Today’s book hunt is for that elusive category I think of as “epics”, but could also be called “historical with romantic elements”.
Tiffany writes: “Am craving/looking for a book similar to MM Kaye, Zemindar, or Anya Seton’s novels, as in historical fiction with an amazing romance, but not categorically labeled ‘historical romance books.’ Am very addicted to Susanna Kearsley as well.”
I have a theory about this. (You know I always have a theory!) There was a time when genre lines were murkier and the line between “historical fiction” and “historical romance” was fuzzier. Yes, there was historical romance that was categorically historical romance (like Johanna Lindsey) and historical fiction that was categorically historical fiction (like Edward Rutherford), but there was room in the middle for vast, sweeping historical sagas with a strong central romance that could be either historical fiction or historical romance depending on which way you wanted to squint at them. Even books lodged more firmly on the romance side of the aisle often had far-ranging and detailed historical backgrounds (Iris Johansen’s Italian Renaissance-set Wind Dancer, I’m looking at you!).
Tiffany already name-checked three of my favorites (M.M. Kaye, Anya Seton, and Valerie Fitzgerald’s Zemindar) but there are so many more gems out there from the heyday of the romantic historical saga!
Here are a handful of my forgotten (and sometimes not so forgotten!) favorites:
— Alexandra Ripley’s New Orleans Legacy: 1850, our heroine discovers a) that her cold and distant mother is a stepmother, and b) that her father has left everything to said stepmother, effectively disinheriting her. A casket passed down from her real mother reveals the only clues to her true parentage, so she sets off on a quest to find her mother’s people, stumbling into peril and developing into a formidable woman along the way. (There is also an excellent romance.)
— Also Alexandra Ripley, The Time Returns: Renaissance Florence, and the hidden story of the secret love of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
— Sara Donati’s Into The Wilderness: a saga with a strong heroine set in 1770s upstate New York in the lead up to the American Revolution– this one kept me up reading all night in law school, much to the detriment of tax law the next morning.
— Carole Nelson Douglas’s Fair Wind Fiery Star: Nelson Douglas is one of my favorite under-recognized writers. She had a genius for picking up the feel of different time periods and for writing heroines who grow and change from ingenues to powers in their own right. Fair Wind Fiery Star is her take on a pirate saga, ranging from Barbados to England during the Interregnum.
— Karleen Koen’s Through A Glass Darkly: I may have been more than a little obsessed with this book in 6th grade. Set against the backdrop of the upheavals of the early days of the Hanoverian succession, it follows Barbara, the granddaughter of a ducal family (that may or may not strongly resemble the Dukes of Marlborough) whose father is in exile for Jacobite sympathies (or possibly just because he prefers drinking and wenching on the Continent) and the dangerous shoals she navigates as she grows from naive teenager to disillusioned but strong young woman.
— Judith Merkle Riley’s The Master of All Desires (or The Serpent Garden or The Oracle Glass): these books are their own unique category. Merkle Riley wrote incredibly historically rich novels, but with a wonderful sense of the absurd. They all have light supernatural elements and a great deal of snark. I adore them. Master of All Desires is set around the machinations of Catherine de’ Medici as Queen of France, The Serpent Garden around the marriage of Henry VIII’s sister to the King of France, and The Oracle Glass at the court of Louis XIV against the backdrop of the Affaire des Poisons. All are beautifully researched, have wonderful heroes, and will make you snort out loud on public transportation.
These are just a few of my personal favorites, but there are tons more out there by both these authors (most of them have many other books out there) and others. Which are your favorite sweeping historicals with strong romantic elements?