Top 10: Historical Fiction

History is one of my passions and when it’s combined with my love of reading, I’m in absolute heaven. I love being transported back in time to experience the world decades or centuries ago, and to see what life was like through the eyes of royalty, peasants, soldiers, and fools alike.

Here’s a list of my favorites so far (in no particular order)…

1. The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

Actually this is one of my favorite books of all time so naturally I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you’re interested in Egyptian or Roman history. George’s Cleopatra comes to life and is depicted as an extremely cunning and effective ruler as well as a loving wife and devoted mother as she struggles to keep her lands and people safe in the face of drought, famine, and war.

2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

This book is beautifully written and is just a classic. It follows the story of Chiyo, a nine-year old fisherman’s daughter who’s sold into slavery by her father, and her transformation into one of the most successful and renowned geisha of her time. Although it’s a story of suffering and heartbreak, it’s also one of love and passion, and of doing whatever it takes to change your destiny and achieve your dreams.

3. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

Everyone seems to be in a Tudor frenzy at the moment, and I’m no exception. I’ve always been familiar with the story of the doomed second bride of Henry VIII, but this was the first novel I’d read about her life. It’s told from the point of view of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, who is the first to be ensnared by the young king’s affection and follows the family as they rise to power. It’s quite an intense read as it puts you right in the heart of the Tudor court, where one wrong step could lead you to the Tower of London and into the hands of the executioner.

4. River God by Wilbur Smith

Okay, if you’re obsessed with ancient Egypt like I am then you need to read this and the other Taita books by Wilbur Smith. I guess technically I should classify them as historical fantasy because there are elements of magic involved in some of them. This is the first one and it takes place during the reign of Mamose when Egypt is invaded by the Hyksos. Taita is a fascinating and mysterious character who you’ll want to follow through the twists and turns of the political intrigues and warring kingdoms of the Nile valley.

5. The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George

More Tudor hysteria? Yes please! This book is a massive undertaking but well worth the almost 1,000 pages. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started it, in fact I went into it thinking I wasn’t going to like it just because I thought it would be impossible to sympathize with Henry. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was frighteningly easy to slip into his mind, walk in his shoes, and understand why he did the things he did. It starts with his childhood and the death of his brother that leads to his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and we see through his eyes the scheming and manipulation of his courtiers and the radical separation from Catholicism that threw his kingdom into turmoil. Fantastic read.

6. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

This book actually reminded me a lot of Memoirs of a Geisha, although it takes place in China rather than Japan, but the writing style and character development were similar. Although, Empress Orchid was far more gritty and dark, which suited me just fine. It tells the story of the last empress of China in memoir-like fashion, from her childhood to becoming a royal concubine and then one of the emperor’s wives, who ends up ruling the empire for over four decades. I was fascinated by life in the Forbidden City and the role of the women there as Orchid fought to stand out among the countless other concubines to win the favor of the emperor. I haven’t read the sequel, The Last Empress, yet but it’s in my TBR queue and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

7. Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

This was Michelle Moran’s debut novel, set in 14th century B.C. Egypt, and I found it to be very well researched and absolutely thrilling. It’s told from the point of view of Nefertiti’s sister Mutnodjmet during the reign of Amenhotep IV, who takes on the name Akhenaten after casting out the old religion and replacing it with a monotheistic one worshipping the sun disc Aten. It was fast-paced, yet detailed and descriptive, and I became invested in all the characters – including Nefertiti, despite her selfishness and thoughtless behavior toward her sister. Towards the end it got pretty stressful as the people blame Akhenaten and Nefertiti for the plague that sweeps through the capital and everyone in the royal family fears for their lives. I couldn’t believe this was Moran’s first novel. Incredible story telling!

8. The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

I’m actually not quite finished with this one yet but it’s every bit as good as Nefertiti was and I can already tell it deserves a place on this list. It picks up about 20 years later when the old religion has been restored, the capital has moved from Amarna back to Thebes, and all that’s left of the heretic queen’s family is her niece Nefertari.  The young princess is feared and despised because of her ties to Akhenaten and Nefertiti and when she becomes the second wife of her childhood best friend and first love, the young pharaoh Ramesses, she knows the only way for her family to be written back into the scrolls of history is to become Chief Wife and to be crowned the queen of Egypt.  She’s surrounded by enemies but with her intelligence and the help of some influential allies she strives to do whatever it takes to win the love of the people and take her place on the throne.

9. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Again, this is more accurately historical fantasy due to the time travel element – and I included it in my top 10 fantasy books too, sorry for the repetition – but it’s a truly amazing read.  I absolutely could not put it down and when I was finally forced to, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Scottish highlands and the world that Claire finds herself in after stumbling through ancient standing stones and travelling back in time two hundred years.  It’s written so well that it seems perfectly plausible that in the blink of an eye you could magically appear in another century.  Claire is such a compelling character with real emotions and flaws and I defy you not to fall in love with Jamie Fraser.  This entire series is great but Outlander knocked my socks off.

10. Mary Queen of Scotland & The Isles

Yes, another book by Margaret George.  What can I say?  She’s a master of her craft.  Meticulous research, great pacing, thought provoking writing and characters that you can connect with.  Mary is a true heroine.  Her tragedy was my tragedy, her triumphs were my triumphs, and I got so caught up with her story that I lost touch with reality while reading the book.  With all the indignities she suffered, Mary remained proud, refusing to give up hope or give in to defeat. 

I highly recommend all this books to fans of historical fiction!  Out of all the titles I’ve read in this genre, they’re my favorites.  I feel it might be worthwhile to mention a few that I was less than enthusiastic about, surprisingly from these very same authors.  I couldn’t stand Margaret George’s Helen of Troy.  As much as I tried to get into it I simply couldn’t.  Helen as a character just fell flat and I couldn’t have cared less whether she or Paris lived or died, that’s how detached I was from the story. 

The Virgin’s Lover was my least favorite of Philippa Gregory’s books that I’ve read so far.  Elizabeth was a giggly, empty-headed grown child who couldn’t conjure up a single thought of her own, relying on Robert Dudley for every decision or opinion.  After reading The Queen’s Fool and seeing how strong and calculating Elizabeth was in that book, I just couldn’t understand how the same author could have portrayed her in such a contradicting fashion.  Maybe that was intentional in The Virgin’s Lover but I had to force myself to finish that one.  I wasn’t thrilled with The Other Queen (also about Mary Queen of Scots) either, but it was alright.  On the other hand, I loved the Queen’s Fool as well as The Constant Princess.  I got Gregory’s newest, The White Queen, for Christmas and I’m really looking forward to reading her take on the War of the Roses.

Here are some more titles currently in my TBR queue that I’m excited about:

  1. The Last Empress, Anchee Min
  2. The Last Queen, C. W. Gortner
  3. A Thread of Grace, Mary Doria Russell
  4. An Echo in the Bone, Diana Gabaldon
  5. Cleopatra’s Daughter, Michelle Moran
  6. The Last Days of the Romanovs, Helen Rappaport
  7. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See

What are your favorite historical novels?  What are some you could have lived without?

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6 Comments »

  1. Dionne Said:

    Nice list!! I wonder if Leon Uris or James Michener will make the list after you read some of the ones you have in your mountain of TBRs! 🙂 I am thinking it’s time for me to reread Trinity–I LOVE that book! I am almost done with Schindler’s List (had to break up the reading sessions to avoid more nightmares), and it is really powerful stuff. Hooray for historical fiction!

    • Jamye Said:

      Oh, Trinity, good call! I completely forgot about that one. I think I’ve only read James Michener’s Texas, but I’m really excited to read The Source so that one might kick some of these out of rotation. 🙂

  2. You have several of my favorites in your list – pretty much anything by Margaret George makes my list, but The Autobiography of Henry VIII is at or near the top. Also loved Memoirs of a Geisha, but Shogun is my favorite Japanese historical novel. Just finished Wolf Hall, so I’m ready for some American History and am beginning The Heretic’s Daughter, which deals with the Salem Witchcraft Trials.

    • Jamye Said:

      Isn’t Margaret George Amazing?? She’s my hero. 🙂 Ooh, I’ve never read Shogun, I should give that one a try. Haven’t heard of Wolf Hall or The Heretic’s Daughter, I’ll have to check them out. I read a Salem book not too long ago called The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane that was pretty good. I definitely need some more American History too!

  3. theharrodsgirl Said:

    I adore Philippa Gregory, but will definitely be giving the others on a list try!

    • Jamye Said:

      Have you read The White Queen yet? It’s in my TBR pile. I hope it’s good! Thanks for stopping by!


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