The Persian Boy By Mary Renault
This is my North Star of historical fiction. For the centerpiece of her Alexander trilogy, Renault takes as her narrator a shadowy and intriguing figure from the conqueror's entourage: the Persian eunuch who traveled with him through the years of his expansive military campaigns. With erudition and verve, Renault brings the ancient world alive, deftly placing the reader in a time of different ethics, morals, beliefs. Yet at the center of her storytelling lies the core belief that the human heart, in its essence, does not change, and that the most powerful emotions—love, hate, ambition, tenderness—ruled us then and rule us still.
I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company By Brian Hall
This novel of Lewis and Clark is a masterful symphony of highly differentiated, historically credible voices, from the unfamiliar syntax of Native American guide Sacagawea to the high-blown rhetorical discursiveness of President Jefferson. Hall's deeply considered research leads to a real illumination of the souls who crossed the continent. But the research is worn as lightly as mist by a storyteller of distinction and a writer of soaring powers.
Wolf Hall By Hilary Mantel
A justly lauded masterpiece. The Tudor period is well-trodden ground in historical fiction and I admit I picked this book up wearily, thinking I knew it all. From the first pages it was clear that Mantel had sidestepped the ruts and blazed her own highly original path through the intrigues of Henry's court. Her Thomas Cromwell truly is a man in full; perhaps the most completely realized character study in the fiction of this or any other era.
The English Passengers By Matthew Kneale
We historical fiction writers can be a dour lot, for the most part, but Kneale's original, scintillating novel brims with humor even as it delves into Tasmania's dark past of Aboriginal genocide and convict brutality. Kneale achieves this in part by switching between assorted narrative voices—like Brian Hall, he walks an empathetic highwire, thinking his way into the voice of an Aboriginal resister as well as comical Manx con men. The feat is dazzling.