2018 has been an exciting year for historical writing, both fiction and non-fiction. With the holidays coming up, Elizabeth Fremantle asked fellow HWA members to choose three outstanding books each to recommend as the year’s highlights (and a few older favourites have popped up as well). We hope this selection inspires you, whether you’re looking for a Christmas present to give a history lover, a treat for yourself to help pass the cold winter nights, or a few more books to add to your must-read pile.
Christmas past: I love returning to old favourites at this time of year – they are as warming, comfy and familiar as an old jumper. This Christmas I have a reservation at Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Published in 1936 (Gollancz) but set in the early 1800s, it is a wildly entertaining and gripping adventure story, with all the gothic pleasures you’d expect from Du Maurier, plus one of my favourite heroines, the independent-minded Mary Yellan.
Christmas present: I have just finished Andrew Miller’s magnificent Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (Sceptre) and would recommend it to anyone. In 1809, Captain John Lacroix returns home half-dead from a disastrous campaign against Napoleon in Spain. Broken in body and spirit, he decides on a whim to take on a dead man’s identity and travel the country – not realising that two soldiers have been sent to kill him. It has some echoes of Du Maurier, funnily enough – the gothic atmosphere, the wild countryside (this time the Hebrides) and a gripping story. It is also an incredibly powerful depiction of the effects of war on an individual. A really special book.
Christmas future: Looking ahead, I’d like to recommend Laura Shepherd Robinson’s Blood and Sugar (Mantle) which is out in January. It’s a remarkable debut, bold and assured. CJ Sansom gave it a rave… speaking of whom, his latest is also on my Christmas list, but I’m so far behind with my reading that I haven’t read the last Shardlake yet. Outrageous! I had best get cracking before I’m kicked out of the HWA for bad behaviour.
The Poison Bed by EC Fremantle (Michael Joseph), an exquisitely sophisticated evisceration of a notorious scandal in the Jacobean court. It makes Dangerous Liaisons seem rustic and underpowered.
Lancelot by Giles Kristian (Bantam); this is a thumping, earthy, all-too-plausible retelling of the legend of Lancelot that sees Kristian really hitting his literary stride.
Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts (Quercus). Kerr’s Great War veteran Bernie Gunther is the most gripping detective character I’ve read, having reluctantly worked for the Nazis through the First World War and with a back story that encompasses pre- and post-war German society and which highlights (for anyone who has any doubts) the true and yet banal nature of the twin evils of fascism and communism. And with a fourteen-book series there’s plenty to go at.
Christian Cameron, Killer of Men (Orion), possibly the best story of the ancient world I’ve ever read. Cameron’s hero Arimnestos is at the start of a journey that will take him to the ends of the earth as smith, warrior, slave, pirate and warlord. If it’s good enough for Ben Kane to agree that this is among the best things he’s ever read then I need say no more.
Manda Scott, A Treachery of Spies (Bantam). Scott’s lead character from Into The Fire, Ines Picaut, returns in a tale of World War Two resistance, espionage, treachery and revenge, with a plot that will inform, entertain and keep you thinking to and beyond the end of the book. Highly recommended.
Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo (Faber) is a superbly original depiction of the horrors of Stalin’s regime told through the eyes of a child assumed to be an idiot. Ingenious and profoundly shocking, this is about as dark as satire gets. An apt reminder of what can happen when an unscrupulous individual gains absolute power.
Leanda de Lisle’s revisionist biography of Charles I, The White King (Chatto & Windus) is impeccably well researched and fluently written. Bringing to vivid life the flawed Stuart monarch whose actions precipitated the English Civil War and also depicting his queen Henrietta Maria, rather than vapid side-kick, as an adroit political strategist.
Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton) retells the Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Troy’s women, captured, raped and enslaved as the spoils of war. Barker’s immaculately crisp and contemporary description puts the reader in the midst of the horror, forcing us to acknowledge that women in war are often still subjected to this treatment.
EC Fremantle’s latest novel, The Poison Bed, is published by Penguin
The Women Who Flew for Hitler by Clare Mulley (Pan Macmillan). I loved this utterly absorbing and cleverly constructed account and the fresh light it casts on gender, life and war in Nazi Germany.
Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin (Borough Press). It’s probably because I can’t draw, but I’m fascinated by books about art and artists. I was overjoyed by taking this plunge into the artistic life of Victorian London in this rich and subtle novel, and was totally caught up by Maud’s struggle to deal with the consequences of loving a man like Whistler.
All of Georgette Heyer. A ritual I’m never going to shake is spending the days round Christmas immersed in Georgette Heyer’s regency novels; think I’m due to reread Cousin Kate in 2018. Will be trying to engage my husband in witty, feisty badinage into the New Year. Wish us luck.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Harville Secker). The best historical fiction debut I have read in an age, this captivating book about a courtesan, a merchant and a mermaid in eighteenth 18th-century London was probably my standout fiction book of the year. I read a huge number of books for work and pleasure, and I forget most of them – but this one I can even remember where I was when I finished it: sobbing, sitting on a pavement outside a kids’ disco party, trying not to look too much like a nutter..
The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin 1939-1941, by Roger Moorhouse (Vintage). It was 2018 when I realised fully that Marxism is not a dead, discredited ideology but a live force in Western politics and culture. Moorhouse’s brilliant account of the alliance between the Soviets and the Nazis was the best non-fiction history book I read this year (although it was published in 2014). It is a sober reminder that totalitarian ideologies are evil, whichever side of the political spectrum they are rooted in. This forgotten truism, as Moorhouse demonstrates, was written in Polish blood in the first years of World War 2.
The Black Earth, by Philip Kazan (Allison and Busby). I bang on about Philip Kazan to anyone who will listen, because he is an author I think should be hugely better known than he is. Kazan’s normal setting is Renaissance Italy (he has a new one due in February which I am wildly excited about), and he is as utterly brilliant as Sarah Dunant in that field. In this departure, he has written an exquisite love story set during World War 2. A young Greek girl meets an unsoldierly English soldier, and the two fall in love. The war wrenches them apart. Will they make it through the horror and back together? I’m not telling – you’ll have to buy it.
The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape). Set in 1491, The Western Wind is very much about the end of one era and the slow dawning of another. It’s the story of a village priest, John Reve, who spends his time listening to his parishioners’ confessions and generally trying to do good whilst absolving those he can and turning a blind eye to other sins as and when necessary. This is all well and good until a body appears in the nearby river and then disappears again, taking all evidence with it. Was it accidental death or murder?
There is an immense playfulness to this literary novel with Harvey playing games with us all along, not least by telling us the story backwards. To call it a ‘whodunnit’ or ‘whydunnit’ or even ‘was-anything-actually-done’ would be to greatly reduce the story’s ambition. It’s a book of ideas, a swansong to a lost time, and a beautifully lyrical read.
All for Nothing, Walter Kempowski (Granta). This came out a few years ago but I’ve only just read it and I’m having trouble shaking it from my mind. It’s set in January 1945, almost entirely in a rural manor house in East Prussia, just as the Russians are sweeping in from the east. With the enemy fast approaching the von Globig family resolutely stick their heels in and try to carry on with daily life but are interrupted by a string of strangers passing through who the family take in, with devastating consequences. It’s not a cheery read, however there is a wonderful lightness of humour throughout with the narrative being voiced by a rich range of characters. It’s a slow build but thoroughly engaging with a title that could not be more apt.
Miss Marley, Vanessa Lafaye (Harlequin). A lot lighter in tone is Miss Marley. There are many, myself included, who put Dickens on a pedestal and are scornful of anyone tinkering with his characters. Those who are fans of A Christmas Carol need not be afraid. Lafaye wisely keeps the more famous characters in the wings and instead has created a protagonist of her own, the sister of Jacob Marley. It has all the richness of a Dickensian novel, whilst creating something that stands alone and will warm the coldest heart on a dark winter’s night. Sadly, Lafaye died before the manuscript was completed, however Rebecca Mascull has completed it based on Lafaye’s notes and has done an admirable job. The perfect Christmas treat.
Beautifully written, intricately structured, Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind (Cape £16.99) is a detective novel set in 1491 but has so many other levels too. As an exploration of faith, isolation, happiness and guilt it is superb.
I was hooked by the fourth book in Toby Clements’ visceral and gripping Kingmaker series, Kingdom Come (Arrow £8.99) which unerringly evokes the chaos and violence of England in 1470 through the experiences of Thomas and Katherine Everingham.
What was it like to be a Victorian? If you read Victorians Undone (Fourth Estate, £9.99) Kathryn Hughes’s brilliant and original deconstruction of their flesh-and-blood reality, you gain an unparalleled insight. I have bought so many copies to give away I can’t keep count.
Leanda de Lisle: The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, King (Chatto). Terrific, wise, scholarly reassessment of a man obscured my myth. A brilliant read.
Matthew Kneale’s A History of Rome In Seven Sackings: Kneale covers 2,500 years with great verve by alighting on seven crucial moments in the eternal city’s history. Pure pleasure.
Sue Prideaux: I am Dynamite! A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche (Faber) is thrilling, funny, intelligent biography of the much-misunderstood man whose big ideas saturate the contemporary world.
Lancelot by Giles Kristian. Best known for his Raven: Blood Eye Viking series, Giles Kristian has taken a leap into the crowded market of Arthurian sagas – and what a leap… Lancelot is at once deeply rooted in the sense of post-Roman Britain, a place where violence, betrayal and terror are commonplace… and yet this is an land in which magic runs in the taproots of the trees and the veins of the men and women who inhabit it. Centred on the man who will be Arthur’s right hand, this is a beautifully wrought tale of love and magic, trust, friendship and betrayal. It has the feel of TH White’s Once and Future King – remaking the magic of that for a modern generation. It’s brilliant.
Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood (Penguin). I read some of Grimwood’s Venetian fantasy when he wrote as Jon Courtney Grimwood and really enjoyed it – the kind of thing that takes on Joe Abercrombie and wins – but this is a whole new league. Set immediately after the end of the outstanding Moskva, this is continues the exploration of the part played by Russia and the UK in the seedy, desperate days after the fall of Berlin in 1945… and the implications of actions taken then for a more contemporary time.
The almost-modern thread is set in the 80s, and is as sharp in its sense of time and place as are the flashbacks to Berlin in the 40s. I’d strongly recommend you read Moskva first, but these two are utterly compelling.
The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins). This is the outstanding, much-awaited sequel to The Ashes of London – a crime novel set in one of the most fluidly dangerous times in London’s history: where the catastrophe of the fire unleashes the best and the worst in those caught up in it; when the rule of law held only weakly and there was room for much skulduggery in the sooty margins. As ever, Taylor’s sense of time and place are awe-inspiring, the plot is fiendishly clever and beautifully executed and the language is divine. If the idiots who give out literary prizes would only see past the genre label, this would win the Booker and every other prize for which it was eligible.
I’m lucky that, as Historia editor, I get a sneak preview of what other HWA members have recommended and can choose others, because I, too, loved The Poison Bed – as dark and glittering as a bloodied knife in candlelight – and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, a breathtakingly well-written, daring novel full of glorious Easter eggs hidden for the delight of 17th- and 18th-century obsessives (Angelica, the mermaid itself), rich as silk brocade and just as complex.
Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks (Bloomsbury) also slips easily past the border into magical realism and back without a jolt. Merrick Tremayne sets out reluctantly from Heligan (yes, plants are important; there are hints like this scattered throughout the book) on an India Office expedition to smuggle chinchona seedlings out of Caravaya, the remote Andean region of Peru where his grandfather had spent most of his time – and money. He ends up in Bedlam, a settlement on the edge of a forest which seems to hold Inca secrets and which he may not enter, and, under the guidance of a local priest, begins his task. From the beginning there are foreshadowings of the oddness to come, some of which we have to wait for the end of the book to fully appreciate. Pulley’s words dance and glimmer like the luminous pollen that fills the forbidden forest.
Dark and unsettling, The Corset, by Laura Purcell (Raven Books) contrasts two women, one rich and privileged, one poor and ill-treated, each with an irrational belief. Prison visitor Dorothea is convinced that the pseudo-science of phrenology can help her detect – and correct – innate wickedness on the skull of convicted murderer and sempstress Ruth, who, as the story unwinds, reveals her own obsession – that her thoughts, as she is sewing, can stitch a curse into the garment she’s making. But are they both delusional? Purcell keeps us guessing until the very end in this impeccably-researched, clever, and atmospheric novel in which both women, imprisoned in different ways, struggle to cut themselves free from the constraints of 19th-century expectations.
Anna Mazzola’s The Story Keeper (Tinder Press) blends history, folklore and originality in an eerie tale set on the Isle of Skye during the brutal Clearances of the 1850s. Dour Presbyterianism is wiping out the old Gaelic stories handed down through the generations. Audrey Hart’s mother, now dead, wrote some of them down and Audrey flees London with her book of stories to help a reclusive elderly woman collect the folktales before religion and emigration silence them for ever. Are the young women who mysteriously vanish being taken by the Sluagh, the spirits of the restless dead, as Mrs Hart’s notes suggest? Or is there a more earthly, but no less sinister, reason than a ghost-cloud of black birds for their disappearance? Mazzola builds the sense of unease into a menace so compulsive that it takes serious willpower to put her book down. I particularly loved the sense of place she evokes; I could see the black houses, the hills and the sea as I read. As complex and skillfully mixed as a Talisker, with a powerful finish.
Frances Owen is editor of Historia
The War of the Wolf by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins): This is the 11th novel in Cornwell’s series about Anglo-Saxon Britain and the exploits of his compelling hero Uhtred of Bebbanberg. I’ve read every one of them and was concerned about where the series could go after Uhtred achieved his lifelong ambition and bloodily took back his ancestral castle in the previous book. I shouldn’t have worried. From the first page Cornwell yet again brilliantly evokes the mud, the blood and the pagan savagery of 10th century Britain, as Uhtred takes on a new adversary Sköll, the wolf warlord of the title, and tries to negotiate the shifting political allegiances of the emerging England. Now in his sixties Uhtred remains the best Dark Age hero you could have, both noble and brave but also hard-bitten, cynical and devious when he has to be, always falling out entertainingly with the hated Christian priests yet somehow ending up fighting to support the Christian kings of Mercia and West Sussex against the Norse invaders. I can’t wait for the 12th.
The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse (Pan Macmillan): Mosse’s first best-seller, Labyrinth, about the religious persecution of the Cathars in 14th century Languedoc, was entrancingly good and it’s a joy that she’s returned to the region and religious wars in her new blockbuster. This time it’s the oppression of the Huguenots in 16th century Carcassonne. In the midst of the rising religious bloodshed Mosse weaves a compelling plot around the heroine, Minou Joubert, a Catholic bookseller’s daughter, and the man on the other side of the religious divide that she falls for, Huguenot Piet Reydon, who is involved in the fledgling Protestant Army. This is completely immersive history with a sweeping narrative set in a landscape – the Midi – that is a character in itself. Just as in Labyrinth, Mosse conjures up a mystical and mythical Languedoc that echoes in the hearts of her characters and in the heart of the reader. Labyrinth turned into a trilogy and this is the first in a new trilogy. What more could you ask for?
The Last Hour by Harry Sidebottom (Zaffre): The cover boasts that it’s both 24 and Jack Reacher in Ancient Rome, and, impressively, it delivers. Veteran warrior Ballista has twenty four hours to cross Rome and warn his friend the Emperor about an assassination plot. Assorted baddies including the City Watch and traitors in the Praetorian Guard are doing everything they can to stop him, and he also knows that if he fails the plotters will kill all of his family. There’s plenty of action and bloodshed but what makes this so satisfying is the immersive descriptions of the filthy and dangerous Roman streets he’s running through. Harry Sidebottom clearly knows every inch of Ancient Rome and lovingly and brutally evokes it. With a climax in the Colosseum and a surprising twist at the end it works on every level, and was well worth its place on the shortlist for the HWA Crown Awards.
Clive Edwards is the HWA’s Publicity Director
The White King won the 2018 HWA Non-fiction Crown award
The Zoo and The Last Hour were shortlisted for the HWA Sharpe Books Gold Crown
A History of Rome In Seven Sackings was shortlisted for the HWA Non-fiction Crown award
The Western Wind, The Women who Flew for Hitler The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock were longlisted for HWA Crowns
Painting of a young woman reading: Peter Vilhelm Ilsted via Flickr