Get Genrefied: Historical Fiction

Every month, we’re highlighting one genre within YA fiction as part of Angela’s reader’s advisory challenge. So far, we’ve discussed horror, science fiction, high fantasy, mysteries and thrillers, verse novels, and contemporary realistic fiction. July’s focus is historical fiction. 

The definition of historical fiction is something I feel strongly about. (Perhaps not as strongly as I feel about the definition of a dystopia, but the feelings are there nonetheless.) In the simplest terms, historical fiction is a story set in the past, but it’s important to go beyond just that simple definition. There are a couple of other essential things to know: 

A story set in a time period contemporaneous to its publication date is not historical fiction.

Jane Austen wrote about her own time; ergo, her works are not historical fiction. This also means that all the authors writing contemporary fiction in 2013 will not be considered to have written historical fiction by readers in 2050.  Of course, these types of stories may certainly appeal to fans of historical fiction.

Stories set in the recent past are still historical fiction.

Ask yourself: Is the time period of this book vital to its story, or could it be set in this year without any loss of sense or meaning? If the past time period is vital, it’s historical fiction. (So all those books set in the 80s that rely on lack of a cell phone are historical fiction.) This means that a 30-year old writing a story about a teenager’s experiences with 9/11 is writing historical fiction, even though the writer lived through it herself.

This is hard for a lot of people to reconcile. I remember having a discussion with my grandmother, who lived through World War II, about whether WWII stories were historical fiction, and I was surprised when she said she didn’t consider them so. It’s easy for us younger adults to think about WWII stories as historical fiction, but so many of us won’t push it further and realize that stories set in times when we were kids are historical as well. I know there will be people who disagree, but they are wrong. (There’s some honesty for you.)

It should be noted that historical fiction can often cross genres (a common theme in our genre guides!). Historical mysteries and romances are popular in the adult world, and they’re making a splash in the YA world as well. Historical fantasy is experiencing a surge in popularity thanks in large part, I think, to Grave Mercy (see Elizabeth May’s The Falconer and Amy Butler Greenfield’s Chantress).

If you’re looking to brush up on your knowledge of historical fiction, check out the following:

  • The Scott O’Dell award is given each year to a children’s or young adult book published in the previous year. The recipients of this award tend to skew young. The winning title must have been published by an American publisher, and the author must be a United States citizen.
  • Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks is a blog run by a group of debut YA and middle grade historical fiction authors whose books are being published in 2013 or 2014. They write regularly about their books and about writing historical fiction (including trends, authenticity, and fashion). 
  • The History Girls are a group of authors who write historical fiction for all ages, including Mary Hoffman, Mary Hooper, Celia Rees, and Adele Geras. They post almost daily on a number of topics.
  • The Historical Novel Society aims to “review all US and UK mainstream published titles,” which is quite an undertaking. They include young adult titles, and membership is open to anyone interested in historical novels.
  • There are a few authors who turn out a historical fiction novel rather reliably every year or so: Carolyn Meyer, Ann Rinaldi, Mary Hooper, Michaela MacColl, Esther Friesner, Susanne Dunlap. Their backlists are worth checking out. (Readers: are there any I’ve missed?)

Historical fiction has the potential to be incredibly varied and diverse, but there are times and places that are more popular – the 1920s, World War II, and Victorian and Tudor England are perennial favorites. (Personally, I’d love to see more ancient and prehistoric fiction.) Like much of the world of English-language fiction, there seems to be a significant lack of non-Western stories and stories featuring people of color. In the list of historical fiction titles published since 2012 below, I tried to seek out those books not set in Europe or North America, and I quite simply didn’t find very many. Please chime in with suggestions in the comments, particularly if you know of some set in Asia or Africa. All descriptions are from Worldcat or Goodreads.

Born of Illusion by Teri Brown: Set in 1920s New York City, this is the story of budding magician Anna
Van Housen, who has spent her whole life playing sidekick to her
faux-medium mother–and trying to hide the fact the she actually
possesses the very abilities her mother fakes.

A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury: As the partition of India nears in 1947 bringing violence even to
Jalandhar, Tariq, a Muslim, finds himself caught between his forbidden
interest in Anupreet, a Sikh girl, and Margaret, a British girl whose
affection for him might help with his dream of studying at Oxford.

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats: In medieval Wales, follows Cecily whose family is lured by cheap land
and the duty of all Englishman to help keep down the “vicious”
Welshmen, and Gwenhwyfar, a Welsh girl who must wait hand and foot on
her new English mistress. Kimberly’s review

Spirit’s Chosen by Esther M. Friesner (sequel to Spirit’s Princess): As Himiko traverses ancient Japan in order to free enslaved members of
her clan, she encounters members of many other tribes and emerges as the
leader who will unify them.

Chantress by Amy Butler Greenfield: “Sing, and the darkness will find you.” This warning has haunted
fifteen-year-old Lucy ever since she was eight and shipwrecked on a
lonely island. Lucy’s guardian, Norrie, has lots of rules, but the most
important is that Lucy must never sing. Not ever. Now it is 1667, Lucy
is fifteen, and on All Hallows’ Eve, Lucy hears a tantalizing melody on
the wind. She can’t help but sing—and she is swept into darkness.

The Disgrace of Kitty Grey by Mary Hooper: A hugely romantic new novel set in the time of Jane Austen, from the popular author of Fallen Grace.

Velvet by Mary Hooper: In Victorian London, orphaned Velvet leaves her backbreaking job in a
steam laundry for the mysterious and exciting world of famed
spiritualist Madame Savoya, who harbors dangerous secrets.

Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers (companion book to Grave Mercy): Sybella’s duty as Death’s assassin in 15th-century France forces her
return home to the personal hell that she had finally escaped. Love and
romance, history and magic, vengeance and salvation converge in this
sequel to Grave Mercy. Kimberly’s review

The Traitor in the Tunnel by Y. S. Lee (third in a series): Queen Victoria has a problem: there’s a petty thief at work in
Buckingham Palace. Charged with discretion, the Agency assigns
quick-witted Mary Quinn to the case. Posing as a domestic in the royal
household and fending off the attentions of a feckless Prince of Wales
are challenge enough, but when the prince witnesses a murder in an opium
den — and scandal threatens the royal family — Mary learns that the
accused killer may be someone very close to her. Kimberly’s review

Gilt by Katherine Longshore: In 1539, Kitty Tylney and her best friend Cat Howard–the audacious,
self-proclaimed “Queen of Misrule”–both servants to the Duchess of
Norfolk, move to the court of King Henry VIII, who fancies Cat, and when
Cat becomes queen, Kitty must learn to navigate the complexities and
dangers of the royal court.

Tarnish by Katherine Longshore: King Henry VIII’s interest in Anne Boleyn could give her an opportunity
to make a real impact in a world with few choices for women, but when
poet Thomas Wyatt reveals he’s fallen for her, Anne must choose between
true love and the chance to make history.

Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl: When fifteen-year-old Emily Dickinson meets a charming, enigmatic young
man who playfully refuses to tell her his name, she is intrigued–so
when he is found dead in her family’s pond in Amherst she is determined
to discover his secret, no matter how dangerous it may prove to be. Kimberly’s review

Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan: In 1559 England, Meg, an orphaned thief, is pressed into service and
trained as a member of the Maids of Honor, Queen Elizabeth I’s secret
all-female guard, but her loyalty is tested when she falls in love with a
Spanish courtier who may be a threat.

Victoria Rebels by Carolyn Meyer: Through diary entries, reveals the life of Britain’s strong-willed
and short-tempered Queen Victoria from the age of eight through her
twenty-fourth birthday, up to her third wedding anniversary with her
beloved Albert in 1843.

Cinders & Sapphires by Leila Rasheed: The intertwined lives of the prominent Averley family and the servants
of Somerton Court are forever changed when an old secret comes to light. Kimberly’s review

Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross: When Maude Pichon runs
away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as
quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad.
The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the
beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive. 

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys: Josie, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a French Quarter prostitute,
is striving to escape 1950 New Orleans and enroll at prestigious Smith
College when she becomes entangled in a murder investigation.

Passion Blue by Victoria Strauss: In fifteenth-century Italy, seventeen-year-old Giulia, a Count’s
illegitimate daughter, buys a talisman hoping it will bring her true
love to save her from life in a convent, but once there she begins to
learn the painter’s craft, including how to make the coveted paint,
Passion blue, and to question her true heart’s desire. Kimberly’s review

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: In 1943, a British fighter plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France and
the survivor tells a tale of friendship, war, espionage and great
courage as she relates what she must do to survive while keeping secret
all that she can. Kimberly’s review

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters: In San Diego in 1918, as deadly influenza and World War I take their
toll, sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches desperate mourners
flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort and, despite her
scientific leanings, must consider if ghosts are real when her first
love, killed in battle, returns. Kimberly’s review

Below are a few books to keep an eye out for later this year or early 2014.

Love Disguised by Lisa Klein: After a mixed-up courtship with the Hathaway sisters ends badly,
eighteen-year-old Will Shakespeare jumps at the chance to go to London,
where he can pursue his dream of becoming an actor and where he is about
to meet the girl who will change his life forever. (July 2013)

VIII by H. M. Castor: VIII is the story of
Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen
to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family’s
violent past and once he rises to power, he turns to murder and
rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII. (August 2013)

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Kiem: After a harrowing defection to the United States in 1982, Russian
teenager Marya and her father settle in Brooklyn, where Marya is drawn
into a web of intrigue involving her gift of foresight, her mother’s
disappearance, and a boy she cannot bring herself to trust.

The Falconer by Elizabeth May: Lady Aileana Kameron,
the only daughter of the Marquess of Douglas, was destined for a life
carefully planned around Edinburgh’s social events – right up until a
faery killed her mother. Now it’s the 1844 winter season and
Aileana slaughters faeries in secret, in between the endless round of
parties, tea and balls. (September 2013)

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein: When young American pilot Rose Justice is captured by Nazis and sent to
Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp, she finds hope
in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery, and friendship of her
fellow prisoners. (September 2013)

Beauty’s Daughter: The Story of Hermione and Helen of Troy by Carolyn Meyer: When renowned beauty Helen runs off to Troy with Prince Paris, her
enraged husband, King Menelaus, starts the Trojan War, leaving their
plain daughter, Hermione, alone to witness the deaths of heroes on both
sides and longing to find her own love and place in the world. (October 2013)

A Most Dangerous Deception by Sarah Zettel: In 1716 London, an orphaned sixteen-year-old girl from a good family
impersonates a lady-in-waiting only to discover that the real girl was
murdered, the court harbors a nest of spies, and the handsome young
artist who is helping her solve the mystery might be a spy himself. (November 2013)

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller: A teen in Edwardian
London, after getting expelled from her French boarding school, pursues
her passion for art—and for an attractive police constable—despite the
restrictions of her upper-class family. (January 2014)

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  1. says

    It is great that you clarified what historical fiction is. Many seem to think that the genre only focuses on remote time periods, which is not the case. Historical fiction is my favorite genre, but I know a lot people avoid it because they feel that it is boring and long-winded.

    This is why I am so very excited about the advent of YA Historical Fiction. Many are being introduced to historical fiction via YA books like the ones you mentioned, which is a lovely phenomenon. It is great that resources like this post exist for newcomers to the genre to find. I found some new TBR books myself.

  2. says

    I can't stand when people call classics historical fiction either. It's such a pet peeve of mine.

    Historical fiction is a genre I want to read more of, especially historical fiction fantasy. (I haven't read Grave Mercy, but I LOVE the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray.) I'll definitely check out some of the books featured in this post- thanks! :)

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