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Historical fiction beyond Anne Boleyn: Best of 2012


Historical fiction covers a variety of subjects, not just the wives of Henry VIII (of course, there are plenty of books about them as well). 2012 was a great year for historical fiction, and here are our top picks for the year.

Gods of Gotham Gods of Gotham
Lyndsay Faye

What it’s about: Timothy Wilde, recently appointed to New York City’s brand new police force, finds himself investigating the murder of an Irish Catholic child in a city where the Irish are both ubiquitous and unwelcome.

Why it’s wonderful:  Faye expertly blends history and mystery, delighting readers of both genres. Mid-19th century New York comes alive under Faye’s pen, particularly with her judicious use of the era’s flash slang. Bonus: This is the first in the series. Look for Seven for a Secret in summer 2013.

The AbsolutistThe Absolutist
John Boyne

What it’s about: Tristan survived World War I — at least bodily. Safe now from the bullets, Tristan makes it a mission to meet the sister of a man he served in the army. Although The Absolutist is set during war, it is less about the battlefield and more about the psychology of war, and the way relationships develop under that sort of duress.

Why it’s wonderful: The Absolutist is a beautiful and painful novel of love, war, and humanity. The pain of the secret that Tristan harbors is almost palpable, making this an incredibly moving read.

the queen's vowThe Queen’s Vow
C.W. Gortner

What it’s about: Isabella of Castile is one of the most influential queens regnant in history. She retook Spain from the Moors, sent Columbus on his way, enacted the Inquisition, and was the mother of two other fascinating queens: England’s Catherine of Aragon and Spain’s Juana la Loca. The Queen’s Vow follows Isabella from girlhood to describe how she became the woman who influenced the world.

Why it’s wonderful: If you’ve read C.W. Gortner before, knowing he wrote The Queen’s Vow is likely explanation enough. Gortner focuses on strong women and writes them in a way to bring them vividly to life.

Mary Sharratt

What it’s about: Enclosed in the walls of a monastery as handmaiden to another nun at a very young age, Hildegard von Bingen eventually wins release from prison and becomes a renowned Christian mystic.

Why it’s wonderful: Hildegard has been enjoying a resurgence of attention among some religious circles, but regardless of whether your interest in her is religious or secular, she led a fascinating life. In a time when women were expected to be obedient, Hildegard found a way to work around the system to build a life she could live with.

The CrownThe Crown
Nancy Bilyeau

What it’s about: Being an English nun is difficult when Henry VIII is closing monasteries around the country. For Joanna, a Dominican novice whose uncle and cousin were recently executed for treason, things are even more difficult, and she is asked to uncover for the Bishop of Winchester a crown worn by the Saxon king Athelstan to prove her loyalty and save her life and those of her parents.

Why it’s wonderful: The Crown includes all the drama of a historical thriller, but Bilyeau’s writing is closer to that of a traditional historical novel, with well-developed characters and rich historical detail. Bonus: This is the first in the series. Look for The Chalice in March 2013.

Bring up the BodiesBring Up the Bodies
Hilary Mantel

What it’s about: Henry VIII completely uprooted English life in an attempt to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, but now he is beginning to have second thoughts. Like Catherine, Anne is unable to give Henry a son, and he finds himself drawn to biddable Jane Seymour. Now it is for Henry’s trusted servant Thomas Cromwell to once again get him what he desires.

Why it’s wonderful: Mantel’s first book in this series, Wolf Hall, was widely heralded as brilliant, but difficult. In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel makes it clearer who is speaking and acting when, making for a narrative that is less convoluted and thus a faster and more engaging read. In both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel’s decision to tell Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s story through Cromwell makes for a fresh, unique look at an oft-recounted piece of history.

More reading

Holiday mysteries for the cozy lover
Books for the end of the world
Best books you missed in 2012 

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