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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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....