And here’s the fourth part of my end-of-year posts! As always, I have three nominees and crown one winner. Check out the first three posts on
Today, I’m going to present you the three best historical novels I read this year:
The third year that I am doing this, the third time an Aubrey-Maturin novel shows up among the top three. You might have gotten the idea that I like the series. If you haven’t, look no further than to my recent post about finishing the series and my favorite novels from it. The particular brand of sea-going adventure, land-based society observations, and, most of all, the friendship between its two protagonists, Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship surgeon, the naturalist and spy Stephen Maturin, has provided me with a good ride of slightly over two years for the 20 books – and I read about two thirds of them this year. My favorite of those was the 8th instalment – The Ionian Mission:
Aubrey and Maturin are back in the Mediterranean where they first met. For the first half, slow blockade duty off the shores of Toulon allows to showcase how Jack masters (once again) a new ship and its crew. We also get an introduction to the politics of the Mediterranean, mostly via an interesting new supporting character, the orientalist Professor Graham. This comes in handy in the second half of the book, when Jack and Stephen are tasked with ensuring the support of some quarrelling city states for Britain – a masterpiece of political fiction.
Yes, I know, Game of Thrones didn’t really happen. Neither did George R.R. Martin’s prequel Fire & Blood. So why do I put on a list of historical fiction? – Because that’s my list and I do with it what I want, that’s why. If you want the rules strictly observed, do that on your own blog. – Rudeness aside, while the book is not historical fiction – a book somewhat grounded in historical events – it is fictional historiography. It purports to be a tome of history written by an archmaester of Westeros who strives for impartial judgment, often names his sources (especially in the latter part, where he draws on multiple accounts for the Dance of Dragons), and yet is not entirely free of bias (as scholars, and in fact, all humans, go). Sometimes the book is a bit rushed and/or dry in its version of events – and in that regard also a faithful imitation of a work of history. I hope the book can inspire in its readers some appreciation for the tough challenge historians face in making sense of the past, without which we have no understanding of the present and are ill-prepared for the future.
That aside, of course the book is brimming with memorable characters, intrigue and carnage, and a mostly believable rendering of the workings of power and governance. Oh, and in addition, lots of dragons. And also lots of beautiful illustrations.
Just one thing eludes me: Why this title? Why not call it much more fittingly Keeping Up With the Targaryens?
And the best historical fiction book I read in 2019 is…
The House of the Spirits is a story of one family – Clara del Valle, Esteban Trueba, and their offspring of various generations. But it is much more than that. It is a story of the Chilean elite and their uneasy relationship with the rural and urban underclasses. A story of how these underclasses – in conjunction with the socialist-inspired part of the middle class – try to change the old order, and what price they pay for it. Beyond that, it is full of dramatic events and several passionate love stories, a plethora of characters ranging from dreamers to doers (Allende’s sympathies often lie with the dreamers) and a large amount of intersectional feminist magical realism. It’s rightly revered as a classic, and it really gets you interested in the history of Chile.
Did you read any good historical novels this year? Let me know in the comments!
1. Jack to Stephen, after the latter has explained the difference between himself, a natural philosopher, and Graham, a moral philosopher: „So I suppose that you could be described as an immoral philosopher?“, to which Stephen replies: „Sure there may be some poor thin barren minds that would catch such a paltry clench, pothouse wits who might, if their beery genius soared so high, also call Professor Graham an unnatural philosopher.“