The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – Renaissance Reader

Woop woop, I met my goal of 10 historical fiction books this year, which means I’ve reached the “Renaissance Reader” level of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. The five hist fic books I read since my last reading challenge post are:


True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

I picked up this book after enjoying the film adaptation. While I’m well aware that THE BOOK IS ALWAYS BETTER, I must admit that it took a while for me to warm up to this book about the famous Australian outlaw Ned Kelly.

It’s written in long, rambling sentences to reflect Ned Kelly’s lack of formal education, and this distinctive style means it’s not always a smooth read. It’s also difficult to discern the thoughts and motivations of other characters since the reader is kept totally in Ned’s head. Luckily it has enough action, humour and Huck Finn-ish charm to reward perseverance.

Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

Another historical novel based on true events – this one follows a teenage pickpocket as he ends up on HMS Bounty before the infamous mutiny. John Jacob Turnstile is spirited, funny, complex, and generally great company. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the rest of the characters.

JJT gets bullied relentlessly by the uppity crew of the Bounty, which makes for depressing reading. But arguably the biggest stumbling block in this novel is the portrayal of Captain Bligh – I couldn’t understand JJT’s loyalty to him because he seems like kind of an arsehole. Judging by the mutiny, his crew would agree!

Sailing by Orion’s Star by Katie Crabb

Nautical setting aside, this was a very different read to Mutiny on the Bounty. Rather than a typical swashbuckler, it’s a story about found-family that follows a diverse group of characters as they deal with the restrictions society has placed on them. Some lose their way, while others rebel in spectacular fashion.

The writing is sometimes overwrought, but hopefully this will be less of an issue in the second and third parts of the trilogy, as Crabb gains confidence in her characters and the relationships between them. The story is so genuinely affecting that there’s no need to over-egg the pudding.  

The Pup and the Pianist by Sara Kjeldsen

A pattern emerges! Nautical fiction might seem a bit niche, but I don’t see how anyone can resist a book with a beautiful old ship on the front cover, beckoning the reader to run away to sea.

In less than 100 pages, Kjeldsen crafts an intimate epic of war, young love, and the struggle to survive, as an English boy and a French boy find themselves washed up on The Galapagos islands. An uneasy alliance eventually softens into a tentative romance, but don’t go expecting a happily ever after.

The Queen’s Fool by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is such a well-known historical fiction writer that I was expecting to be blown away by this. Objectively speaking, I can see what all the fuss is about. The historical detail is rich, the pacing is exemplary and the court intrigue is, well, intriguing.

Subjectively speaking, I think there are two reasons why this book didn’t wow me. The first is my squeamishness with all the “wooing” of adolescent girls by grown men. The second is that the central characters are so well known, the author’s personal interpretation of them can be a little jarring.

Like most English schoolkids, I learnt of “Bloody Mary”, burning Protestants at the stake, and “the Virgin Queen” ruling England well and wisely. So it was odd to see Mary presented as a sympathetic character and Elizabeth presented as a scheming flirt. In future, I’ll go for hist fic books about invented characters, or ones I can’t remember from history lessons.

Have you read any of these? And what hist fic books would you recommend?

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