Sunday, December 26, 2010

Historical Fiction by Century, Part II

Last week I began to share my list of favorite historical fiction by century. Today I'm pleased to pick up where I left off, beginning with the ninth century. Feel free to comment and share your favorite historical reads from these centuries.

Ninth Century

by Stephen Lawhead

Although this is not my favorite of Lawhead's books (that honor goes to The Song of Albion trilogy), it is probably my favorite of his historical fiction. A group of Irish monks from Kells are tasked with bringing an illuminated manuscript to the Byzantine emperor, but their mission goes terribly awry when they are captured by Viking raiders. 

Tenth Century

Eaters of the Dead
by Michael Crichton

It has been quite a few years since I read this book, but I remember being struck by what an interesting take it was on the epic poem Beowulf. Told through the eyes of the cultured Arab Ibn Fadlan, the story follows a group of barbaric Viking warriors traveling to the North to combat something even more barbaric than themselves--a mysterious terror that strikes the mead hall by night leaving a trail of bloody corpses.

Eleventh Century

The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow
by Allen French

Sometimes the best historical fiction is in the "juvenile" section. Allen French was a professor who wrote historical fiction for young adults to illustrate how different kinds of government functioned throughout history. The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow does show how the Icelandic Althing governed society in the tenth century, but it is also one of the most exciting stories I have ever read. Rolf's father Hiarandi the Unlucky tries to stop his neighbor Einar from taking over his land; he foolishly strikes out at Einar's servants and, as punishment, is forbidden to go beyond a bowshot from his home. When Einar lures Hiarandi away from the house and kills him, it becomes Rolf's goal to prove that his father was unlawfully slain. In order to clear Hiarandi's name and get back the family land, Rolf must find a bow capable of shooting farther than the tree where his father was killed.

Twelfth Century

One Corpse Too Many
by Ellis Peters

What happens when a hundred traitors are hanged by the king and a murderer takes advantage of the opportunity to throw an extra corpse in the ditch? While the English civil war rages between Stephen and Maud, one clever herbalist from the Shrewsbury monastery uses his powers of detection to make sure that the murderer is brought to justice. This is the second book in the Brother Cadfael mystery series, and in my opinion, the best of the lot.

Twelfth Century Runner-Up: The Heaven Tree Trilogy, by Edith Pargeter (who also uses the pen name Ellis Peters)

Thirteenth Century

by Sir Walter Scott

In Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, the heroine's grandmother is not allowed to die until she has read the ten most boring books in the world, and strangely enough, the author puts Ivanhoe on that list. This is a gross slander. While the prose may be a bit more flowery than today's writing (and the plot somewhat predictable because of all the subsequent books and movies that stole from it), Ivanhoe is a great story and a seminal work in the historical fiction genre. Sir Wilfrid of Ivanhoe is a Saxon knight who served with King Richard on the Third Crusade. When he returns home, he must stop the Norman plot to put Prince John on the throne and save a fair Jewess from a Templar knight.

Thirteenth Century Runner-Up: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, by Edith Pargeter

Fourteenth Century

by Anya Seton

As time advances, the quantity of historical fiction available expands, and this makes picking favorites a hard task indeed. Out of my three favorite novels set during this century, I'm choosing the one I've read most recently. Katherine tells the life story of the mistress to John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III. Anya Seton paints a well-rounded picture of a convent-raised girl thrown into the world of kings and courtiers, desperate for escape from an unwanted marriage, blissful in her illicit love affair with the prince, then tormented by stings of conscience. The historical setting is one of the richest I've ever seen in a novel, especially one that focuses on a romance.

Fourteenth Century Runners-Up: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco; In a Dark Wood Wandering: A Novel of the Middle Ages, by Hella Haasse

Lord willing, I will be posting the third and final installment of historical fiction by century later this week. Stay tuned....


  1. Based on the quality of your other choices, I will have to read Rolf and the Viking Bow. My own choice for the 11th century would be Cecelia Holland's Great Maria (see review). Must have been hard to pick just one Ellis Peters - although I think The Heaven Tree edges out her mysteries; it's hard for me to imagine a more perfect novel. For the 14th century, I think you've got it just right - Katherine is outstanding.

  2. Margaret,
    I agree that The Heaven Tree trilogy is pretty amazing--I would put it above all of the Brother Cadfael books...except One Corpse Too Many which has a special place in my heart. Mostly because that's the book where Hugh Beringar the sheriff gets introduced, and the trial by combat scene at the end is so satisfying.


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