Historicals with a Genre Twist

Here’s a post at Book Riot: 20 MUST-READ, GENRE-BLENDING HISTORICAL FICTION BOOKS

I enjoy historicals and I’m certainly on board for added fantasy elements or whatever, so by all means, let’s take a look.

Okay, looks like this post includes the following:

Historical Mysteries.

Excellent category! I very much enjoy historical mysteries. I love mysteries with an interesting setting, and one way to get that is to use a historical setting. This post suggests this one:

MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH BY ARIANA FRANKLIN

Set in 12th-century medieval Cambridge, England, Adelia is a female forensics expert who is summoned by King Henry II to solve a series of antisemetic murders. Adelia is not who the townspeople expected, but she proves herself more than capable. This is the first in a fun, informative series of five books, with the last being completed by another author after Franklin’s death.

I’ve heard of it, but I’m not sure I knew the protagonist was a forensics expert. Shades of Brother Cadfael, huh? I liked those — oddly, I liked TV show more than the books, very rare for me. Anyway, Mistress of the Art of Death sounds really good just from this brief description. I’m sure some of you have read it — what did you think?

My favorite historical mystery series is, as you may know, Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series.

This is a very long series. Let me see, up to nineteen books! My goodness, that’s nearly tied with my my all-time favorite long-running series. Well, Hambly loves exploring this historical setting (1830s or so) and has a tendency to send Ben here and there, so lots of room to stretch out. Although really, I do like the New Orleans setting the best, and would like to see his vodoun sister, Olympe, take a more prominent role again. She’s interesting; I like her a lot. Of course Hambly has introduced a thousand great characters by this time. Not just the primary cast, but the secondary cast too — Ben’s other sister, Minou. Chloe Viellard. My absolute favorite secondary character, Augustus Mayerling, introduced in the very first book, whom I would LOVE to see again, preferably in a prominent role.

I actually have the second-latest Benjamin January book on my Kindle, but haven’t read it, because these are high-tension stories and I haven’t really been in the mood for super-high-tension novels during the past couple of years. Regardless, this is still my favorite historical mystery series. I haven’t yet picked up the most recent — I just realized this minute it was out.

Okay, what’s the next category suggested by this Book Riot post …

Historical Romance

Ha, there’s certainly no shortage here. I really don’t feel it’s reasonable to include this as a “genre-blending” category. There have got to be ten times more historical romances than historicals that aren’t romances. Twenty times. A hundred times, more than likely! This is true even if you categorize historicals with a fairly strong romance as “historicals” and only romances with a historical setting as “historical romance.” Let me pause to split the category up in that way:

a) Historicals with a strong romantic element: this is where I’d put Gillian Bradshaw’s excellent novels, such as possibly my favorite, Island of Ghosts. It’s hard to choose because so many of Bradshaw’s books are great, but that’s one I go back to over and over.

b) Romance with historical settings: All Regency romances, such as, wow, what to even pick from the enormous horde? Okay, fine, everything by Georgette Heyer, starting with the book that has my favorite of her male leads; and then let’s mention the excellent Brothers Sinister series by Courtney Milan; and the Spymaster series by Joanna Bourne, and we could just go on and on forever.

But fine, let’s set this question about historical romances aside. Next category!

Historical SF

Okay, the Book Riot post points to various novels involving time travel, which fine, that’s fair, but the best of their choices for actual historical SF is surely The Calculating Stars.

I liked that one quite a bit, but I must admit that for whatever reason I haven’t gone on with the series. Probably I should. I’m sure some of you have read the other books in this series. What did you think?

For time travel stories, I really did enjoy the first two books of the Extraction trilogy by RR Heywood. (I liked the third too, except for the ending.) With all the wild time travel, we actually get to enjoy the dinosaur era and the future and all sorts of points in between. While time travel is generally not something I particularly enjoy, sometimes and author pulls off a story I love, and Heywood did. Except, as I’ve said several times now, I’d really be inclined to read the first two as a duology and stop there.

Historical Fantasy

Huge number of choices here, of course! The Book Riot post points out The Conductors by Nicole Glover, which is one I’ve got on my TBR pile right now. It is actually a historical fantasy mystery.

Here’s the description:

Hetty Rhodes and her husband, Benjy, were Conductors on the Underground Railroad, ferrying dozens of slaves to freedom with daring, cunning, and magic that draws its power from the constellations. With the war over, those skills find new purpose as they solve mysteries and murders that white authorities would otherwise ignore.

In the heart of Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, everyone knows that when there’s a strange death or magical curses causing trouble, Hetty and Benjy are the only ones that can solve the case. But when an old friend is murdered, their investigation stirs up a wasp nest of intrigue, lies, and long-buried secrets- and a mystery unlike anything they handled before. 

This sounds excellent and I’m very much looking forward to trying this one … when I’m (a) not so busy, and (b) in the mood for what I expect is probably a higher-tension and probably darker story.

Several others I’ve at least heard of on this Book Riot post, but it’s a huge, huge category. One that leaps to mind for me — The Frontier Magic series by Patricia Wrede.

So much fun in a highly alternate Old West setting. The moment I thought of this series, I wanted to go re-read it. Especially the last book, which I haven’t read as often as the first. You know what, now I’m suddenly thinking that pausing to re-read everything by Patricia Wrede might be a fine idea.

Historical Horror

This is probably a smaller category, and certainly one I’m less interested in overall. But even though I’ve already pointed to Barbara Hambly for historical mysteries, I’m going to pick her out again for historical horror. Those Who Hunt the Night is my favorite vampire novel and I don’t think it’s close.

This whole series is excellent, and one of the reasons it’s great is — you probably saw this coming — the fantastically well-drawn historical setting. Once again Hambly sends her protagonists here and there in order to show off different geographic areas. There are only eight books in this series, I see; the most recent came out in 2019. I wonder if she’s stopping? I do think she may have painted herself into something of a corner with regard to the metaphysics and perhaps the relationships in this series.

Regardless, Those Who Hunt the Night is truly excellent and, as a bonus, stands alone.

I will add, the Book Riot post suggests a book for this category that’s set in … ready? … 1997.

And you might think a book set in 1997 doesn’t qualify as historical fiction, but remember that people born in that year are now old enough to rent cars.

Ha ha ha! is my response to that argument.

No, 1997 does NOT qualify as a historical setting. That’s not as entirely ridiculous as picking out Watership Down as a classic example of Urban Fantasy, but seriously? Frankly, I think you’re pushing the definition if you point to any setting later than 1950, and even that strikes me as really recent for anything you’re calling a historical novel. I wouldn’t actually declare a particular year as the cutoff for defining a historical setting, but if I did, I’d probably say you’ve got to be a hundred years or more in the past or it doesn’t count. (Honestly, I really just say that I know a historical setting when I see one, and 1997 definitely does not count.)

Okay! I do enjoy historical novels, any genre, so if you’ve read any historical recently that caught your fancy, by all means drop it in the comments.

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12 thoughts on “Historicals with a Genre Twist”

  1. Calculating stars is excellent, I agree. But don’t miss out on Kage Baker’s time travel stories. They are very, very funny. Alas, she died quite young, of cancer. Similarly, as you noted recently, “To Say Nothing of the Dog” is lots of fun, too.

  2. Ariana Franklin was a terrific author, I’ve read all her books, she also has several under the name Diana Norman. For medieval mysteries, I again recommend the Margaret Frazer Dame Frevisse series with the first book being The Novice’s Tale. I believe it’s the same time period as Mistress of the Art of Death. For historical romance, or just historical fiction, you can’t leave out Dorothy Dunnett, Mary Renault, or Robert Graves. One of my favorite historical fantasy/sci fi books is The Hanged Man by PN Elrod–an amazon reviewer called it ‘astonishingly good’ and I agree. I haven’t read her other books but this one was terrific, so sad there is only one. I wish Gillian Bradshaw would write more books! I loved the Patricia Wrede series, and it reminds me of the Night Calls series by Katherine Eliska Kimbriel. I like time travel series but I don’t know of any so wonderful I’d recommend them. I’ll try RR Heywood, on your recommendation.

  3. I enjoyed the Frontier Magic series well enough, but I really, really loved the Cecilia and Kate series that Wrede did with Caroline Stevermer, as well as the similar-but-unconnected Mairelon duology by Wrede alone–Regency era with magic is such a delightful blend, and the humor and liveliness of those stories is so well done.

    I read The Conductors last year, and it was very well-written but yes, quite high tension, and the kind of book that weighed heavily on me even after I finished it. I would have no hesitation in recommending it to someone, but with the warning that you definitely have to be in the right place and time to read it.

    I have not heard of the Ariana Franklin series, but I’ll have to check it out now–the Brother Cadfael series is one of my favorites (even if they did get formulaic after a while–the danger of any long-running series, I suppose), and I love almost anything set in Cambridge.

  4. Louise, I agree, I enjoyed both those series too, although I liked the first books of each series quite a bit better than the later books.

    Alison, I’ve got The Novice’s Tale on my Kindle, I’m pretty sure. One of these days …

    I agree that for straight historical fiction, Dorothy Dunnett and Mary Renault are RIGHT at the very tippy top. I haven’t read anything by Robert Graves, so I guess I’ll have to look him up. I read the vampire series by PN Elrod, and while I liked it well enough, I didn’t think it was all that and a bag of chips, so I never thught of looking up anything else by her. I guess now I’ll have to get a sample of The Hanged Man.

  5. For historical horror, I think that ‘The Cunning Man’ by DJ Butler fits the bill.
    I just recently (re)read ‘The Perilous Gard’, which is set in Elizabethan England. It won a Newbery, and rightly so. Elizabeth Marie Pope’s only other book is ‘The Sherwood Ring’, which I actually just finished yesterday. It’s a ghost story with friendly family ghosts, very lovely.
    Oh, and I love anything by Rosemary Sutcliff, but especially ‘The Silver Branch’, though any of her books are worth the read.
    Wow. Apparently I read more historical-ish books than I thought!

  6. I love Barbara Hambly’s books – both the Benjamin January and the James Asher/Don Ysidro series. I also enjoy the Sir Robert Carey mysteries (set in late 16th century England) by P. F. Chisholm. Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Calculating Stars” is very good but I got sidetracked into her “Glamourist” series. C. S Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries. So many books, so little time!

  7. Thanks for the Mistress of the Art of Death reminder, I actually read the first two, liked them a lot, and I see that I own the 3rd and 4th but somehow missed marking them to read.

    The Cadfael books are fun, but I agree they do get a bit repetitive, so better spread.

    And The Conductor does look interesting, going to the TBR pile.

    Haven’t yet read Butler’s The Cunning Man, but the Witchy Eye books were very good. Not sure they’re quite horror, but maybe the horror-dark edge of historical fantasy.

    The Benjamin January books are good, but after the first few they started to feel too… slow? for what I wanted at the time, so I sort of abandoned them. Probably worth getting back to, Hambly is good, and it has been years since I stopped the. And yes, Those Who Hunt the Night is fantastic, though the series doesn’t quite hold up the level.

    Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is very good, though also high tension (as most non-humor Zombie stories, or most slavery-relate books, tend to be).
    Similarly H. G. Parry’s A Declaration of the Right of Magicians, though earlier, more Europe focus, and a more political focus, on that one.

    On the more fun and light side (though there are some tension bits, and at least one named and known side-character does die) C. M. Waggoner’s A Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is great. It does have some comedy of manner elements, but the main characters is very lower class, so the viewpoint is different than most in that regard.

    For time travel, agree that the Kage Baker books are fantastic. But personally they’re not even in terms of style/pacing, even if they do keep up the general quality.
    Also maybe check Wendy Nikel’s The Continuum, and rest of the series. I’m not entirely sure how they’d officially fit the “historical” part since they tend to have both significant parts in history and in the future, but that’s technically true of many time-travel stories anyway, and I think the series does have more history than not.

    And no, 1997 is not “historical”, ffs. That’s just silly. It would probably be some day, but not yet.

  8. A Midsummer Tempest and Operation Chaos

    Mairelon the Magician

    No Earthly Sunne all right, that does also have modern day parts. When a major character gets took by the Fairy Queen. . . .

  9. I think the term for something set in the 1990s (or some other time in living memory that isn’t the current era) is “period piece”.

  10. Though on reflection, it may depend how much it interacts with historical events. A WWII story or “Apollo 13” feels more like historical fiction than a story that happens to be set in the 40s or 60s.

  11. Interesting observation, and yes, WWII fiction feels a lot more like historical fiction than a novel that happens to be set in 1945.

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