Best Books of 2016 – Historical Fiction!
The sub-genre of historical fiction was jumpingly energetic in 2016, full of authors taking chances with standard narrative frameworks and voices, profitably complicating standard reader sympathies, and importing varying doses of fantasy to blur and quicken the factual underpinnings (this was the year that saw, for instance, the story of doomed Lady Jane Grey turned into a fantasy-infused YA romp). Once upon a time, this kind of genre-bending inventiveness might have offended the sensibilities of purists (myself included) who for years had judged historical fiction by its fidelity to historical fact. But it’s tough to stay irritated with stylistic innovations that can give rise to books like Mason & Dixon or Wolf Hall, and the unpredictability of it all is enticing too. Hence the occasional oddball on my list of the ten best historical novels of the year:
10. The Death of Shakespeare, As It Was Accomplished in 1616 & The Causes Thereof by Jon Benson (Nedward LLC) – Benson’s whopping big debut novel is very firmly in the anti-Stratfordian camp of those who maintain William Shakespeare’s famous plays were written by somebody else. In this case the candidate is the Earl of Oxford, and with more verve and sheer detail than has ever been crammed into a novel on the subject before, Benson, you’ll pardon the term, dramatizes just how and why the world’s most famous imposture was pulled off. The author also published a nonfiction companion to his magnum opus, and it’s mighty enjoyable too – but this one’s got more derring-do!
9. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton (Catapult) – The Margaret in question here is the inimitable Margaret Cavendish, the Restoration-era publishing and public intellectual phenomenon who confounded her own contemporaries and has largely confounded the analysis of later ages. Danielle Dutton’s novel bristles with exactly the right kind of manic, quasi-uncontrolled multi-faceted energy that typified Margaret Cavendish herself, and it’s sharp characterizations are uniformly excellent.
8. Toru: Wayfarer Returns by Stephanie Sorenson (Palantir) – The element of narrative inventiveness that runs through the first two books on this list is in full gallop in this third one! Stephanie Sorenson’s impressive debut, the first in her “Sakura Steam” series, is set in 1852 Japan in the Tokugawa Shogunate, but an alternate version of history full of the usual “steampunk” trappings of clunky, precocious technology – which would be entertaining enough, but Sorenson wisely resists resting on her peppy premise; in addition, he gives her readers two main characters of very appealing complexity and likability.
7. All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley (Ecco) – Another incredibly impressive debut novel here, this one a rollicking story of Daniel Boone as narrated by Boone himself – and as written with infectious bounce and joy by Hawley, who understands the internal logic of the tall tale with pitch-perfect nuance and thereby gives her Daniel Boone an utterly memorable voice.
6. Barkskins by Annie Proulx (Scribner) – We go from debut novelists to an old pro with this enormous story about multiple generations of New World logging families, a strange and richly-detailed saga around which Annie Proulx wraps the omnipresent aura of ecological devastation very lightly, so that the overt environmental notes you expect when reading hundreds of pages about people who think the Earth’s natural resources are infinite don’t actually get sounded until almost at the book’s coda. Instead, Proulx unfolds a terrific tapestry of personalities unlike anything she’s written before. I read this at a gallop my first time through and then much more slowly my second time through, and it thoroughly impressed me both times.
5. Then Arthur Fought by Howard M. Wiseman – The main narrative twist in this crackerjack novel (another debut) will be familiar to readers of Evan Connell’s Deus Lo Volt!: Wiseman takes the outward form of a medieval chronicle and maps it onto a story of King Arthur that’s rooted firmly in historical fact. The result is like no work of Arthurian fiction ever written, a kind of mytho-history as much as it is straightforward historical fiction; like Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake from last year, it’s a genuinely exciting variation on “counter-factual” alternate narrative, a straight-faced but incredibly readable historical reconstruction of an Arthur who never in fact existed – but one you’ll end up wishing really had existed, thanks to Wiseman’s understated artistry.
4. Jane the Quene by Janet Wertman – This first volume in the Janet Wertman’s “Seymour Saga” is likewise a debut novel, this one centering on the smart, unassuming young woman who would become the third wife of Henry VIII and the mother of his only legitimate male heir. With only a few exceptions, historical novelists have never quite known what to do with Jane Seymour, but in this first book, in a series of gentle and well-realized scenes, Wertman proceeds from the somewhat daring understanding that both Jane and Henry were human beings as much as they were dynastic players or playthings. All the usual ferocious Tudor politics rage around the contours of her story, but at its heart is a well-done and at times quite touching tale of a friendship taking shape.
3. The Great War Won: A Power of Recognized Superiority by James Emerson Lloyd (Dreadnought Press) – This tremendously impressive book is the final volume in the author’s epic trilogy narrating the First World War from the perspectives of a sprawling cast of characters both real and imagined, all of it told with a storytelling authority that’s curiously strengthened rather than undercut but the book’s own subtle counter-factual threads. The whole trilogy is a magnificent achievement in historical fiction, and this concluding volume is the strongest of the three.
2. The Kid by Ron Hansen (Scribner) – You know a figure from Old West history is extra-tricky for fictionalizing when that figure defeats even the efforts of the great Larry McMurtry, and yet McMurtry’s 1988 novel Anything for Billy could more accurately have been titled Anybody But Billy for the way it brought every other character to life except its main one, that most unlikely of all American folk heroes, Billy the Kid. Amazingly, where McMurtry and everybody else has failed, Ron Hansen, author of the superb The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, completely succeeds and makes his success look effortless.
1. The Ornatrix by Kate Howard (The Overlook Press) – We finish with yet another incredibly impressive debut, Kate Howard’s story of a young woman named Flavia who’s banished to a convent in part because she has a vivid birthmark covering half her face, a birthmark resembling a bird in flight. At the convent she becomes the “ornatrix,” the beauty-technician, of an imperious woman nicknamed La Perfetta, who turns out to be a refugee from the loud and dangerous world of Renaissance Italy that lies just outside the convent’s walls. The sheer skill with which Howard etches the personalities of her two main characters would be a marvel even in an author’s tenth novel – in a debut it impresses all the more.
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