Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Historical Fiction by Century, Part I

The other day I amused myself by coming up with a list of my favorite historical fiction books set during each century. It was an interesting project. Some centuries were overflowing with books that I loved. Some were completely bare--I couldn't think of any books I had read that were set during that time period. Here is the first installment of that list. Feel free to comment with your favorites and note the time period in which they occur.

Before Christ

The King Must Die 
by Mary Renault 
Retelling of the story of Theseus in ancient Greece and Crete. Very interesting portrayal of fertility cult worship and how the king was expected to give his life to renew the life of the ground and of his people.

Till We Have Faces 
by C. S. Lewis

Retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche in Asia Minor. Also an interesting portrayal of fertility cult worship set in the context of a Christian allegory.

Anno Domini
First Century

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ
by Lew Wallace
Story of a wealthy, first-century Jewish prince, his persecution at the hands of the Romans, and how his life was changed through interaction with Christ. Even more epic than the epic movie based on it.

Second Century

The Mark of the Horse Lord
by Rosemary Sutcliff
An ex-gladiator masquerades as the king of a Celtic tribe in Roman-occupied Britain, ends up adopting the people as his own, and learns what it really means to be a king.

Second Century Runner-Up: The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

Third Century

This was one of those empty centuries--I was unable to think of a good book that fit here. Do you have any favorites set during this time period?

Fourth Century

Frontier Wolf, by Rosemary Sutcliff
Another great book by Sutcliff, this one about a Roman centurion who must keep the peace with the British border tribes and keep from making the same shameful mistake that clouded his past.

Fifth Century

The Lantern Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff
Sutcliff again here--are you noticing a trend? When the legions pull out of Britain, a young Roman stays behind to face the Saxon hordes and his own bitterness. Provides a glimpse of what the real "historical" King Arthur might have been like.

Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Centuries

These centuries were very hard for me to fill. Yes, there are more Sutcliff books I could stick here, but to be honest, I can't really consider them my favorites. I have a book on my Amazon Wish List set during this time period--Paths of Exile, by Carla Nayland--but I haven't read it yet, so I can't judge its merits. I googled some historical fiction lists to see if there were some great books out there that I was missing. There weren't. These centuries seem to be a great void for historical fiction, which is sad because someone could take some of the stories from the Venerable Bede and turn them into a top-notch novel. Maybe that should be my next project, once I finish my novels about the First Crusade.

Stay tuned for more posts to finish out this list. Don't forget to comment and share your favorites from Before Christ or from the first through eighth centuries Anno Domini.


  1. Hmmm, we were just talking about historical fiction in the car the other day. I guess I should check out Sutcliff! Have you read the Silver Chalice by Costain? I really enjoyed that one. It's set, if I remember correctly, right after Christ.

  2. Yes, I have read The Silver Chalice. It almost made it as a runner-up in the first century. I enjoyed it, but I do think Ben Hur is far superior. :-)

  3. For the 6th-8th centuries, you could try looking farther afield than Europe. Jeanne Larson's Silk Road is a historical fantasy set in 8th century China. I haven't read it, but her novel Bronze Mirror was quite good. In 7th century China, Robert Van Gulick's "Judge Dee" mystery series is supposed to be excellent - I'm trying to get around to reading some. And there's also Shan Sa's novel about the first Chinese empress, Empress. There are short descriptions of all these novels on the Asia page at <a href="http://www.HistoricalNovels.info</a>.

  4. Margaret, thanks for the recommendations. I've heard of Silk Road before, but have never had the opportunity to read it.

  5. There have been a few titles recently which help to fill the gap in the seventh century. Edwin High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King, published by Kregel, are about the Early Christian kings of Northumbria, who are of course mentioned in Bede.....


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