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Living in the Past: The Best Historical Fiction

Posted on 16th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

So you've made quick work of the 1,000 pages of The Mirror & the Lightthe triumphant final part of Hilary Mantel's multi-award winning Wolf Hall trilogy, and now find yourself with a Cromwell-sized hole in your literary life. But fear not, because there is a wealth of historical fiction of the highest calibre available and we have detailed the very best below.

Admittance to this literary court is rigorous and demanding; only the finest, most immersive and exquisitely crafted novels gain Waterstones’ regal patronage. From the primal stench of pre-Revolutionary Paris to the counting houses of a nascent New York, and from the bestial squalor of eighteenth-century Yorkshire to the expansive myths of the American West, these are period dramas to lose yourself in.             

           

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Mantel's first completed manuscript is a colossal achievement, marshalling a huge cast of characters to give a rounded and evocative depiction of Revolutionary France and its principal players. From the flintily incorruptible Robespierre to the bullish, sensual Danton and the doomed, romantic Desmoulins, this is historical fiction played out on the grandest canvas.
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With macabre elegance and a finely tuned gothic sensibility, Alix Nathan weaves the strange, sinister story of a restless lord of the manor, a desperate semi-literate labourer and a deranged experiment in extreme isolation. Richly evocative of the zealous rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, The Warlow Experiment is an unforgettable literary chiller.

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Channeling the great Victorian novels but layering on a distinctly modern sensibility, Faber’s epic account of the social and sexual journey of young prostitute Sugar is a slice of bravura storytelling. Dispensing the kind of Freudian psychological insight that Dickens’ generation were unable to bring, The Crimson Petal and the White pulsates with violent intensity and a thrilling erotic charge.
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One of the towering achievements of twenty-first century literature, All the Light We Cannot See paints a transcendent picture of love and companionship during the Nazi occupation of France. Through luminous prose and dextrous characterisation, Doerr crafts a modern epic and a sublime story for the ages.
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An enthralling novel about the titular boxcar system that transported fugitive slaves across nineteenth-century America, The Underground Railroad is bursting with power, anger and excitement. A pulsating story of resilience and the desperate urge for freedom, this is an electrifying novel that stands comparison with the very finest of the century so far.
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When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black - an eleven year-old field slave - finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic and to the mud-drowned streets of London, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life.
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A dark, primal story of smuggling, suppression and retribution set in eighteenth-century Yorkshire, The Gallows Pole’s stygian murk borders on folk horror. A fictionalised retelling of the outlaw Cragg Vale Coiners and the brutality they trailed in their wake, it is a novel that bubbles with uncanny local myth and parochial terrors.
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The first instalment of a legendary historical adventure series finds Richard Sharpe engaged in a last ditch rescue attempt in Mysore. Blessed with Cornwell’s eye for deft period detail and gift for thrilling description of battle, Sharpe’s Tiger ensures the exploits of our maverick hero hit the ground running.
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A sinuous recreation of Paris on the brink of revolution, Costa Book of the Year Award winning Pure employs the metaphor of a pungent burial ground for the fetid dregs of the Ancien Regime. Peopled with unforgettable characters rendered in viscerally elegant prose, Miller’s book interrogates notions of rationalism, integrity and progress, with visionary elan.
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An alchemic mixture of crime fiction, metaphysical philosophy and forensically detailed medieval history, Eco’s post-modern monastery-based murder mystery is an intellectual triumph as well as a diabolically clever whodunit.
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A staggering feat of both novelistic structure and relentlessly sustained narrative tension, the Booker Prize winning The Luminaries almost defies categorisation. Set in nineteenth-century gold rush New Zealand it is a period ghost story, labyrinthine crime thriller and immersive character study all rolled into one exquisitely constructed masterwork.
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Hugely redolent of the medieval clash of politics, avarice and religion, The Pillars of the Earth is, first and foremost, a ripping good yarn which grafts timeless themes of ambition, lust and jealousy onto a compelling tale of cathedral building. Follett is a top notch storyteller and this wildly enjoyable volume spawned two sequels to form The Kingsbridge Series.
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Few modern authors have recreated Victorian England in all its urban squalor and rural decay as vividly as Sarah Waters. Two women’s journeys through the underbelly of nineteenth-century society are rendered with dark beauty and brittle tenderness.
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Unfolding over a single night, Lincoln in the Bardo is written with George Saunders' inimitable humour, pathos and grace. Inventing an exhilarating new form, Saunders confirms his status as one of the most important and influential writers of his generation.
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Quirky, poignant, violent and profoundly atmospheric, Davies’ impressive debut pits a Pennsylvania settler against assorted monsters of the imagination that may, or may not, inhabit the American West, whilst his ten year old daughter waits and worries. Told in spare, crisp prose, West is a thing of harsh beauty and wild poetry.
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A ground-breaking work of fiction, Life and Fate is the saga of the Shaposhnikovs, a Russian family caught in the conflagration of the Second World War. In incredibly dexterous and exciting prose, Grossman details the horrors of battle and war’s effect on civilians better than any writer of the twentieth century. A heart-wrenching masterpiece rescued from the jaws of destruction.
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A flawlessly executed homage to the buccaneering fiction of Fielding and Sterne, Golden Hill presents an embryonic New York in the mid-eighteenth century, and a fast-moving plot of intrigue, adventure and last-gasp plot twists. Spufford’s prose rejoices in elegant pastiche as the story of a mysterious stranger and his unexplained fortune gathers pace.
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A panoramic vision of the nineteenth century in all its bustling, energetic detail, the Booker Prize winning Oscar and Lucinda teems with life and dexterous, interlinking plotlines. Ostensibly charting the eccentric relationship between two inveterate gamblers, Carey’s great novel is a master-class in historical world-building..
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Comments

Joyce Wasey

I'm glad to see A Place of Greater Safety first on your list. I was stunned when I read it when it came out at how Mantel ,brought the French revolution to life. I never understood why it wasn't given the same acclaim as Wolf Hall. View more

Joyce Wasey
23rd April 2020
Helpful? Upvote 3

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