5 Historical Fiction Books Reinvigorating the Genre

September 12 2022
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The creativity of fiction writers often knows no bounds as they slip in and out of genres, penning whatever may intrigue them. Or consumes them. It’s a thrilling feeling for a reader to flip the pages of such a book and be introduced to a completely new and, yes, novel world.

For some writers of historical fiction, it is not enough to simply reimagine history; instead, they take it a step further, exploring and bending the genre. They incorporate mythology, magical elements, fresh techniques and more, to create works that are not only page-turners, but mind-expanders. With that, I offer you a list of such dazzling works.

Briefly, A Delicious Life
by Nell Stevens

Let’s start with a supernatural twist on historical fiction. In Nell Stevens’ debut novel, BRIEFLY, A DELICIOUS LIFE, we meet fourteen-year-old Blanca, who died in the year 1473 at a monastery in Valldemossa, near Mallorca. Now a ghost haunting the Charterhouse, as it is known, she passes the time spying on monks, tormenting them, and observing the other townsfolk too. And, after 365 years, silently watching lives experienced around her, she’s startled to find new tenants at the Charterhouse: none other than French writer George Sand, who comes with her Polish lover, the composer Chopin, as well as her two children. Blanca is enthralled, and almost immediately attracted to Sand’s masculine sensibility, though the locals seem repelled by her. What follows is a poignant (and one-sided) love story, with Blanca, the teenage ghost, longing for the living writer, who doesn’t even know she exists. The plot only thickens as George and her family find themselves in trouble with the villagers, with Blanca able to watch only and reflect upon her own time alive, including the circumstances of her death. Provocative, touching, and wholly original, BRIEFLY, A DELICIOUS LIFE is a powerfully creative story by an award-winning author.

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Briefly, A Delicious Life
Nell Stevens

An unforgettable debut novel from an award-winning writer: a lively, daring ghost story about a teenage ghost who falls in love with a writer who doesn’t know she exists.

In 1473, fourteen-year-old Blanca dies in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca. Nearly four hundred years later, when George Sand, her two children, and her lover Frederic Chopin arrive in the village, Blanca is still there: a spirited, funny, righteous ghost, she’s been hanging around the monastery since her accidental death, spying on the monks and the townspeople and keeping track of her descendants.

Blanca is enchanted the moment she sees George, and the magical novel unfolds as a story of deeply felt, unrequited longing—the impossible love of a teenage ghost for a woman who can’t see her and doesn’t know she exists. As George and Chopin, who wear their unconventionality, in George’s case, literally on their sleeves, find themselves in deepening trouble with the provincial, 19th-century villagers, Blanca watches helplessly and reflects on the circumstances of her own death (which involves an ill-advised love affair with a monk-in-training).

Charming, original, and emotionally moving, this is a surprisingly touching story about romantic fixation and a powerful meditation on creativity.

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Palmares
by Gayl Jones

Some authors are almost expected to amaze us, and Gayl Jones is one such writer. Considered one of the great literary authors of the 20th century, Jones has returned, 22 years since her last work, to deliver an epic novel. PALMARES is the story of a Black slave girl born into a Portuguese plantation. It is there, in the 17th century, with the help of a white priest and her grandmother, that Almeyda learns to read and write—in a number of languages. Educated and sharp-witted, Almeyda is sold and resold to different plantations. On the way she encounters various characters, including a mad lexicographer, a British travel writer, and a captivating Muslim named Martim, whom she falls in love with. Eventually the two escape their respective plantations and make it to a fugitive slave settlement known as Palmares. But when the settlement is sacked, Martim is lost to chaos and Almeyda is left to pick up the pieces. Infused with her unique brand of mythology and magical realism, Jones’ new work imagines anew the historical novel.

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Palmares
Gayl Jones

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O Caledonia
by Elspeth Barker

Barker’s masterpiece is the story of a doomed young woman, and her lonely existence in a seemingly endlessly painful mid-20th century world. Unable to garner the affection of her mother (or physically absent father), Janet relies on literature to keep her company. That is, until she is additionally relegated to an ancestral castle, leaving her with only her Latin and Greek readings, the quiet natural landscape, and her entertaining (and alcoholic) aunt. Just as obvious as Janet’s crippling isolation and victimization is the author’s seething indictment of Scottish life and the cruelty of Caledonia. By the time Janet meets her fate—an almost “welcome” death by murder—the reader cannot help but feel a sense of relief for the woman whose life has been nothing short of agony. Darkly humorous and lyrically written, O CALEDONIA is a striking take on historical fiction, with one of the most unforgettable protagonists of contemporary literature. If that plot wasn’t evidence enough of O CALEDONIA’s worthiness on this list, please note that the new edition of this book includes an introduction from Maggie O’Farrell, author of HAMNET.

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O Caledonia
Elspeth Barker

In the tradition of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a darkly humorous modern classic of Scottish literature about a doomed adolescent growing up in the mid-19th century—featuring a new introduction by Maggie O’Farrell, award-winning author of Hamnet.

Janet lies murdered beneath the castle stairs, attired in her mother’s black lace wedding dress, lamented only by her pet jackdaw…

Author Elspeth Barker masterfully evokes the harsh climate of Scotland in this atmospheric gothic tale that has been compared to the works of the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, and Edward Gorey. Immersed in a world of isolation and loneliness, Barker’s ill-fated young heroine Janet turns to literature, nature, and her Aunt Lila, who offers brief flashes of respite in an otherwise foreboding life. People, birds, and beasts move through the background in a tale that is as rich and atmospheric as it is witty and mordant. The family’s motto—Moriens sed Invictus (Dying but Unconquered)—is a well-suited epitaph for wild and courageous Janet, whose fierce determination to remain steadfastly herself makes her one of the most unforgettable protagonists in contemporary literature.

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Paris, 7 A.M.
by Liza Wieland

What makes Liza Wieland’s book, PARIS, 7 A.M., unique is its steadfast relationship to history, mainly in the meticulously kept journals of poet Elizabeth Bishop, and in the author’s imaginative writing of the journal’s unwritten parts. For 1937, the year that Bishop didn’t fully chronicle, Wieland has imagined a completely fictional adventure to throw Bishop and the company she keeps into. Seeking to escape the predictability of life as she’s known it at Vassar College, Bishop and her college roommates travel to France before the second World War in search of inspiration. What they find is an underground world of rebellion in which Bishop aids in rescuing Jewish “orphans” in order to have them baptized as Catholics so as to spare them the impending doom that their parents will face. Daring and wonderfully imaginative, PARIS, 7 A.M. is a portrait of one of the most influential 20th-century poets and the three life-changing weeks that would, as the author would have you believe, influence her life and work as we’ve come to know it.

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Paris, 7 A.M.
Liza Wieland

“A marvel of lost innocence” (O, The Oprah Magazine) that reimagines three life-changing weeks poet Elizabeth Bishop spent in Paris amidst the imminent threat of World War II.

June 1937. Elizabeth Bishop, still only a young woman and not yet one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, arrives in France with her college roommates. They are in search of an escape, and inspiration, far from the protective world of Vassar College where they were expected to find an impressive husband and a quiet life. But the world is changing, and as they explore the City of Lights, the larger threats of fascism and occupation are looming. There, they meet a community of upper-crust expatriates who not only bring them along on a life-changing adventure, but also into an underground world of rebellion that will quietly alter the course of Elizabeth’s life forever.

Sweeping and stirring, Paris, 7 A.M. imagines 1937—the only year Elizabeth, a meticulous keeper of journals—didn’t fully chronicle—in vivid detail and brings us from Paris to Normandy where Elizabeth becomes involved with a group rescuing Jewish “orphans” and delivering them to convents where they will be baptized as Catholics and saved from the impending horror their parents will face.

Both poignant and captivating, Paris, 7 A.M. is an “achingly introspective marvel of lost innocence” (O, The Oprah Magazine) and a beautifully rendered take on the formative years of one of America’s most celebrated female poets.

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The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
by Jamie Ford

THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY, a bold new work of historical fiction, spans hundreds of years and generations of a family’s lineage to explore the pain and trauma throughout, all in hopes of learning how to break a vicious cycle. It’s the year 2045 and Dorothy Moy, a former poet laureate, has always suffered from depression. But when her young daughter begins to show signs of the same affliction—while also herself “remembering” scenes from the past—she springs into action. The treatment options include an experimental technique that connects Dorothy with all the Moy women before her, including a nurse in China in 1942, a schoolgirl in 1927 England, a tech entrepreneur in 2014, and the first Chinese woman in America way back in the 1830s. The futuristic procedure allows Dorothy to reflect on her family’s past and the pain each generational daughter seems to share. There is also another through line: a stranger in each era searching for a Moy woman…and for her love. For those seeking to explore the ties that bind (and to time travel at the same time), THE MANY DAUGHTERS OF AFONG MOY is an affecting novel that focuses on understanding a family’s collective pain and the hope that can come out of it.

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The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
Jamie Ford

The New York Times bestselling author of the “mesmerizing and evocative” (Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants) Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet returns with a powerful exploration of the love that binds one family across the generations.

Dorothy Moy breaks her own heart for a living.

As Washington’s former poet laureate, that’s how she describes channeling her dissociative episodes and mental health struggles into her art. But when her five-year-old daughter exhibits similar behavior and begins remembering things from the lives of their ancestors, Dorothy believes the past has truly come to haunt her. Fearing that her child is predestined to endure the same debilitating depression that has marked her own life, Dorothy seeks radical help.

Through an experimental treatment designed to mitigate inherited trauma, Dorothy intimately connects with past generations of women in her family: Faye Moy, a nurse in China serving with the Flying Tigers; Zoe Moy, a student in England at a famous school with no rules; Lai King Moy, a girl quarantined in San Francisco during a plague epidemic; Greta Moy, a tech executive with a unique dating app; and Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to set foot in America.

As painful recollections affect her present life, Dorothy discovers that trauma isn’t the only thing she’s inherited. A stranger is searching for her in each time period. A stranger who’s loved her through all of her genetic memories. Dorothy endeavors to break the cycle of pain and abandonment, to finally find peace for her daughter, and gain the love that has long been waiting, knowing she may pay the ultimate price.

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MENTIONED IN:

The 10 Most Popular Books of September

By Off the Shelf Staff | September 30, 2022

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By Off the Shelf Staff | September 29, 2022

10 Eerie Book Club Picks Best Read with Others Nearby

By Alice Martin | September 28, 2022

10 Life-Affirming Reads for Fredrik Backman Fans

By Karen Bellovich | September 27, 2022

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