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Find more Looking Forward to the Past
Many readers think of Camelot as a magical place filled with heroic characters and deeds, courtly love, and otherworldly rituals, and so it is. For me, it was also a gateway to a different but equally captivating world: the realm of historical novels.
As an adolescent, my bookshelves overflowed with tales of the fantastic. In particular, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon enchanted me with its tale of a young woman, Morgaine, finding her way as a Celtic priestess in a world of powerful men and the encroaching presence of Christianity. At the time, I didn’t care that the religious beliefs in Bradley’s feminist epic owed more to modern paganism than those likely extant in post-Roman Britain (and I still don’t). But I credit it with introducing me to historical fantasy fiction and novels about the past in general.
Mary Stewart, Judith Tarr, Parke Godwin, Evangeline Walton … my paperbacks from these classic novelists wore out from multiple readings. From there I moved on to the grandes dames of twentieth-century historicals: Norah Lofts, Anya Seton, and, of course, Jean Plaidy. How many readers owe their knowledge of British history to this one prolific writer? During an especially boring stint at a temp agency in between graduate schools, I polished off one Plaidy novel per day, working my way from the Norman Trilogy through Queen Victoria. Sagas were a perennial favorite. I’d gleefully pounce on any novel with a genealogy chart, fascinated by how the family relationships essentially told a story in themselves.
Although I’d always found history a dull subject in school, through historical fiction, I learned that the past was a fascinating place to visit. In fiction, storytelling ability, characterization, and the finer details of daily life were just as important as facts about world leaders and dates of famous battles. The best historical novelists incorporate all of these things. The late Diana Norman, who also wrote as Ariana Franklin, was one of these rare authors; her novels bring English history alive with panache and her wonderfully dry wit.
I became formally involved with the historical fiction community when I took a position as a reviews editor for the Historical Novel Society, an international group founded to promote historical fiction. I’m still on board with them now, 11 years later. Although some stereotypes persist about the genre (try Googling the phrase “many historical novels” to see judgments pronounced by disdainful critics!), times have fortunately changed, and the historical fiction renaissance that began in the mid-1990s still flourishes.
My readers’-advisory books, Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (Libraries Unlimited, 2005) and its sequel, Historical Fiction II (2009), developed out of a desire to showcase the field’s popularity and diversity. Since readers often use appeal factors other than place or time to select historical novels—such as characterization, language, pacing, plot pattern, and more—I organized the books by subgenres first and foremost.
Conceptualizing the categories was straightforward in some cases (historical mystery, multiperiod epics) but more difficult in others (where does Diana Gabaldon fit?). Keeping the annotations fresh and original was a challenging task, too, when writing a couple thousand of them at one go.
Reviewing for Booklist has introduced me to many books and authors I may not have picked up on my own. It helps that Brad Hooper, my editor, tends to pick out better novels for me than I do for myself. Through the selections I’ve been sent, I’ve discovered an unexpected taste for literary fiction. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) dazzled me with its inventiveness, and in The River Wife (2007), Jonis Agee won me over with her mesmerizing prose.
Ever since my Plaidy extravaganza, I’ve held a special affection for royalty novels. They couldn’t be more popular—my reading preferences have finally become trendy!—although I have to say things have gotten out of control. It’s fun to see different authors’ takes on the same familiar characters, but how many new novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine does the world need?
Most recently, I’ve found myself returning to my roots. Kate Morton’s superb multiperiod novels have revivified my interest in immersive gothic sagas, and my enjoyment of Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest books demonstrates that my interest in historical fantasy never died. The book currently sitting on my nightstand is Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s latest vampire novel, An Embarrassment of Riches (2011). Set in thirteenth-century Bohemia, it appeals to my predilection for out-of-the-way settings, and for vampire lit, it’s refreshingly bloodless. In addition, many of the novels I enjoyed in my youth (which really wasn’t that long ago) are being reissued. A new generation of readers are getting to discover Rosemary Sutcliff and Cecelia Holland for themselves.
History repeats itself, and the past has come full circle. Of course, this truth is a common theme in historical fiction, and something its fans have known all along.
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