After my recent comments on historical fiction and its problems, I was offered a guest post by Elizabeth Caskey. Here’s her take on three novels that show the best features of historical fiction. Feel free to add your own comments on your own favourite historical fiction below.

3 Novels That Exemplify The Best Of Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is a deceptively tricky genre of writing. An author has to do a breathtaking amount of research, often over the course of several years, just to make a story possible. Then the story actually has to be written. On top of the ordinary challenges of constructing a plot that moves, developing characters in a satisfying manner, and all the rest, the subjects of the research have to be threaded in deftly but comprehensively. A good work of historical fiction needs to live in its setting wholly and completely, and then meet all the challenges of any other novel.

It’s because of all this that a lot of historical fiction winds up forgettable or underwhelming. When you think about it, it’s a genre that doesn’t really hit too often. A story may be fun now and then, and most books in the genre can teach you a thing or two about a given place and time in history, but legitimately great novels aren’t too common in this category.

For this reason, I wanted to highlight three novels that exemplify some of the best aspects of what can ultimately be a very rewarding genre to dive into, if you know where to look.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Anyone with even a passing interest in historical fiction is well aware that authors and audiences alike can never seem to get enough of the world wars. As often as not though, books set during these violent times in history almost get carried away with details that, while interesting, detract from the story and ultimately aren’t memorable. Authors tend to get so caught up in their research about important dates, troop movements, obscure elements of conflict, conditions on the front, and so much more, that they wind up producing what amount to lengthy descriptions of war, as opposed to stories set in it.

All The Light We Cannot See is wonderful because it does just the opposite. Giving only some details of French and German settings during World War II, Anthony Doerr is able to give us the feeling of living in the time of the conflict, without having to drown us in facts and figures. The story, simple as it may seem, is about a blind French girl and a largely innocent German boy whose lives become intertwined during the war, and who ultimately exemplify the decent human nature that can shine in even the hardest of times. It’s everything a historical fiction novel should be. It’s also being turned into a film, which hopefully will get even more people to read it and discover its beauty.

The Sport Of Kings by CE Morgan

If you think about horse racing, you probably think about it as a sport, either in a modern or somewhat old-fashioned sense. In an old-fashioned sense you might imagine famous champions like Seabiscuit (mostly because there’s a movie about him), or picture people in 1950s-era suits listening to old-time PA announcers calling races. In the modern sense, you might picture the brightly dressed crowds at the Kentucky Derby or the Grand National, or think about the plethora of prediction markets that allow millions to bet on the races safely and securely.

The Sport Of Kings by CE Morgan is brilliant historical fiction in part because it reveals how very shallow these understandings of the sport truly are. This novel dives deep into the sport’s roots in America, and the complex, fascinating, and often problematic culture at the heart of early thoroughbred breeding. Best of all though, The Sport Of Kings accomplishes the oft-attempted, typically failed goal of using a core subject to explore a broader and more significant history. In this case, Morgan uses a snapshot of horse racing and breeding history to examine questions of America’s troubling history with racism and injustice, and in doing so lends us a more thorough (and more engaging) understanding of an entire era than most history textbooks can.

Circe by Madeline Miller

I hesitated to include Circe – the newest book on this little list – on the grounds that many might not quite consider it historical fiction. This book by Madeline Miller can quite simply be described as myth-making, and one interpretation of it is that it is to the old Greek poems what the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to Stan Lee’s comics. It’s a spinoff and a new interpretation of some of the most vibrant characters of antiquity’s mythologies, specifically giving new life to the witch of The Odyssey, as an NPR review so intriguingly phrased it. Thus, it might be looked upon as fiction building on fiction, rather than fiction fusing with history.

I prefer to look at Circe, however, as an exploration of the boundaries of historical fiction, and an ambitious and inventive means of capturing an era. While different scholarly interpretations put forth different theories, we have no way of knowing definitively just how seriously certain mythologies, or epic poems for that matter, may have been taken by the public in the time of the Greeks. We do know that the gods were gods, however, and that at least from a certain perspective they are as much historical beings as mythological ones. It is through this lens that Miller has crafted a largely original tale of Circe, daughter of Helios, god of the Sun, and through that tale we may gain both a deeper appreciation of the ancient Greek world and the pure enjoyment of a story well told.