by Greer Macallister
Historical novels make for great reading, but to be honest? They can also be a bit of a downer. Some of the most popular novels set in the past are also some of the most depressing. It doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading – they are! – but when you’re finally kicking back in your beach chair, sipping something out of a coconut, you might not be in the mood for stories about wartime death and destruction, families being torn apart and lives led in despair.
So if you want all of the rich, transportive detail of history without the tears, it’s okay to look for historical novels that are a little lighter. As a novelist who finds her inspiration in the bad-ass women of history, I’ve most recently written about Kate Warne, America’s first female detective, in my new novel Girl In Disguise. Kate was not only a trailblazing Pinkerton operative, but also a spy, and her story is alive with subterfuge, narrow escapes, clever disguises, and midnight heroics – all the more amazing when you consider that her career began 161 years ago in 1856. I like to read the same type of books I like to write: novels with characters who feel real and a plot that’s riveting enough to keep you turning pages, but with a healthy dose of wit and wonder.
Here are some recently released books that make historical fiction fun. They’ll transport you to amazing places from the past—from the dusty frontier town of Tombstone, Arizona to an alchemist’s townhouse in 18th century Spain—and still give you the giggles.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Billed as “the big gay 18th-century road trip novel you didn’t know you needed,” Mackenzi Lee’s latest follows rakish bisexual teenage lord Henry “Monty” Montague, who’s headed to the Continent for a Grand Tour in the company of his frustratingly bookish sister Felicity and his best friend Percy for whom he is secretly carrying quite a torch. It’s a romp, to be sure—there are highwaymen! Pirates! Purloined puzzle boxes! Alchemy!—but it’s also got a lot to say about inclusion, generosity, intelligence, and love. An absolute gem on audio.
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The word “enchanting” shows up over and over again in reviews of Sarah Perry’s debut, and it’s not hard to see why. The plot concerns Cora Seabourne, recently and happily widowed, and her search for a mythical (or is it?) sea creature akin to the Loch Ness Monster. Cora throws off the trappings of What Is Expected in Victorian England to pursue her dreams and indulge her passions – and how could we not cheer for that? Whether or not she finds the creature she’s searching for, there’s a lot to discover, and you’ll be with her every step of the way.
The Last Woman Standing by Thelma Adams
“Tombstone kicked my ass and I kicked back.” How’s that for a memorable first line? If you’re sick to death of novels set in the Wild West that concern themselves solely with grim, lantern-jawed cowboys and sheriffs squaring off in dusty streets at high noon, you might just love Thelma Adams’s new spin on the territory. It’s based on the real-life story of Josephine Marcus, beloved of both legendary lawman Wyatt Earp and one of his fiercest rivals, Johnny Behan. Josephine triumphs and tumbles, makes good choices and bad ones, lasts through love and heartbreak, and gives a woman’s-eye view of the frontier through her witty, sparkling perspective.
A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn
A book like this begs for exclamation points. There’s elephant taxidermy! Secrets! Attempted kidnapping! Murder! So many shady characters you’re never sure who to trust! Also butterflies! The mystery surrounding orphan Veronica Speedwell is murky and ever-shifting, but author Deanna Raybourn’s descriptions, dialogue and zippy plotting are always on point. Are Veronica’s ahead-of-her-time attitudes a touch anachronistic? Probably. But if you wanted straight-up history, you’d be reading nonfiction, right? Good news if you love Veronica – this adventure is the first in a series, with two books currently available and the third planned for January 2018.
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
Opera is always over the top and this is an opera of a book. Not only is the main character an opera singer herself (the title comes from a particularly plum role in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”), she has a dizzying array of other identities, from American orphan girl to French bawd to circus performer and back, and Alexander Chee’s excellent “feminist picaresque” follows her story as she dashes from one amazing locale to another, trying to keep her past from catching up to her present. There are some grim turns to her story and no promise of a happy ending, but the trip is so dazzling that the pages practically turn themselves. And if you prefer audiobooks, you can look forward to 19 hours spent with Lisa Flanagan’s charming, compelling narration in your earbuds. Time well spent.
Greer Macallister writes novels inspired by the bad-ass women of history, including USA Today bestseller The Magician’s Lie (“A richly imagined thriller” – People Magazine) and her new novel Girl In Disguise (“A spunky spa saga” — NPR). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Writer’s Digest, Chicago Review of Books, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @ theladygreer or find out more at www.greermacallister.com.