As the old year winds down, we can reflect on the past before looking forward to the future. For me, 2018 saw a huge uptick in book consumption. Part of this was due to getting a Kindle and falling in love with electronic reading (apologies to all those book-sniffers out there). Part of this was due to being a reviewer for NetGalley and getting a delicious supply of upcoming releases. And part of it was just making time for an activity that I love (you can’t say you have no time to read if you have time to watch TV shows…).
Most of my 100+ reads for 2018 were historical fiction, and after some weighing, measuring, and evaluating, I give you the Top Ten Best Historical Novels of 2018. All are historical, but many dabble in other subcategories as well–thrillers, mysteries, romances, and inspirational titles. I tend to read across all the centuries, and I’ve organized my ten favorites by time period (with a few honorable mentions thrown in).
Best Ancient Historical Fiction
I’m going to start out this list of best 2018 historical novels by cheating…because this book was originally published in 2017. But the paperback version was release in 2018, so it counts, right? My favorite pick for ancient historical fiction is Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King.
This book, a tale of the creator of the world’s oldest cookbook, lived up to its name in many ways. Crystal King is a wordsmith with the power to immerse the reader in each scene, and the words on the page were a veritable feast. The history of early imperial Rome was skillfully told and the lives of both patricians and slaves delineated with unabashed realism. Throughout it all, the characters’ hatreds, fears, loves, and hopes overflow from the pages, propelling the plot along inexorably to its final resolution. In many ways, this book sums up life in imperial Rome–a riotous, Epicurean feast of debauchery that seeks for immortal fame and leads instead to the emptiness of death and despair. A harsh read, but a compelling one. (Read my full review here.)
Best Medieval Historical Fiction
The Middle Ages have always been near and dear to my heart. It is often hard to find authors who stay true to the philosophies of the time instead of inserting modern sensibilities into the story. One author who does a brilliant job bringing the medieval era to life is E.M. Powell, and for best medieval historical fiction of 2018 I’ve chosen The King’s Justice (Stanton & Barling #1).
This well-paced medieval thriller kept me racing along to the very end. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Barling is no twenty-first century agnostic. While he believes that the threat of trial by ordeal can work wonders for confessions, he also has no doubt that God will manifest the right through the trial itself. Barling is also devoted to the strict imposition of the King’s justice across the land of England, justice that Henry II was famous for instituting during his reign. Stanton, meanwhile, is a man with a tortured past–he wants nothing more than to get away from the King’s court and to forget the woman he once loved. In The King’s Justice, Hugo Stanton and Aelred Barling are both intriguing characters in their own right, and I can easily see a whole series built upon their grudging and unique friendship (much like Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin). Recommended for those who want a page-turner with some substance to it, and for those who don’t mind mysteries that are a little more gruesome than cozy. (Read my full review here.)
Honorable Mention: One more book worth mentioning in the medieval category is Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young. This young adult novel tells the story of two feuding Viking clans and despite its graphic violence contains a gripping story and gorgeous prose: “I fell asleep to the sound of his breathing, his back rising and falling against me, like the sound of seawater kissing the fjord.” (Read my full review here.)
Best Tudor Historical Fiction
Tudor novels can be hit and miss for me, and I frequently find myself enjoying 17th and 18th century England more than 16th. BUT, that said, my favorite Tudor novel was Forsaking All Other by Catherine Meyrick, and not just because of the gorgeous cover.
This book was a delightful look at Tudor/Elizabethan life not centered around the royal court. Rather than highlighting one of Henry VIII’s wives or Queen Elizabeth herself, it focuses on fictional characters against a historical background. The theme of choice is explored many times in the book. It is a world where men get to choose; women don’t. But in a larger sense, it is a world where parents choose, and children’s duty is to obey. Is it even possible to leave father and mother and, forsaking all other, cleave only to one’s true love? The beautiful cover for this book is what initially caught my eye, but I enjoyed the historical language used in this book and befriended the characters immediately. I recommend Forsaking All Other for anyone brave enough to step off the beaten path in the Tudor world of stories. (Read my full review here.)
Best Georgian Historical Fiction
Ah! This book might just be my favorite book of the year. It has it all: art, romance, adventure, espionage. For best Georgian historical fiction, I choose Tbe Blue by Nancy Bilyeau.
In this tale of Huegenot painter Genevieve Planché, the passion for the precious porcelain and the lure of the luminescent new blue is so intoxicatingly described that the reader feels it as well. The narrative (relayed in first person, present tense) provides a compelling heroine who longs for a voice of her own in the world of art. Thanks to Bilyeau, she already has a voice in the world of literature, a strong and memorable one. Sir Gabriel Courtenay is a smooth and sympathetic villain, an aesthete motivated by beauty as much as by gain. The artistry of the story rivals the artistry of the subject it describes. The cover art is exquisite, unusual, and so fitting for the story–a tour de force in historical fiction. (Read my full review here.)
Best Regency Historical Fiction
If I counted up all the books I’ve read this year, I’m certain the largest number would be set during the Regency period. As difficult as it was to narrow it down, for best Regency historical fiction, I’ve chosen The Weaver’s Daughter by Sarah Ladd.
Reminiscent of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, this Regency romance features far more than balls and parties, showing the sea change that the Industrial Revolution created in small villages in England as artisans were replaced by manufacturers. Kate and Henry are both sympathetic characters, not afraid to stand up for what they believe in. Henry, in particular, is a rock for his sister to lean on and a fearless leader when protecting his own mill workers. He must learn to re-acclimate to civilian life after the horrors of war and discover just how important his grandfather’s work actually was for the village. Kate, on the other hand, must overcome her frustration at being overlooked by her father because of her sex and learn the virtue of forgiveness in a time where everyone is eager to take offense. This book was a quick and satisfying read, one of the most enjoyable Regency romances I’ve read in a long time. (Read my full review here.)
Honorable Mention: Another book worth mentioning in the Regency category is The Scandal in Honor (Lord Trevelin Mystery #2) by Heidi Ashworth. Heidi Ashworth knows how to plumb the depths of despair Lord Trevelin feels from his social ostracism, to portray the flutterings of hope he feels in his relationship with Jane, and to create a man simultaneously strong and broken. Although the murder mystery element of the novel left some loose ends hanging, the story of Lord Trevelin marched along at a perfect pace, with the grandeur and unquenchable regret of a Greek tragedy. (Read my full review here.)
Best Victorian Historical Fiction
Nearly every book I encountered in the Victorian era touched on the theme of a woman’s place in the restricting confines of the Victorian world, some more deftly than others. One of the more intriguing novels, the one I’ve chosen for best Victorian historical fiction, is Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen.
This multi-faceted book is as much a character study as it is a mystery. Lady Helena is a woman of the Victorian Era, used to being cossetted and confined to the corners of life, forbidden to attend even her own husband’s funeral. She yearns to find some usefulness and purpose in her life–something other than simply marrying again as her family expects her to. As Helena explores her mother’s herbalist journals, more secrets come to light than just plant lore, and she finds that Justin’s death may have a sinister connection to secrets none of her family wants unearthed.
This book was a slow but satisfying read that fully immersed me in the milieu of the period. Lady Helena moved perfectly within the conventions of her era, avoiding the anachronistic feminism that plagues so many historical novels. Even while she chafes at the role thrust upon her, her solicitous care for her tenants and her dutiful visits to her ailing mother prove her to be the model lady of the manor. The burgeoning romance between Helena and Armand Fortier was delightful, and I look forward to seeing it continue in the next book of this series. (Read my full review here.)
Honorable Mention: Another book worth mentioning in the Victorian category is Lady of a Thousand Treasures, by Sandra Byrd. An atmospheric and well-paced story, this book provides both romantic tension and situational suspense. The Christian themes are woven in deftly in a manner appropriate to the time period. The importance of truth, the necessity of trust, and the strictures on a woman’s role in the Victorian era all combine to create a compelling novel with a heroine strong enough and faithful enough to endure and overcome. (Read my full review here.)
Honorable Mention 2: Yet another book I want to mention in the Victorian period is Moriarty Brings Down the House by Anna Castle. This third book in the Professor & Mrs. Moriarty series provided an intriguing look at the backstage of a Victorian theater. Angelina is charming as usual, desperately dieting to shed a few pounds before returning to the stage that she deserted a decade ago. Moriarty himself finds that his acumen for financial matters may bring him a fine return on his investment as well as help solve the mystery of the murderous ghost at the Galaxy Theatre. (Read my full review here.)
Best Edwardian/WWI Historical Fiction
The popularity of Downton Abbey has thrust Edwardian and World War I fiction more into the spotlight, and I have developed an affection for this time period. My top pick for Edwardian/WWI historical fiction in 2018 is An Hour Unspent (Shadows Over England #3) by Roseanna M. White.
Barclay Pearce has given up stealing, except when it’s for his job as a secret agent for the British government. His current project is to infiltrate the household of a clockmaker, ensure that he finishes his plan to upgrade the guns on England’s World War I aircraft, and then turn that plan over to the British government. But when Barclay meets the clockmaker’s daughter, Evelina Manning, his job becomes more intriguing…and more difficult.
This book concludes the Shadows over England series and tells the much-anticipated story of Barclay. As the head of the family of street orphans, Barclay has always sacrificed to take care of the others. Now, he must struggle to find his own happiness with a girl who might not fit into his world. Along the way, the story of Barclay’s long lost family emerges, and Barclay must learn to trust Jesus enough to wholly abandon his old ways. (Read my full review here.)
Honorable Mention: One tends to think of Anne Perry as an exclusively Victorian author, but as she moves on from Thomas and Charlotte Pitt to a new series about their lawyer son Daniel Pitt, she enters the Edwardian Age. Twenty-One Days (Daniel Pitt #1) by Anne Perry deserves honorable mention. I loved the way Perry kept a strong connection between Daniel and his illustrious parents while at the same time introducing a whole new cast of intriguing characters. I also enjoyed the blend of courtroom drama with detective scenes as Daniel strives to save a client he would rather see hang. (Read my full review here.)
Best American Historical Fiction
Sometimes familiarity can breed contempt. This used to describe my feelings for American-set historical fiction in a nutshell. But as I’ve started to read more of it, I’ve realized that perhaps I’m not so familiar with American history as I thought I was and that even well-known figures can be seen through different lenses. My favorite American historical fiction of 2018 is Between Earth and Sky by Amanda Skenandore.
Alma’s father is the proud principal of Stover, a school for Indian children to cure them from their savagery and integrate them into the white man’s society. From a young age, Alma grows up as the only white student at Stover, doing her best to palliate the stern indoctrination of the teachers and eventually earning the grudging acceptance of the Indians. The treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government is one of the more shameful episodes in our history. Amanda Skenandore explores this subject tenderly, using a narrator whose loyalties are pulled by both worlds, a narrator whose poignant self-discovery saves a difficult subject from becoming distressingly didactic. The book is slow-paced but marches inexorably towards the ending we know must come. I highly recommend it–as long as you have a tissue box handy. (Read my full review here.)
Honorable Mention: Another American historical fiction worthy of mention is The Lacemaker by Laura Frantz. As in all of Frantz’s stories, the historical details are far more than just a backdrop, and one comes away immersed in the world of 1775 and wanting to know more about this period. The characters in this book are beautifully rendered, Elizabeth seeking liberty from the tyrannical selfishness of her father while Noble seeks liberty from the sorrows of his past. (Read my full review here.)
Honorable Mention 2: Yet another honorable mention in the American category is a book that continues to haunt my thoughts long after finishing it. The Driver’s Wife by S.K. Keogh was searingly harsh, beautifully poignant and above all, well-written. Ketch, the multi-faceted villain from the Jack Mallory Chronicles, is now offered his chance at redemption. Contravening the norms of the eighteenth century Carolinas, he falls in love with a mulatto slave. But are Ketch’s scars too deep for him to open up his heart to her and to escape the monster that lies inside him? (Read my full review here.)
Best Biographical Historical Fiction
This book doesn’t really fit inside any of my other chronological categories, so I’m creating it a category of its own. My 2018 favorite for biographical historical fiction is Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan.
When Joy Davidman Gresham had a spiritual experience convincing her there was a God, she wrote to British author C.S. Lewis looking for answers. What followed was a correspondence that would become a meeting of minds and eventually a marriage of hearts. In this exquisite novel, Patti Callahan captures the great divide between Joy, a Jewish New Yorker, and “Jack,” an aging English professor. This book highlights the fact that Joy Davidman was Lewis’ intellectual equal, and that he highly prized both her own work and her contributions to his work. As with all fictionalized biographies, I am sure some liberties have been taken, but nevertheless, this book resonates as a beautifully told love story and an homage to both the author of Narnia and the woman who moved from philia to eros in his affections. (Read my full review here.)
Best Book from BEFORE 2018
And now, here is the book that doesn’t fit at all in this list. This is the book that I SHOULD HAVE READ in 2015 but didn’t discover until 2018. Without further ado, I give you The Other Daughter by Lauren Willig.
When her mother dies, Rachel Woodley discovers that her father, whom she had always been told was dead, is not only alive but has a wife and two children and a high position in 1920s society. Instead of being an orphan, Rachel is the illegitimate by-blow of a selfish earl. Flummoxed and enraged, Rachel falls in with handsome blueblood Simon Montfort who happens to also be a columnist for a London gossip rag. He offers to set her up as his cousin in an expensive flat with a whole new wardrobe so that she can infiltrate the earl’s family. Playing the part of Vera Merton, Rachel searches for two things: the reason why, and sweet revenge. I admired many aspects of Lauren Willig’s 2018 book The English Wife, but for me, this story of The Other Daughter was pitch-perfect. (Read my full review here.)
I hope you’ve enjoyed my top ten historical novels (plus a few honorable mentions) from 2018. Please comment below with your favorites! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Rosanne E. Lortz (“Rose”) loves the blend of history, fiction, romance, and mystery. She lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband and four boys. When she’s not writing, she teaches Latin and English composition and works as an editor at Madison Street Publishing. Her most recent novel is A Duel for Christmas, a Regency novel of romantic suspense set during the Twelve Days of Christmas.