And here we are on our second to last top ten list of books – there’s only fantasy to go next week and we’re done. Whatever you do, don’t ask us to compile all of them into a monster ‘top 100 list’; we had enough trouble deciding on the books for each category, let alone having to pit them against one another in a book of the decade rumble.
This historical fiction list contains a lot of work by writers early on in their careers, who have blown their competition out of the water. Hopefully, there might be something on this list that you’ve never read, or maybe never even heard of, and it will take you gladly into 2020 on a sea of great new books.
1. A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness (2011)
The first of our debut novelists on the list, you may be more familiar with Harkness’ book as the TV show that began airing last year, with the exceptionally good choice of Matthew Goode playing our leading man. Anyway, that aside, A Discovery of Witches is a fun historical-fantasy novel that fit right in with the supernatural themes and genres that were still big at the start of the decade. It’s decidedly more grown up than Twilight though.
Professor Diana Bishop finds an old long-lost manuscript, and her life changes as she accepts the witchy magic of her heritage and starts a romantic relationship with the vampire Matthew Clairmont. And you guessed it, the love is forbidden. There’s everything you could possibly want from such a novel, and Harkness delivers it in spades.
There was much excitement when Mantel published the sequel to the phenomenally successful Wolf Hall, three years after that first novel. Bring Up The Bodies starts not long after the first one ends, with Thomas Cromwell now the Master Secretary to the King’s Privy Council. He spends most of the novel engineering the downfall of Anne Boleyn, so that Henry can get on and marry Jane Seymour. By the end, Cromwell’s position seems secure, but with one more book due in the trilogy and the weight of the knowledge of his historical ending, his safety is precarious.
Wolf Hall was such a big deal that there was a lot of pressure on Bring Up The Bodies to live up to the hype, but Mantel managed to produce something that was critically acclaimed and award-winning too. Mantel, who writes as though none of us know the stories she is telling – and almost convinces us that we don’t – is proof that the historical novel is alive and kicking, and that there is no end in site to the appetite that we as readers have for them.
The second debut novelist on our list, Burton’s work was also swiftly made into a television show a few years ago. The show was fine, serviceable, but it didn’t manage to capture the real intrigue of the book, the thing that made it so successful. The Miniaturist is creepy and atmospheric, but those words don’t really do it enough justice. The plot follows Nella, an eighteen year old who marries Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant in 17th century Amsterdam. Their house is run by his strict and often mean sister. Johannes gives Nella a doll’s house and ‘the miniaturist’ (whose identity is never revealed) sends her figures and furniture that eerily reflect the goings on in the house, and sometimes show the future too.
Burton writes like a modern-day Daphne Du Maurier, building suspense and layering on claustrophobia in the dark hallways of the Amsterdam house until you as the reader are just as confused and breathless as Nella herself. She winds the plot so tightly that when it does eventually break open, you actually feel a flood of relief. We still never find out who or what the miniaturist is though.
4. All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (2014)
We begin this story with Marie LeBlanc, six years old, blind and living in Paris, and Werner Pfennig, an eight year old German orphan, as they grow and become involved in the Second World War, eventually coming across one another.
The fun of All The Light We Cannot See lies not only in the familiar World War Two story, but also with the Sea of Flames – a gem rumoured to grant eternal life which must be protected or returned to the sea, to prevent the wrong hands getting it. It sounds a bit Indiana Jones, but make no mistake. This is a serious historical novel with serious things to say, and the Sea of Flames just helps to make it really stand out from the crowd.
This novel was another big-hitting prize winner this decade, spending 130 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list – no mean feat. World War Two novels aren’t exactly uncommon, but when they are beautifully written and tell such a good story, Doerr proves that there is still an appetite for them.
5. His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)
If there is anything better than a historical novel, it has to be a historical crime novel, and Burnet proves himself a bit of a master of the genre with His Bloody Project. Set in an isolated community in the Scottish Highlands in 1869, the book follows the arrest of a man named Roderick Macrae for a brutal triple murder. Macrae has written a memoir that proves his guilt, but doesn’t explain why he did what he did, and it is up his advocate to stand between him and execution.
Multiple perspectives make this novel more twisty and turny than it already is, and although Burnet was an unexpected addition to the Man Booker Prize shortlist, this book more than earns its place. Masquerading as true crime – one of the most popular genres of the decade – it is also a work of strong literary merit, set in a community and a time that doesn’t get too much attention from authors who aren’t part of the Scottish literary scene. Burnet contributes to his own literary heritage with this novel, and honestly it also just a really cracking read.
The Essex Serpent is the second novel by Perry, and it is absolutely compulsive reading. Perry’s sense of place, the Essex coast in the late 1800s, is very strong; the village of Aldwinter, surrounded by unforgiving water, is the perfect setting for the mythical story of the Essex Serpent – a creature said to be responsible for some local deaths. The strange things that happen – the death of Cracknell, the incident in the school room – don’t seem out of place in this odd little village, and Perry convinces us quite easily of their reality too.
If Perry has immense strength in writing place, she’s also got it for creating characters. Our main character, Cora, is curious and interesting, fascinated by the story and determined to find out what’s really going on. She’s also complicated and secretive, in the way that great characters should be, and her friendship with the parson William Ransome is no less complicated. The Essex Serpent is full of mystery, faith and romance, and also just feels very grown up. Things are rarely as they seem in life – be it love or giant mysterious serpents – but Perry guides us through them with a sure and firm hand.
7. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2016)
Whitehead’s sixth novel won a boatload of awards and accolades following its publication, and all of them were very well deserved. It tells the still relevant story of Cora and Caesar, two slaves in the southern US who escape the Georgia plantation on the Underground Railroad – which is, in this book, an actual rail transport system as well as safe houses and hidden routes.
Whitehead pulls no punches with his storytelling, and nor should he. The scenes at the plantation are brutal, and in the fifteen year old Cora Whitehead has created a character who is so desperately courageous that we are swept along with her completely from start to finish. The mixture of historical fact and allegory shows that there are ways of exploring these stories that haven’t been done before and, as the popularity of this novel shows, sadly this period of American history is still very relevant today. It isn’t as fun as some of the other novels on this list, but if you only choose to read one of them, then you should pick The Underground Railroad. It’s a timely reminder that there is still so much to be done.
8. To The Bright Edge of the World – Eowyn Ivey (2016)
Eowyn Ivey has, for me, been the break out author of the decade, and I implore more people to go and read her work. We could have chosen either one of her novels for this list and they’d both deservedly belong there. Her debut, The Snow Child, is a work of art that I wasn’t sure could be beaten. But then came along To The Bright Edge of the World, and I realised how wrong I was. Set in Alaska, 1885, it follows the story of an expedition into the Alaskan wilderness, and the story is pieced together entirely from diary entries, reports, letters and other documents – and it is magnificent.
Ivey was raised in Alaska and her sense of place is impeccable – I’ve never been, but I sure do feel like I have. This book is completely immersive, so much so that although it’s grounded in history, by the end I am also convinced by the moments of magical-realism that baffle Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester on his adventures into the wilderness. But I think the real testament to Ivey’s skill as an author is that the parallel story of his wife, Sophie, confined back at the barracks is just as compelling and sometimes even more interesting than the Colonel’s. I’d read anything Ivey wrote, in any genre, set in any place, and be certain that I was in very safe hands.
I have been banging the drum for The Sealwoman’s Gift for a solid year now, still recommending it to every person I possibly can – and it was the first book on this list, the only absolute certainty from the beginning. A stunning debut novel, it is based on the true story of 17th century Icelanders who were kidnapped and sold as slaves in North Africa. The writing is beautiful, the sense of time and place once again at the top of the author’s list of many talents, and the magical-realism of the Sealwoman utterly convincing.
But what sold it for me last year, and is still selling it for me now, is the relationship between our main character Ásta and her owner, Cilleby. Their mutual attraction is convincing and realistic and the chemistry is scorching, intense and sensual. The times they are together are the best moments in a book that is filled with flawless moments, and I will go on shoving this book on people for a good while longer until it gets the appreciation it deserves.
10. The Western Wind – Samantha Harvey (2018)
The Western Wind is a very cleverly told medieval murder mystery, set in a 15th century Somerset village that is a bit down on its luck. When Thomas Newman, a good and generous man turns up dead, the village priest John Reve does his best to unravel the mystery of his death. Reve also narrates the story, telling it backwards in an intriguing structure that begins four days after the death and winds its way tightly back to the start, undoing motives and alibis we think we already know as it goes.
Harvey is a very clever writer but it never feels like she is showing off, or forcing the weird structure – it just works. Her descriptions are rich and detailed, but somehow also sparse enough that they don’t distract us from Reve and his work. Like many a good detective, Reve is tortured and complicated, digging through the layers and exposing himself to us as he does. The Western Wind will test your ability to keep up with Harvey’s galaxy brain, but it is well worth the effort.