"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
So begins A Tale of Two Cities, with one of the most celebrated opening lines in literature. What's often forgotten is how the sentence ends. (It is, to be fair, an extremely long sentence.) Written in 1859, the novel is set during the French Revolution. Having described the extraordinary contrasts of that time, Dickens continues: "in short, the period was so far like the present" that the "noisiest authorities" seemed interested in it merely for comparison with their own age.
This is the huge appeal of historical fiction. It transports the reader to another time -- dramatically different yet full of striking similarities. While researching The Devil in the Marshalsea [Mariner Books, $15.95] I spent half my time marvelling at how strange things were in 1720s London and the other half laughing at how familiar it all sounded. To steal Dickens's syntax: We have changed so much, we haven't changed at all.
The following ten novels are listed in chronological order. They are impeccably researched -- rich with fascinating historical detail. More importantly, they are all damned good reads. And given that Doctor Who isn't real (as far as we know), they're also the best mode of time travel we have.
Set in 1917
I think this is the best modern novel about the First World War. The psychological depth is stunning. Suddenly, these soldiers are no longer distant, historical figures. They are absolutely real individuals. A compassionate, subtle and gripping novel.
Set in 1912
This wonderful novel is set on the Titanic. It is a short, pitch-perfect depiction of the tragedy, so convincing and beautifully paced... and as a bonus doesn't have Celine Dion warbling all over it.
Set in 1874
I could have picked any of Sarah Waters' books -- as they are all historical and all exceptional. Affinity is set in a Victorian prison and has a creepy spiritualist element that plays out brilliantly. It's all incredibly tense and atmospheric. Waters always creates great characters, but Affinity's heroine, Margaret Prior, is the one I care about the most.
Set in 1857
A group of travellers (some of them truly vile) set out on a long voyage to Tasmania. Disaster ensues. It's hard to sum up the story but it manages to be both very serious and very, very funny. I don't often laugh out loud when I'm reading but there is a scene with a panicked wombat that made me laugh until I cried.
Set in 1821
Romance, adventure, dark deeds... and one of the most spirited and winning heroines in literature. Pure reading pleasure from start to finish.
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Excuse me, I just have to go and weep in a corner for a little while.
The French Revolution (again), so brilliantly evoked you feel you've lived through it yourself by the end. Quite simply, a masterpiece. Everyone is doomed from the start (that's not a spoiler, they're real characters, so we know how it ends). And still, when the end does come, it's completely devastating. Just don't mention Camille... oh, dear. I seem to be weeping again.
Set in the 1660sA smart, entertaining and satisfying mystery set in Oxford in the reign of Charles II. The structure is very clever (four unreliable narrators) and the setting feels absolutely authentic. The historical research is extraordinary, but is worn lightly.
Set in 1537
There are a lot of really good historical crime series out there -- this one, set during the reign of Henry VIII, is my favorite. Shardlake is a lovable lawyer. (Insert your own joke here.) I enjoyed Sovereign the most, but they're all terrific so if you haven't read any, I'd start with book one, Dissolution.
Set in 1327A playful, atmospheric crime novel that is also a profound meditation on language, tolerance and freedom of thought. I found it a deeply rewarding book and I'm sure it has influenced a lot of historical novelists.