As a history geek, and a slightly sappy girl, historical fiction with lashings of romance is a potent mix and my literary guilty pleasure. And I sincerely doubt that I am alone in that. The exotic appeal of bygone eras where men either dressed better or did more manly things, like defying tyrannical monarchs and killing wild animals, to win our affection means that historical fiction thrives. Popular historical novelist Philippa Gregory has sold more than seven million books worldwide. Jean Plaidy has sold more than 14 million copies of her historical novels.
However, my love for a very much older man aside, I like my historical fiction with lashings of romance to be well written. For a start, note I say ‘historical fiction with lashings of romance’. While I enjoy romance, it either needs to be a sub-plot to key, exciting historical events, or if romance is the main theme, the tale of how they get together or make their relationship works needs to be interesting and different. My dashing hero also needs to be set in a realistically described era. The heroine needs to be more than an empty shell upon which I can transpose myself *cough Bella Swan cough*. Finally the dialogue must not sound wooden and ridiculous. Novels that have their characters trying to speak entirely in the manner they probably would have done in the era they are set in end up sounding ridiculous. Forsooth, it is better to throw in the odd archaic mannerism but let the characters speak in as modern a way as believably possibly. (By which I mean no modern terms or slang either). Oh and the smut definitely needs to be well written; no swelling manhoods bursting out of their breeches and making a burning intrusion into my secret place thank you.
So for all of you who like your stories and men very, very old, here are my top ten recommendations. And a couple of my authors to avoid. I will be constantly updating this post as I read more and more fiction.
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Synopsis: The story of the Boleyn family’s rise to power and spectacular fall told through the eyes of Mary Boleyn, sister of the infamous Anne and mistress to the king before her sister stole the king’s affections.
A worthy read because: It is interesting to have this famous story told from the point of view of this hitherto unknown Boleyn girl. Gregory captures well the claustrophobic and cut-throat nature of the Tudor court and recreates believably the main players of this tale in all their complex glory.
Ye olde smut level: Well there are a few sexy scenes, this is Henry VIII and his debauched court we are talking about.
Nefertiti by Michelle Moran
Synopsis: This is another story told from the eyes of a sister, this time we see the story of the scandalous reign of ‘Heretic’ Pharoah Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Nefertiti through the cat like eyes of her sister Mutnodjmet. Like in The Other Boleyn girl, Mutnodjmet’ constant support is needed at Nefertiti’s side in the backstabbing court of the pharaoh, but Mutny’s loyalty to her sister becomes at odds with her love for General Nakhtmin, a man the pharaoh feels threatened by.
A worthy read because: I am a massive fan of Michelle Moran’s books because she focuses on interesting but not obvious female historical characters and sweeps you along into their tales through her vivid recreations of their lives. I love this book for its insight into Egypt and the court of the pharaohs and because Moran weaves this tale together simply but beautifully.
Ye olde smut level: Practically non-existent, there are a few hints at characters having sexy time but it is never described.
Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran
Synopsis: The children of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony are brought to Rome, effectively as prisoners of the victorious Octavian (later the first emperor of Rome). Entrusted into the care of his sister, Octavia, Selene and her brother Alexander become part of the Imperial household but it is a gilded cage. Told from the first person perspective of Selene, this is a coming of age tale with a difference as the two children are living with a family rife with ambition, in a Rome threatened by slave rebellions and are themselves longing for a way back home to Egypt.
A worthy read because: Selene is a little known historical figure but as the daughter of the notorious lovers Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, who was then brought up in the heart of Rome’s first Imperial family she would have had some interesting stories to tell. A fact Moran takes advantage of and she re-imagines Selene’s life and longings fantastically, giving an intriguing insight into the heart of Rome at a crucial point in its history. The Red Eagle slave rebellions are completely fictitious but provide an interesting plot device to steer the story with and allow us to see the different sides to key historical characters. What I particularly liked is that Moran never allows a character to be black and white, Octavian in this story is still a riddle of contradictions, just as a man who became the first emperor of Rome should be.
Ye olde smut factor: A kiss, an inappropriate thought about people swimming in their loin cloths, and getting changed in a dark tunnel where no one can see anyway is the extent of the smut factor. My only criticism of this book.
Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain
Synopsis: Lady Eleanor Glanville was the first female butterfly collector and this novel is an account of her life. Don’t worry it’s not just about butterflies, set during the time of the restoration, the effects of the political struggles seethe in the background as Eleanor fights to look after the land she has inherited, burns with passion for a Cavalier while married to another man, and gets convicted of witch craft by her own family because of her love of butterflies.
A worthy read because: It is a tale as lively and vibrant as the butterflies described, yet with quite a dark edge and non-conventional ending.
Ye olde smut factor: Bet you didn’t think butterflies could be erotic?
Katherine by Anya Seton
Synopsis: Katherine Swynford was the mistress of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III of England for many years, before becoming, in a unique piece of legislation, his third wife. Katherine charts the story of their love affair set amongst the background of turbulent unrest against the crown.
A worthy read because: Realistically and beautifully portrayed. I like that Katherine herself is not interested in or understands politics, she is just interested in her lover and because of it is a little selfish. She is not some early pioneer of feminism, yet you cannot help warming to her.
Ye olde smut factor: More romantic and lovey dovey, than a bonkbuster.
Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn
Synopsis: Thea is slave girl to a cruel and ambitious mistress, Lepida Pollio who is determined to marry up in society. A tentative romance with the star gladiator Arius, offers a shred of light in Thea’s bleak existence but she is then sold far from Rome by her jealous mistress who herself marries into a patrician family close to the Imperial throne. Re-emerging in Roman society as the slave Athena with exceptional musical talents Thea beats Lepida to the prize position of mistress to the emperor Domitian. However Thea and Lepida continue to go head to head as Thea becomes embroiled in a plot to get rid of the unpopular emperor to help those she loves while Lepida fights to save Domitian and her chance to become empress.
A worthy read because: Despite the unpromisingly chick-lit title, this story is well written and snaps up your interest right away. The characters are not clichéd, they are all damaged, less than perfect goods and we are kept guessing for quite a while whether Quinn’s Domitian is as evil as all the rumours suggest.
Ye olde smut level: sexual references are at a minimum with most being quite depressing/dark.
Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
Synopsis: A first person retelling of the life of the last Empress Dowager of China. Orchid Yehonala leaves behind her life of poverty by becoming one of the emperor’s many concubines. Desperate however to bear an imperial heir and not be consigned to the rubbish heap of concubines Orchid learns how to manipulate the system of favours and flattery to her advantage and navigate the deceitful political waters of the Chinese Imperial court.
A worthy read because: This account of the life in the Imperial court is mesmerising: Min captures perfectly the claustrophobic nature of life beholden to the emeperor in the Forbidden City and the deceitful, warped nature of these characters that are part of it and desperately trying to get ahead. The reader is kept on edge throughout this book.
Ye olde smut level: A visit to a brothel and a couple of sex scenes is the extent of it. There is a slightly creepy interlude with a eunuch.
The Last Concubine by Lesley Downer
Synopsis: Set in nineteenth century Japan, Sachi is given to her shogun as a concubine by her mistress, the shogun’s wife. Upon his death enemies attack his palace and Sachi poses as his widow to draw the attackers away and allow her mistress to escape in safety. In doing so she joins up with a pair of samurai warriors and falls in love with one. Sachi however is not free to love another and he is certain to die in battle. Returning to the shogun’s palace Sachi confronts the truth about her past and sees firsthand the start of Western influences upon Japan.
A worthy read because: Downer brings Japan to life, and while a little bit cliché in areas, the characters are still interesting enough to keep you engaged. The main interest though is the depiction of the turmoil happening in Japenese society. I was particularly amused by the portrayal of Sachi appalled by British good manners towards women because it is so at odds with their system of deference to men only.
Ye olde smut levels: At a minimum.
Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman
Synopsis: In an attempt to avert war between Wales and England, King John marries his beloved illegitimate daughter, Joan, to the Welsh prince. Joan struggles to be accepted into the Welsh court and even must go to extremes to be treated as a proper wife, and despite finding love with her husband conflicts between the two nations still occur pulling her loyalties in two directions.
A worthy read because: Here be dragons is full of fascinating, well imagined characters, not least King John. The change of character focus also keeps you hooked and wanting to find out more.
Ye olde smut levels: About average.
The Virgin Widow by Anne O’Brien
Synopsis: Anne Neville is daughter of the Earl of Warwick, or Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’ as he is known, a key player in the War of the Roses. Anne befriends Edward IV’s brother, Richard of Gloucester when he comes to live at their castle and develops feelings for him. However as the War of the Roses drags on Anne is forced to become Richard’s enemy.
A worthy read because: There is a lot of fiction about the War of the Roses. I liked that this one told it from Anne’s angle which has never been done before and gave this much done story a more interesting perspective. I also enjoyed the fact that we get to see a softer side to the much maligned Richard III.
Ye olde smut factor: A bit of smut towards the end, I suppose Richard and Anne had to relieve years of tension somehow.
Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn
Synopsis: The year is AD 69 – the infamous Year of the Four Emperors, where the turnover of emperors was so rapid you’d blink and you’d miss one dying a vicious death. The story focuses on four cousins, four aristocratic ladies who lives become intertwined with the quickly changing succession of the Roman throne whether by accident or cunning design. We also get introduced to some characters Quinn writes about in Mistress of Rome (which confusingly is set after this book but written before this one).
A worthy read because: Quinn captures the voice of Roman ladies perfectly without making their dialogue and actions seem twee and contrived. The attitude towards Lollia’s multiple marriages, the rigmarole involved for a wife trying to commit pious suicide to be with her dead husband and the stifling life of women constrained by family and husbands are depicted realistically with dialogue that highlights the humour and the seriousness these scenarios would have brought up. My only problems with this book was that I felt Diana and Marcella weren’t quite believable as characters. Diana’s behaviour just would not have been tolerated and Marcella’s descent into conniving is a little bit sudden. But otherwise the characters were spot on.
Ye olde smut factor: Plenty of saucy references and subtle allusions to more romantic moments but nothing explicit.
Authors to keep away from: Elizabeth Chadwick and Jean Plaidy. Hideously cliche with hilariously wooden dialogue and clunky plot development. Stay far far away.