7 Unique Historical Fiction Reads That Put a Twist on the Genre

May 20 2021
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The power of historical fiction is pretty self-explanatory: an author explores a previous period (or periods) and injects storytelling into an intricate, well-fashioned historical landscape. When an author does it well, it’s the ultimate trip in a fantastical time-machine with a plot that pays homage to another era and characters that encapsulate that time for a modern audience. When it isn’t done to a high standard, you may end up on Wikipedia fact-checking, what can only be, blatant historical inconsistencies.

What’s even better though, is when an author has the boldness and ability to play with the form to enhance an already-excellent addition to the historical fiction genre. Unconventional narrative styles, an unusual point-of-view, or a less-explored region are just some of the tools that authors have employed to write unique historical fiction. Below are a few of our favorites.

Sirius
by Jonathan Crown

WWII Germany isn’t an unfamiliar setting for a historical fiction novel, but a canine narrator who turns into an acting star, circus performer, and spy certainly is. In Jonathan Crown’s debut novel, SIRIUS, readers are treated (dog pun?) to an exhilarating tale of one Jewish family’s fox terrier who escapes from Berlin and navigates fame in Hollywood, only to end up back in Germany playing a spy and informing upon Adolf Hitler himself—and contributing to his downfall. Filled with famous figures and a fresh take, this novel offers a new perspective, literally, on a familiar historical backdrop.

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Sirius
Jonathan Crown

An international bestseller—“an elegant, charming, and heartwarming fable...one part Zelig, one part Siddhartha, and one part Rin Tin Tin” (Vogue)—about an extraordinary fox terrier who helps his Jewish family escape from Nazi Germany, becomes a Hollywood star, and ultimately contributes to Hitler’s downfall.

Levi, a fox terrier, lives with his family in a grand townhouse in Berlin. Each day he enjoys a walk through the neighborhood, where people greet him by name. But the year is 1938, and Berlin is no longer safe for Levi or the Liliencrons, his Jewish owners. They rename him Sirius, after the constellation, to protect him.

One night, Nazi troops storm the city and begin to search houses. Sirius alerts the family, and they manage to flee to California. In his new home, Carl Liliencron becomes a chauffeur and Sirius befriends everyone from Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant to Rita Hayworth and Jack Warner. He is renamed Hercules and becomes a canine movie star. Little does Sirius know that he’ll soon have to perform his most difficult acting role yet, when through a series of exceptional events as World War II unfolds, he winds up at the right hand of Hitler himself. Can Sirius help the German resistance, derail the Führer, and reunite with his family? Or is the cost of peace too high?

“Heartwarming...charming...for history buffs and dog lovers alike” (Publishers Weekly), Sirius is an enchanting fairy tale about love and humanity and a roving exploration of a momentous historical moment. Like My Dog Skip and The Artist, this “triumphant novel” (The Missourian) will make you stand up and cheer.

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The History of Bees
by Maja Lunde

Maja Lunde’s literary debut, THE HISTORY OF BEES, explores three different generations of beekeepers, jumping between main characters in 1852 England, the United States of 2007, and China in the year 2098. What’s so special about this historical fiction novel is both its ability to intricately and comprehensively explore a lesser-known profession while also exposing the layered relationships between parents and their children. Haunting and insightful, this book is a must-have of the genre and leaves readers satisfied on an optimistic note.

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The History of Bees
Maja Lunde

“Imagine The Leftovers, but with honey” (Elle), and in the spirit of Station Eleven and Never Let Me Go, this “spectacular and deeply moving” (Lisa See, New York Times bestselling author) novel follows three generations of beekeepers from the past, present, and future, weaving a spellbinding story of their relationship to the bees—and to their children and one another—against the backdrop of an urgent, global crisis.

England, 1852. William is a biologist and seed merchant, who sets out to build a new type of beehive—one that will give both him and his children honor and fame.

United States, 2007. George is a beekeeper fighting an uphill battle against modern farming, but hopes that his son can be their salvation.

China, 2098. Tao hand paints pollen onto the fruit trees now that the bees have long since disappeared. When Tao’s young son is taken away by the authorities after a tragic accident, she sets out on a grueling journey to find out what happened to him.

Haunting, illuminating, and deftly written, The History of Bees joins “the past, the present, and a terrifying future in a riveting story as complex as a honeycomb” (New York Times bestselling author Bryn Greenwood) that is just as much about the powerful bond between children and parents as it is about our very relationship to nature and humanity.

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A Fall of Marigolds
by Susan Meissner

Historical fiction inevitably features tragedies of the past, but what’s so unique about Susan Meissener’s A FALL OF MARIGOLDS is the thread that connects two such events: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and collapse of the World Trade Towers. That thread is, unexpectedly, a scarf and helps two women navigate the loss of their respective significant others 100 years apart. Touching and sympathetic, this novel embraces the historical fiction genre’s tendency to explore tragedies, but does so with a one-of-a-kind narrative vehicle.

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A Fall of Marigolds
Susan Meissner

A scarf decorated with marigolds is the connecting thread between two women experiencing a similar anguish 100 years apart. In New York City’s 1911 and 2011, the two women both fell in love and then lost their husbands in terrible disasters. A well-told examination of grief and resilience, A FALL OF MARIGOLDS manages to be touching and sweet, yet gritty and real when examining how to find hope in despair.

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The Brideship Wife
by Leslie Howard

Canada isn’t often the setting for historical fiction. What’s more, it’s not often used as the backdrop to a forgotten chapter of history like British “brideship” wives. Leslie Howard’s THE BRIDESHIP WIFE uncovers the plot by the British government to make newly inhabited areas of its colonies—located near Victoria, Canada—more “British” by sending ships of young, marriageable women to an area almost entirely populated by American men drawn by a gold rush. Howard’s debut boldly takes on this little-known topic to teach us the meaning of freedom and adds another debut to the unique historical fiction canon.

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The Brideship Wife
Leslie Howard

Inspired by the history of the British “brideships,” this captivating historical debut tells the story of one woman’s coming of age and search for independence—for readers of Pam Jenoff's The Orphan's Tale and Armando Lucas Correa’s The German Girl.

Tomorrow we would dock in Victoria on the northwest coast of North America, about as far away from my home as I could imagine. Like pebbles tossed upon the beach, we would scatter, trying to make our way as best as we could. Most of us would marry; some would not.

England, 1862. Charlotte is somewhat of a wallflower. Shy and bookish, she knows her duty is to marry, but with no dowry, she has little choice in the matter. She can’t continue to live off the generosity of her sister Harriet and her wealthy brother-in-law, Charles, whose political aspirations dictate that she make an advantageous match.

When Harriet hosts a grand party, Charlotte is charged with winning the affections of one of Charles’s colleagues, but before the night is over, her reputation—her one thing of value—is at risk. In the days that follow, rumours begin to swirl. Soon Charles’s standing in society is threatened and all that Charlotte has held dear is jeopardized, even Harriet, and Charlotte is forced to leave everything she has ever known in England and embark on a treacherous voyage to the New World.

From the rigid social circles of Victorian England to the lawless lands bursting with gold in British Columbia’s Cariboo, The Brideship Wife takes readers on a mesmerizing journey through a time of great change. Based on a forgotten chapter in history, this is a sparkling debut about the pricelessness of freedom and the courage it takes to follow your heart.

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Against the Loveless World
by Susan Abulhawa

It’s not often that you come across historical fiction narrated by someone reflecting on their life while locked in solitary confinement? And Susan Abulhawa’s award-winning AGAINST THE LOVELESS WORLD does just that. Nahr, a young Palestinian woman, tells the readers about her journey as a refugee in war-torn Iraq to an impoverished sex worker, and, ultimately, to prisoner of the Israeli jail cell where she tells her tale. It’s a fascinating look at the roles stress and trauma can have on a young person and the violence they sometimes can cultivate. Another one-of-a-kind novel to add to the list.

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Against the Loveless World
Susan Abulhawa

2020 Palestine Book Awards Winner
2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize Finalist

“Susan Abulhawa possesses the heart of a warrior; she looks into the darkest crevices of lives, conflicts, horrendous injustices, and dares to shine light that can illuminate hidden worlds for us.” —Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize–winning author

In this “beautiful...urgent” novel (The New York Times), Nahr, a young Palestinian woman, fights for a better life for her family as she travels as a refugee throughout the Middle East.

As Nahr sits, locked away in solitary confinement, she spends her days reflecting on the dramatic events that landed her in prison in a country she barely knows. Born in Kuwait in the 70s to Palestinian refugees, she dreamed of falling in love with the perfect man, raising children, and possibly opening her own beauty salon. Instead, the man she thinks she loves jilts her after a brief marriage, her family teeters on the brink of poverty, she’s forced to prostitute herself, and the US invasion of Iraq makes her a refugee, as her parents had been. After trekking through another temporary home in Jordan, she lands in Palestine, where she finally makes a home, falls in love, and her destiny unfolds under Israeli occupation. Nahr’s subversive humor and moral ambiguity will resonate with fans of My Sister, The Serial Killer, and her dark, contemporary struggle places her as the perfect sister to Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

Written with Susan Abulhawa’s distinctive “richly detailed, beautiful, and resonant” (Publishers Weekly) prose, this powerful novel presents a searing, darkly funny, and wholly unique portrait of a Palestinian woman who refuses to be a victim.

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Cuyahoga
by Pete Beatty

Stories of legends and urban myths aren’t typically considered historical fiction, but that’s also the magic of Pete Beatty’s debut novel CUYAHOGA. A story of the larger-than-life “Big Son” in his attempts to prove himself to his beloved takes part in efforts to build a bridge across the Cuyahoga River—connecting the rival cities of Cleveland and Ohio City. Narrated by Big Son’s younger brother, Medium Son (or Meed, as he’s known), the plot follows each and every of Big Son’s legendary feats, serving them up in hilarious, often beautiful depictions. CUYAHOGA adapts the historical fiction genre like few others resulting in a wholly new American tale that you can’t miss.

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Cuyahoga
Pete Beatty

One of The Millions and BuzzFeed’s Most Anticipated Books

A spectacularly inventive debut novel that reinvents the tall tale for our times—“Cuyahoga defies all modest description…[it] is ten feet tall if it’s an inch, and it’s a ramshackle joy from start to finish” (Brian Phillips, author of Impossible Owls).

Big Son is a spirit of the times—the times being 1837. Behind his broad shoulders, shiny hair, and church-organ laugh, Big Son practically made Ohio City all by himself. The feats of this proto-superhero have earned him wonder and whiskey toasts but very little in the way of fortune. And without money, Big cannot become an honest husband to his beloved Cloe (who may or may not want to be his wife, honestly).

In pursuit of a steady wage, our hero hits the (dirt) streets of Ohio City and Cleveland, the twin towns racing to become the first great metropolis of the West. Their rivalry reaches a boil over the building of a bridge across the Cuyahoga River—and Big stumbles right into the kettle. The resulting misadventures involve elderly terrorists, infrastructure collapse, steamboat races, wild pigs, and multiple ruined weddings.

Narrating this “deliriously fun” (Brian Phillips) tale is Medium Son—known as Meed—apprentice coffin maker, almanac author, orphan, and the younger brother of Big. Meed finds himself swept up in the action, and he is forced to choose between brotherly love and his own ambitions. His uncanny voice—plain but profound, colloquial but surprisingly poetic—elevates a slapstick frontier tale into a screwball origin myth for the Rust Belt.

In Cuyahoga, tragedy and farce jumble together in a riotously original voice. Evoking the Greek classics and the Bible alongside nods to Looney Tunes, Charles Portis, and Flannery O’Connor, Pete Beatty has written a rollicking revisionist (mid)Western with universal themes of family and fate—an old, weird America that feels brand new.

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The Good Lord Bird
by James McBride

Now a Showtime limited series, THE GOOD LORD BIRD is James McBride’s National Book Award–winning novel about famed abolitionist John Brown’s antislavery crusades. Narrated by a young slave Brown frees, nicknamed Little Onion, this irreverent tale offers the unique perspective as Onion, believed to be a girl, is in disguise for most of his time with Brown’s company. Amidst a tale told through cutting satire, and with appearances by notable historical figures, Onion is able to provide an adolescent point of view on Brown and his ideas that has never before been attempted. It’s a new look at one of American history’s most challenging characters and a worthy final addition to our unique historical fiction list.

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The Good Lord Bird
James McBride

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MENTIONED IN:

Authors as Magicians: 8 Books That’ll Cast a Spell on You

By Sara Roncero-Menendez | October 15, 2021

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By Off the Shelf Staff | October 14, 2021

10 Immersive Series to Hunker Down with This Fall

By Alice Martin | October 13, 2021

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10 Historical Novels Perfect for Crisp Autumn Nights

By Chris Gaudio | October 11, 2021

11 True Crime Tales of the Rich and Famous

By Kerry Fiallo | October 8, 2021

Close

Photo credit: istock / Brankospejs

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