

    • jk April 8, 2010 at 9:56 am #

      Kedar,

      I bought Gidwani’s book probably a decade back. Painfully read a 100 pages and when it looked as if the plot was random, I donated it. Maybe now that I am older, it might look interesting.

  3. Nitish April 8, 2010 at 8:26 am #

    “The Source” by James Michener. Absolutely fabulous book about the development of Judaism/monotheism in Palestine as a function of its history from the Stone Age.

  4. Liz April 8, 2010 at 9:10 am #

    “Confucius Jade” by Frederick Fisher is set in China and will give you a good feel for China, its history and politics, the descendants of Confucius and jade the jade carving. And as all good historical fiction (at least to me!) does, it wraps it all up in a good story, in this case, big billionaires trying to get their hands on a fantastic jade carving. I love historical fiction for its ability to teach me about places and events I didn’t know I would enjoy, but in an entertaining style.

  5. Vishal April 8, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    I read Raiders from the North (first of the Empire of the Moghuls quintet) recently – it’s semi-fiction based on Babur’s life. I was somewhat disappointed as the writer focused more on the events, rather than places or culture. But it was a good read. I would recommend it for someone looking for historical fiction.

  6. A-kay April 8, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    I agree with this completely – my interest in history started only after I read a few historic novels, specifically about South India written by Kalki. I haven’t read many historical novels in English, read the latest book “The Enchantress of Florence” by Salman Rushdie and have mixed feelings about the book. Would be glad to know some recommendations, as well.

    • jk April 9, 2010 at 10:38 am #

      A-kay. I have read ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ and it was really captivating.

  7. svat April 8, 2010 at 10:36 pm #

    I would like to second Chandra’s recommendations. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, half of it set during the plague (the other in the near future), is great; it won a bunch of major science-fiction awards. (You can read Fire Watch, her earlier novelette which introduced the “time-travelling historian” idea, and is set at St. Paul’s Cathedral during WWII London, online here.) Both of these are quite moving.

    Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (8 books, and somewhat a prequel to Cryptonomicon) is epic in its historical scope, extremely well-researched, and he is a master at weaving fantasy and history so convincingly you’re not sure what’s true — possibly dangerous. :-)

  8. Sri April 9, 2010 at 2:45 am #

    Many books by Leon Uris are historical fiction (relatively recent history), especially Haj, Trinity, Exodus are 3 good ones.
    I would say even Orhan Pamuk’s My name is Red as historical fiction too.

  9. Kedar April 9, 2010 at 4:01 am #

    How about Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Name_of_the_Rose

  10. Vaijayanti April 9, 2010 at 9:46 am #

    Although it is not recent (published in 1934), but ‘I, Claudius’ by Robert Graves is quite captivating.

    • jk April 9, 2010 at 10:36 am #

      I tried reading ‘I, Claudius’, but the writing style was too dense and could never finish it.

  11. Audrey April 9, 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    Historical fiction is great when it not only includes moving and engaging story elements, but also has accurate depictions from the actual events. One book in particular does just that – “Bedlam South,” written by Mark Grisham. The story is about the tragedy of Civil War, with detailed facts and a plot that keeps you involved with the characters. The book is very moving and has a surprise twist at the end.

  12. Becky April 9, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    “They are giving history back its stories,” he said. “The best way to understand the past is often to read a novelist rather than an historian. We need to know where we came from, what kind of people our ancestors were …

    This quote pretty much sums up the very reason why I prefer historical fiction. A perfect example of a great historical fiction book that I learned a lot from is Francine River’s latest book, “Her Mother’s Hope: Marta’s Legacy #1.” It was so interesting to read the author’s story which is based upon the author’s own family heritage of mothers/daughters
    throughout four generations- including the World War II era, which is my favorite era.

  13. Shankar April 11, 2010 at 6:18 am #

    Kedar,

    Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” is a great book. It kept me company during my lonely days in a small town in Germany, more than two decades ago.

    A professor of semiotics from Bologna, Eco has managed to combine a study of his subject, history of the Christian sects of the 13th century and a tightly crafted plot, into a classic. You can read the book by skipping some of the digression into the sectarian intrigues, but then, you will certainly like to read them when you go through the book for a second time. The book created a sensation throughout Europe during the 80’s . You can find the sources for Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” and the tranformation of semiotics to ‘symbology’, in Eco’s novel.

    Eco has written several books and is known for his lucid analysis of western cultural icons. I remember one, while browsing it in a bookshop, in which he writes about the seminal works of western culture. I do not remember the name now and cannot identify it from the bibliography.

    More important to readers of this blog, all those who like JK’s style of writing will not be disappointed when they start reading Eco :)

  14. Kaffir April 11, 2010 at 12:25 pm #

    “Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu” by Acharya Chatursen Shastri.

  15. jk April 11, 2010 at 8:17 pm #

    Kaffir, It seems to be set in an interesting period. Do you know if an English translation is available?

  16. Kaffir April 12, 2010 at 8:44 pm #

    jk, not sure of an English translation. Though the author was an interesting person – another of those forgotten heroes, sidelined by Gandhi-Nehru fame.

  17. Kedar April 13, 2010 at 1:01 am #

    The famous movie amrapali, based on the novel, is nice as well.

    Cant forget the song in raga Kamod:
    http://www.sawf.org/audio/kamod/lata_jaore.ram

  18. Chandra April 14, 2010 at 12:24 am #

    I can think of three variations, all set in the west:

    US history prof turned politician, Newt Gingrich, co-authored mostly fiction based on US history. The one I read was recreation of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in WWII.

    Patrick O’Brian’s several books on British Navy using Jack Aubrey and Dr. Maturin as leads. O’Brian’s writing style is a bit different but one finds out a lot about how British Navy worked and British sailors life on sea. Most that I read were set in Atlantic. One book, a combo over of few actually, was made into the movie Master and Commander, staring Russell Crow.

    Simon Scarrow writes excellent stories of Roman legions taking over England around 44 CE using Centurions Marco and Cato as leads.

  19. Surya April 14, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    Nice list. I will bookmark it for future book buying sprees.

    If you like the convergence between finance and history, David Liss is a great read. His “Conspiracy of Paper” set in 18th century London, just as the stock market as we know it today, is getting reading for what might be considered its first bubble burst is my favourite. Coffee Trader is not bad too – its about the introduction of coffee into Amsterdam’s exchange.

    For good portrayals of Indian women, I would recommend Rani by Jaishree Mishra and the Twentieth Wife and Feast of Roses by Indu Sundaresan.

    • jk April 15, 2010 at 8:31 am #

      Surya, Thanks! Do you know of any historical fiction set in 14th or 15th century Portugal?

  20. Gaurav April 16, 2010 at 3:32 am #

    Though not strictly historical “Vayam Rakshamah” by Acharya Chatursena with Ravana as antiheroOne is also interesting.

  21. Kaffir April 26, 2010 at 5:22 pm #

    Also Bhyrappa’s “Sartha” is an excellent book in this category.

  22. Abhaya Agarwal May 4, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    Here is a page from Google book search:
    http://books.google.co.in/books?id=EK3PpQWV51MC&pg=PA34&lpg=PA34#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Somebody has already mentioned Aacharya Chatur Sen Shastri – I recently read “Sahyadri ki Chattanein” (Hills of Sahyadri) which is based on the life of Shiva Ji. Interesting read but marred by average proofreading and production quality.

    Vrindavan Lal Verma’s Mrignayani was also made into a TV serial on DD. “Baanbhatt ki Aatmakatha” is set in the period of Vardhan dynasty (~1000 AD) and is one of my favourite books. Another famous one which I have not yet read is “Volga se Ganga tak” by Rahul Sankrityayan which is a series of stories tracing history from Stone age to modern times.

    Regards,
    Abhaya

  23. Julian January 21, 2011 at 2:33 pm #

    Julian by Gore Vidal is a good novel exploring the life of Julian the last pagan emperor of Rome and his efforts to stop Christian fanaticism from taking over the empire.

    Unfortunately he failed and thus was unleashed the first great plague on the world.

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