Best Books of 2017 – Historical Fiction!
Before my list departs from genre fiction for a few days, I had to call out the gems in my beloved world of historical fiction, where I found so much fantastic reading in 2017. My one disappointment in this regard just this year is the absence of self-published works on the final list – I read plenty of them, but unlike in previous years, none made the final cut. I can always hope for next year, and in the meantime, just listing these ten books has been wonderfully reminding me of their excellence – I look forward to encountering them all again in their paperback releases:
10 Days without End by Sebastian Barry (Viking) – Barry’s novel about two young men in Civil War-era America struck me first for how visceral it is, but time and re-reading have made me pay more attention to the raw poetry of the book’s prose. This is a generously violent story that still manages to be most memorably about love, and it’s stayed in my mind more stubbornly than all but a handful of novels I read this year.
9 Cave Dwellers by Richard Grant (Knopf) – Grant’s tense novel unfolds in the brief gray era during which the Nazis are in power but the Second World War hasn’t yet started, and its central plot focuses on a complex plot to divert Germany from the path of disaster. Grant assembles a small group of unlikely allies in this cause, and the story he writes fleshes them out adroitly.
8 The Midnight Cool by Lydia Peelle (Harper) – There are times when Lydia Peelle’s novel about an older Irish immigrant and a younger charismatic grifter in First World War-era Tennessee reminded me of Days without End; the plot follows these two men as they wheel and deal in the shady mule-trade then supplying the war – and as they encounter a magnificent horse named The Midnight Cool, but it’s the clipped, distinctive prose that lingered longest in my mind.
7 The Drowning King by Emily Holleman (Little, Brown) – Holleman continues her oddly beguiling fictional sequence about Cleopatra and her siblings as they navigate the dangerous intrigues between their kingdom of Egypt and the looming power of Rome, and once again it’s the sharply-wrought personal dynamic between Cleopatra, Ptolemy, and particularly Arsinoe that commands the narrative.
6 The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsukyer (HarperCollins) – Hartsukyer’s story, about a valorous young Viking warrior who’s betrayed, nearly killed, and who then attaches himself to a charismatic leader as a means to gain revenge, is full of perfectly-done action sequences and plenty of dialogue that pays homage to the worldly-wise talk running through the Icelandic sagas, and the fleshed-out personalities populate the book give it a wonderful immediacy. I’m really hoping all the subsequent books in this series are equally good.
5 The Principle by Jerome Ferrari, translated by Howard Curtis (Europa Editions) – In this quietly stunning novel, a young philosopher sinks deeper and deeper into an imagined conversation with Werner Heisenberg, the German scientist whose elegant theoretical work seems to stand at odds with his decision to stay in Germany and aid Hitler and the Nazis. In spare and often beautiful prose, the book hacks and chips at this dialectic – it’s a hypnotic performance.
4 The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory (Touchstone) – Gregory’s powerful, uncompromising novel (adding a sad second meaning to the book’s title, the author claims it’s the last time she’ll write about the Tudors) follows the three Grey sisters, Jane, Katherine, and Mary, to their drastically different fates in the whirlwind of power and treachery that was the world of the Tudor Court. Jane is the famous sister, of course, but the novel’s concluding segment, centering on tough, cynical, optimistic Mary, that really stands out.
3 Lightning Men by Thomas Mullen (Atria) – Starting with Darktown and continuing with Lightning Men, Mullen is writing an important and searing portrait of crime and race in postwar Atlanta, but he’s also very skillfully crafting what feels like the next generation of crime fiction. The plot of this latest novel pits embattled heroes against the outward evil and backstage maneuverings of the Klan and invests the whole world of its action with cinematic vividness and a moral complexity worthy of Chester Himes.
2 The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – The split focus of the narrative here – both 17th-century London and the present day – is a familiar, maybe overly-familiar, device of historical fiction, but Kadish performs it wonderfully as she tells the parallel stories of a young woman in the 1660s writing letters for a blind rabbi and an older historian in modern times, studying the letters and increasingly understanding their remarkable amanuensis. It’s a rich, detailed long novel, totally absorbing.
1 The Revolution of the Moon by Andrea Camilleri (Europa Editions) – The author of the delightful Inspector Montalbano murder mysteries changes tone and register completely in this, the year’s best work of historical fiction. The story revolves around Doña Eleonora, who effectively ruled Sicily for about a month in 1677 and during that time tried to set in motion a whole slate of humanistic improvements in the workings of Palermo and the lives of its citizens. Camillieri whittles his obviously extensive research down to its bare muscles and tendons, and he draws his characters sometimes with no more than a single brush-stroke, and yet the novel is more effective than similar works four times its length. An intensely re-readable gem of a book.