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There are many classics in this broad fiction genre: the first that comes to mind are Mary Renault’s series of novels based in ancient Greece. These are a great read, by the way! The study of ancient Greece can be, at times, a rather dry and especially academic exercise, but Mary Renault puts humanity at its core and tells a great yarn, at the same time – absorbing and utilizing many historical and mythological elements into her story, including making the ancient hero Theseus the main protagonist of one of her stories. Naturally, there is a great deal of invention in her novels, there has to be because the detail is missing from history, but Renault is a highly capable historian, as well as an excellent imaginative story teller, and her imagining of ancient Greece is entirely credible – and recommended by respected classics professors as a way in to their topic.
But Mary Renault has some great company in this genre. A more contemporary author that comes to mind is Steven Pressfield, who also broke into the bestseller list for his novels on ancient Greece, but has gone on to create numerous, equally popular, books on a variety of other historic periods with a focus on conflict and war – right up to the modern day Afghan war. Other popular authors include: Patrick O’Brian and his ‘Master And Commander series; Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius; Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose; Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace; and the 2012 Booker Prize Winner Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.
In fact, when you look down any bestseller list of great historical fiction novels, you’ll find very many books you thought of first as thrillers, mysteries, romances, or action adventure stories – but set years in the past.
The imagination required to create a work of fiction is something that can be applied in many directions. Imagining a contemporary environment is no different, in the research required, to imagining an historic period. But historical fiction books can bring history alive for the reader, and educate as well as entertain – and as such, they perform a particular type of service to us all. Long live the history novel!