Best Historicals


I love historicals! Not necessarily series as such, but the genre in general. I also have strong opinions about which historicals deserve to be on this list. I really can’t guess whether this Book Riot post is going to include the works or the authors I have in mind. Before I look, here are my picks:

  1. Hild by Nicola Griffith. I know, not finished! I realize that! Even so, unfinished as it is, this is the single work I’d put in the top spot. Griffith did an absolutely marvelous job with this book. She’s such a splendid stylist, and she’s wonderful with description and with bringing an era to life. I’m hoping we’ll see the sequel late next year, or if not that, then sometime in 2023.
  2. The Lymond chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. I don’t think this series is flawless. I do think it’s a masterpiece. I have read it three or four or five times. Her other main series, the Niccolo series, I’ve only read once. It’s also good, but several things about it appeal to me less.
  3. Gillian Bradshaw. I’m putting the author on this list rather than a specific work because so many of her books are fantastic. I’m linking a post where I roughly sort out her titles into Best – Great – Perhaps Not as Good categories.
  4. Rose Under Fire and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I haven’t read her other historicals, except the (also amazing) series that starts with an unusual twist on the Arthurian legend and then goes off in its own direction.
  5. Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, though those are historical mysteries rather than historicals straight up. But this is my favorite historical mystery series, and that’s because of the historical setting, not because of the mysteries. Hambly does an amazing job with historical settings. I’m definitely including this series here.

As a significant bonus of writing this post, I see there are two more Benjamin January books out. That’s great! I’m picking them both up now.

That’s my top five. Let’s see if any of them appear on this Book Riot post. … Nope. Well, I’m turning my nose up at their inferior list, that’s for sure. How you can write a list like this and not include Dorothy Dunnett … phooey.

Hmm. Looks like the author of this post is emphasizing historical romances. Well, I like a good many historical romances, but that is not what I had in mind myself. Though all or nearly all of Bradshaw’s books do have a central romance, they are historicals with romance, not historical romances.

I’ve tried some of these … Outlander … I couldn’t get into it. Oh, Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series; I did like those a lot. But fundamentally, I think historical romances should be a separate post from historicals. In fact, honestly, I’d break the category up like this:


–Historical mysteries

–Historical romances

–Historical fantasy

–Classics that are also now historicals — I’m thinking of The Count of Monte Cristo, which was written at pretty much the time it was set, but now reads like a historical novel.

–Great biographies, and here I’m thinking of the ones that read more like fiction, not the ones that read like history textbooks.

Any other categories? Those are the ones that leap to mind for me. It’d be perfectly reasonable to address them all separately. There’s lots and lots (and lots) of room in each category.

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13 thoughts on “Best Historicals”

  1. Is there a type called High Romance? Like Scaramouche, the Count of Monte Cristo and the Three Musketeers? What about historical sea fiction? Like Patrick O’Brian, or Charles Nordiff (Mutiny on the Bounty) or Captains Courageous?

  2. For great historical biographies, I’d recommend Jacques Lusseyran’s autobiography And There Was Light. He was a key part of the French Resistance during World War 2, and ended up in Buchenwald for his troubles – at the tender age of 17, if I’m remembering correctly. Also, he was blind. It’s . . . quite a ride, but ultimately very hopeful. He seems to have been one of those people who has an innate belief in the goodness of humankind, which somehow was not tarnished by his life experiences.
    I think there’s already a genre (very niche) called alternate history. I’m thinking of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey, which is like Pride and Prejudice but with glamour.
    Would Ivanhoe be a classic now also a historical?

  3. Alison, IMO what you’re calling ‘high romance’ is just historical fiction. But I am not one of those who strictly categorizes. And there probably ought to be something to differentiate the adventure (& maybe love story, but focus is elsewhere) historical to the political intrigue type historical, so High Romance may fit for that. And then there are what I’ve heard called costume drama, which is modern people in historical dress, pretending to be a historical novel.

    Ivanhoe was historical when it was written, as was Stevenson’s Black Arrow (which I remember liking, but suspect I’d bounce off it now).

    Alternate history is a lot bigger than Kowal, Drake, Turtledove, GGKAy, just off the top of my head and a bunch of imitators I’ve picked up and found unmemorable. Kowal’s work may be in a niche within a niche, Alt-hist/Regency(ish) England (spreading from Georgian to Victorian) which also includes Wrede & Stevermer’s Sorcery & Cecelia et seq, Stevermer’s College of Magics et seq, Clarke’s Johnathon Strange , Margaret Ball’s Salt Magic, and others I can’t recall off the top of my head. Some are more alt-hist/fantasy with romance and some have the romance at the fore. oh, of course, Novik, I knew I was forgetting someone, Temeraire.

  4. I love the Benjamin January series, thanks for the tip about the new books! I also like the Sir Robert Carey series by P F Chisholm and the Sebastian St Cyr series by C S Harris. As you can see, I like historical mysteries a lot.

  5. One of my first favorite authors as a young reader was a historical fiction author. I wrote her a fan letter, and I still remember how she took the time to write back to me that she was *too busy to be writing to every kid who liked her books, and how dare I waste her time like that*. (!?!). I’m glad I’ve found much better historical fiction authors since then. :p

    Any best historical fiction list that omits Elizabeth Wien is immediately highly suspect.

  6. Yes, of course you’re right about Ivanhoe.
    Oh, Sorcery and Cecelia! I think that was the first epistolary novel I’d really read, and I remember enjoying it immensely. You’re right that alternate history is bigger than just Kowal. I guess I was thinking specifically Regency, though I can’t think how I forgot Wrede and Stevermer’s work.
    As far as historicals go, there’s also Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, which were marketed toward younger teens, but have enough depth that I keep returning to them. The Eagle of the Ninth may be more acclaimed, but I personally love The Silver Branch and The Shining Company more.

  7. When I was a kid I loved the author Sally Watson, and to this day still have a fascination with English and Scots history from Elizabethan through Georgian times. Although I have a lot less patience with the heroines, who were invariably impulsive and fiery tempered and a little blind tot he people around them.

    Connie Willis wrote a book about a woman who ended in medieval times, and it was gripping and made me grateful for EVERY modern convenience – especially medicine. Also was so much more real than “Outlander”, which feels like a bodice ripper with a lot more dressing trying to disguise its nature.

    Ken Follet’s “Pillars of the Earth” was amazing in its presentation of so many details of cathedrals and their construction. Made me want to go on an immediate tour of Europe and just look at cathedrals. One of the few books I’ve read where I didn’t necessarily like the characters much, but reveled in the setting and some of the details of daily life.

    Currently the hot historicals all seem to focus on the WWII era. Which is certainly worthy of writing about, but the books start to run together after a bit.

  8. Just finished Penric #11. It is essentially a ghost story, and doesn’t have much (any) dynamic tension. I rank it right at the bottom.

  9. Lots of good comments here!

    Elaine, you made me laugh: And then there are what I’ve heard called costume drama, which is modern people in historical dress, pretending to be a historical novel. I immediately thought of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, a take off (obviously) on The Scarlet Pimpernel. The Pink Carnation one is a PERFECT example of “costume drama.” It’s far, far too silly a book to work for me. I see it’s the first of twelve in the series, so obviously not too silly for many readers.

    I like the term High Romance a lot and feel it should be used for something, so sure, I vote for applying the term to adventure historicals that include some romance.

    Yes, there’s great heaping gobs of Alternate History. Craig N is an expert and could no doubt list a hundred titles in order from most influential through most interesting to complete failures.

    SarahZ, ouch. That’s just so hard for me to understand. Both the attitude and taking time to express the attitude in writing to a fan.

    For Historical Epistolary Fantasy, small as the subgenre is — Freedom and Necessity is an impressive example. Not nearly as lighthearted as the Sorcery and Cecelia stories.

    Mary Anderson, yes, I think you’ve just described my exact feeling about a lot of the heroines in Mary Stewart’s historical romances. I’ve liked some Connie Willis, but her big WWII time travel duology was a little more than I wanted, I guess, and I never tried any of her other time travel books. I think I’d probably like one that involved the medieval era better.

  10. Doomsday Book is amazing. In one sense, it is unrelentingly grim: nearly everyone dies. But there is beauty too. It deserved all sorts of awards.

    If that isnt your cup of tea, try “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” Or “Impossible Things.” Both are very funny

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