After Science Fiction and Fantasy, historical fiction is my favorite genre. That said, I’m picky about what I read. I want historical fiction to transport me to another time and place, not give me modern-seeming characters dressed in period clothes. So while I went through a host of so-so historical fiction novels, there were a handful of them that stick out in my memory.
Once again, these books weren’t necessarily published in 2020, but I read them for the first time last year.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
This dark novel follows three key players of the French Revolution– the rabble-rousing Desmoulins, the charismatic orator Danton, and the cold and calculating Robespierre– from their childhoods on as they grow up, fall in and out of love, and find themselves in the middle of a political revolution that upends French society forever. The three men, along with their families and lovers, feel utterly real, and their descent from idealistic revolutionaries to political operatives who casually send people to their deaths is chilling.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The conclusion of Mantel’s landmark Thomas Cromwell trilogy, opens immediately following the execution of Anne Boleyn– Henry VIII’s second queen and Cromwell’s political rival. From this moment, Cromwell’s rise seems to have no limits. But as he gains more titles and power and more of Henry’s trust, his jealous rivals gather to try to tear him down. Mantel’s prose is masterful. Her descriptions bring the Henrician court to vivid life, and the people she writes about, flawed as they are, come to life as they have in no other work of historical fiction I’ve ever read.
The Sea Queen by Linnea Hartsuyker
In this second volume of Hartsuyker’s Half-Drowned King trilogy, Svanhild has found the adventure and freedom she wants at the side of her rebellious husband, though their goals do not always align. Svanhild desires a stable home in Iceland for her son, but her husband wants to stay at sea, sailing and raiding where he wills. Back at home in Norway, her brother Ragnvald struggles to aide Harald Finehair in his bid to unite the land under his rule alone. But Ragnvald’s principles prevent him from taking the easy way out, even as he sets in motion plans to bring rebellious factions under Harald’s control and bring Svanhild back to Norway.
The Lost Queen by Signe Pike
Set in sixth century Britain, as the Saxons are coming from across the sea in ever higher numbers, a young princess, Langoureth, and her twin brother Lailoken are growing up amidst shifting politics and religions. Lailoken is destined to become a mystic and a warrior, but Langoureth will one day marry the son of a Christian king. As Langoureth grows into adulthood, she must deal with lost love, motherhood, and attempt to keep the old ways of her ancestors from being wiped out by the new religion. This is, in its way, an Arthurian retelling, though Pike’s research delved into ancient and little-known legends about the origins of Merlin, who in some tales began life as a young mystic named Lailoken.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Though he was born into the noble class as imperial Russia was falling into its death spiral, Count Alexander Rostov manages to avoid a swift execution or exile thanks to a quirk of fate. But he is sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Metropol Hotel. Though he is a man of great manners and with, Rostov has never had to work a day in his life or faced anything like hardship. Now, forced to live in a tiny attic room, he is witness to decades of some of the most tumultuous times in recent Russian history. Filled with remarkable characters, acutely observed everyday encounters, and brimming with humor, A Gentleman in Moscow will stay with readers long after they’ve turned the last page.