The best historical novels to remind you how strange the past really was

Emily Mitchell Author Of The Last Summer of the World
By Emily Mitchell

Who am I?

I’ve always been interested in history. I grew up in London, where there's a lot of it. But what made me want to write fiction about the past was experiences of imaginative affinity for certain other times and places. My first book is set during World War One. I've always felt connected to the change in sensibility that many people went through then, from an optimistic, moralistic, Victorian outlook, in which, to quote Paul Fussell from The Great War and Modern Memory, people “believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology” to an understanding that human beings and our societies contained deeper, more persistent shadows. 


I wrote...

The Last Summer of the World

By Emily Mitchell,

Book cover of The Last Summer of the World

What is my book about?

In the summer of 1918, with the Germans threatening Paris, Edward Steichen arrives in France to photograph the war for the American army. There, he finds a country filled with poignant memories for him: early artistic success, marriage, the birth of two daughters, and a love affair that divided his family. Told with elegance and transporting historical sensitivity, Emily Mitchell’s first novel captures the life of a great American artist caught in the reckoning of a painful past in a world beset by war.

A Finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lion's Fiction Award and named a Best Book of the Year by the Providence Journal, the Austin-American-Stateman, and the Madison Capital Times.

The books I picked & why

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Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel,

Book cover of Wolf Hall

Why this book?

From its first sentence, Mantel’s novel grabs you and plunges you deep into the world of 16th-century England in all its astounding cruelty and visceral complexity. It doesn’t let go until, really, the last sentence of the third book in her Tudor trilogy, more than a thousand pages later. Part of the brilliance of this novel is Mantel’s choice of Thomas Cromwell as her protagonist. Cast as the villain in the standard account of Henry VIII’s tumultuous reign, the blacksmith’s son who became a king’s confidante is shown here to be a man before his time: committed to his beliefs but utterly pragmatic, ambitious, shrewd, loyal, far more interested in talent than heredity; in other words, modern, our ancestor, for better or for worse. Mantel’s gimlet-eyed view and razor wit make every page a total pleasure, even those dealing with some of the very darkest aspects of this time and place. 

Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked Wolf Hall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Man Booker Prize Shortlisted for the the Orange Prize Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award

`Dizzyingly, dazzlingly good' Daily Mail

'Our most brilliant English writer' Guardian

England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey's clerk, and later his successor.

Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with…


The English Patient

By Michael Ondaatje,

Book cover of The English Patient

Why this book?

This was the first novel written by Ondaatje I ever read, when I was in my early 20s, and it was a revelation. The story of Count Lazslo d’Almasy’s doomed love for the wife of a British archeologist in the Egyptian desert in the years before the Second World War is interspersed and pointedly contrasted with the story of the Canadian nurse, Hana, who cares for the severely disfigured Almasy years later in an abandoned house in France and Hana’s romance with a Sikh man from India who has been drafted into the British army as a sapper. Side by side the two stories lead the reader to inevitable questions about love, equality, freedom, the persistence of history both personal and collective. Here as elsewhere, Ondaatje’s understated lyrical prose makes the worlds he portrays shimmer. 

The English Patient

By Michael Ondaatje,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The English Patient as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hana, a Canadian nurse, exhausted by death, and grieving for her own dead father; the maimed thief-turned-Allied-agent, Caravaggio; Kip, the emotionally detached Indian sapper - each is haunted in different ways by the man they know only as the English patient, a nameless burn victim who lies in an upstairs room. His extraordinary knowledge and morphine-induced memories - of the North African desert, of explorers and tribes, of history and cartography; and also of forbidden love, suffering and betrayal - illuminate the story, and leave all the characters for ever changed.


Middle Passage

By Charles Johnson,

Book cover of Middle Passage

Why this book?

The question of how to portray a historical atrocity like slavery in a work of fiction is obviously monumental. Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Colson Whitehead, and John Keene have approached this with consummate brilliance by writing the experience and subjectivity of enslaved and formerly-enslaved people. Johnson, however, focuses on the perpetrators: the men who engage in and profit from the capture and trafficking of other human beings. As in Mantel’s novel, the choice of the protagonist is key. Rutherford Calhoun is a ne’er-do-well free Black man from New Orleans who runs away on a ship to escape debts and engagement to a woman whose love he hasn’t done much to deserve. It turns out this ship is bound for Africa to collect a cargo of people, members of the Allmuseri tribe, an ethnicity Johnson invented for his fiction. But along with the people, they are also collecting something much more powerful and mysterious, something, or someone, that will bring the voyage to its ultimate ruin…

Middle Passage

By Charles Johnson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Middle Passage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Celebrating Fifty Years of Picador Books

Winner of the National Book Award 1990

The Apocalypse would definitely put a crimp in my career plans.

Rutherford Calhoun, a puckish rogue and newly freed slave, spends his days loitering around the docks of New Orleans, dodging debt collectors, gangsters, and Isadora Bailey, a prim and frugal woman who seeks to marry him and curb his mischievous instincts. When the heat from these respective pursuers becomes too much to bear, he cons his way on to the next ship leaving the dock: the Republic. Upon boarding, to his horror he discovers that he…


The King Must Die

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of The King Must Die

Why this book?

The challenge of writing historical fiction set in the distant past is bridging the vast gap between our modern understanding of the world and that of our distant forebears, since even our most basic assumptions and values undergo enormous changes over time. Those who love Renault’s works about classical antiquity relish the ability of her novels to truly carry us into another world, to make it felt and intelligible. This novel follows the fortunes of the mythic hero Theseus, from his origins in Troizen to his departure for Athens to find his father, his achievement of the kingship of Eleusis, his voluntary enslavement in Crete as a bull-dancer, an acrobat who vaults over living animals for spectacle, his confrontation with the minotaur and his eventual return home, older and more baffled by existence. It gives dimension to the mythic hero, a complexity that is at once familiar and profoundly, unsettlingly strange. 

The King Must Die

By Mary Renault,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The King Must Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Theseus is the grandson of the King of Troizen, but his paternity is shrouded in mystery - can he really be the son of the god Poseidon? When he discovers his father's sword beneath a rock, his mother must reveal his true identity: Theseus is the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, and is his only heir. So begins Theseus's perilous journey to his father's palace to claim his birth right, escaping bandits and ritual king sacrifice in Eleusis, to slaying the Minotaur in Crete. Renault reimagines the Theseus myth, creating an original, exciting story.


Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders,

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

Why this book?

What can I say about this incredible, hilarious, deeply moving, formally dazzling mashup of the fantastic and the historical except I would pretty much give my right foot to have written it myself? Set during the days immediately after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie from typhus in 1862, it is narrated by the spirits of the deceased that surround him in the cemetery. These ghosts are hanging around, it turns out, because they have all failed to make the leap into the unknown of the afterlife, to let go of their attachment to this world. Each has his or her own reason for staying, his or her own story to tell. The novel is essentially formatted as a play, with characters speaking their lines in turn, and with interludes for direct quotations from historical sources. It basically shouldn’t work. At least, it shouldn’t be so utterly readable. And yet it does and it is, both, beautifully. 

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Lincoln in the Bardo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017 A STORY OF LOVE AFTER DEATH 'A masterpiece' Zadie Smith 'Extraordinary' Daily Mail 'Breathtaking' Observer 'A tour de force' The Sunday Times The extraordinary first novel by the bestselling, Folio Prize-winning, National Book Award-shortlisted George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War The American Civil War rages while President Lincoln's beloved eleven-year-old son lies gravely ill. In a matter of days, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns…


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