Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, but I am picky about them. I want them to be both accurate and engaging. Granted, perfect accuracy is not achievable but I appreciate the author who does the research necessary to make their books feel real and like the people belong to their era, instead of feeling like they’re modern people dressed up in historical costumes.
That said, I’m willing to forgo a little accuracy for a good story, assuming the author acknowledges that they’ve strayed from history for the story’s sake.
So in no particular order, here are the best historical fiction novels I read in 2021:
A Morbid Taste for Bones (The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #1)
by Ellis Peters
It is 1137, and the head of Shrewsbury Abbey has determined that the bones of Saint Winifred simply must be interred in the abbey so pilgrims might come and find grace and healing. And so he sends the clever Brother Cadfael and a contingency from Shrewsbury to the little Welsh chapel where the saint’s bones lie. But the people in the Welsh village won’t let their saint be taken from them so easily, and a group of locals raises a fuss at the notion. But when a Welsh leader is found dead, Cadfael must use all his wits and wisdom to discover who the killer is before an innocent man is condemned.
by Eleanor Catton
In 1866, Walter Moody arrives in New Zealand to stake his claim in the gold rush. On the night of his arrival, he interrupts the meeting of 12 men who have gathered to discuss strange recent events: the disappearance of a wealthy local man, a prostitute who has tried to take her own life, and the appearance of a cache of gold in the home of a luckless drunk. Soon, Moody is drawn into a world of fate, fortune, and chance where no one is really who they seem to be and everyone has a hidden agenda.
A Tip for the Hangman
by Allison Epstein
Young Christopher Marlowe is a brilliant young poet and playwright, but as a scholarship student at Cambridge who has problems with authority, he’s on the ragged edge. When Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, shows up with an unorthodox offer, Kit has little choice but to accept and become a spy for Her Majesty’s government. Though she is under house arrest, Mary, Queen of Scots is plotting with foreign powers to overthrow the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and replace her with a Catholic monarch– with Mary on the throne. Kit must use all his wits, talent, and training to keep himself alive while working with people who would kill him on the spot if they knew the truth.
by Lauren Groff
Exiled from the illustrious French court and sent far from Eleanor of Aquitaine, the woman she loves from afar, seventeen-year-old Marie arrives at the English nunnery where she is meant to become the abbess. It a damp, impoverished place where food is scarce and the women die from preventable illnesses. When her attempt at writing a series of poetic masterpieces fails to make Eleanor call her back from the nunnery, Marie sets to work at elevating herself and her sisters– if she can’t be back at court, she will build a kingdom for herself. Thus begins the work of a lifetime, where ambition knows no bounds, and a tall and ungainly woman proves that she can be as regal and as powerful as any queen.
by Maggie O’Farrell
Known to history primarily as the wife of William Shakespeare, Anne or Agnes Hathaway is largely overlooked. After all, she was merely the mother of his children and a woman who stayed at home in Stratford while her husband was treading the boards at The Globe theater and writing his immortal plays and poems. But no life is meaningless, and even day-to-day duties can become infused with a meaning that becomes even more profound when the Plague arrives and threatens to steal the lives of everyone within Agnes’ once-peaceful home. With her shimmering prose and carefully observed details, O’Farrell shows that even a life lacking in sound and fury can come to signify everything.
10 thoughts on “2021 Favorites: Historical Fiction”
So glad to see you liked Hamnet! That was my favourite book of 2021, and I think I need to reread it soon!
My book group will be reading Hamnet later this year, which is the only reason I’ve held off on reading it up to now. I’ve heard such good things! Matrix sounds interesting as well — I didn’t realize it was historical. I’ve picked up The Luminaries so many times over the years, but keep getting discouraged by the length. Sounds like I really should just get over it and give it a try!
I’m hoping this is the year I’ll finally try the Brother Cadfael series. I doubt I’d even be aware of it if not for your reviews of its many volumes.
I hope you give it a try, too! I’d known about it for a while thanks to the TV show (which I haven’t seen at all yet). The books have been a delight! I think I’m going to have to finish the series with books, though, as the audiobooks of the last seven installments don’t seem to be available to me.
Hamnet was brilliant! Matrix is based, sort of, on the life of Marie de France. Sort of based on her life because we know basically nothing about her. Groff’s writing is fantastic. It probably would have been my favorite historical novel of the year if not for Hamnet.
The Luminaries was great, too! Daunting because of the length, but it really drew me in. It took me a few weeks to get through it, but it was worth it.
I’ve really been digging more and more into the historical fiction genre in the past half year, and I’m so excited to keep reading more!
There is so much amazing historical fiction out there, and so many subgenres within it. If ever I’m not feeling fantasy works, I default to historical fiction because it feels fantastical without having to do with magic systems or anything. I’ve been reading historical mysteries like crazy this year. I hope you find some new favorites!
Yes, agreed! It’s like more laidback high fantasy, which is sometimes exactly what I need because high fantasy can require so much concentration sometimes, and while historical fiction isn’t any less, there’s not all these new rules to suddenly follow, so it’s fun and light while also being magical.
I mean… it’s not all laid back and fun. Some of it, but a lot of it’s not. But I still love historical fiction. Give A Tip for the Hangman a try. I think, out of this list, you’d like that one the best.
I have The Luminaries on my book shelf, hope to read it this year!