Historical fiction can be broken down into numerous sub-genres, but one of the most important distinctions is between modern historical fiction and, well, historical historical fiction. What on earth is the difference and why should you care? Knowing the difference can make or break your reading enjoyment, depending on your literature taste buds.
Modern historical fiction is generally that which has been written since author Philippa Gregory made the Tudor dynasty uber-fashionable. You can usually recognize one of these modern historical fiction novels by their head-less covers, which admittedly A Reader's Respite believes was originally some artist's attempt at irony that simply became a fashion trend.
What style characterizes modern historical fiction? Broadly speaking, you'll find these novels written in first person narrative with a female protagonist who is usually connected with royalty in some manner, be it legitimately (a queen, a dethroned queen, a misunderstood and maligned queen, a jilted queen, or a soon-to-be-headless queen....you get the picture) or not (a mistress, a discarded mistress, a misunderstood and maligned mistress, a jilted mistress, or a soon-to-be-headless mistress). Descriptive passages are usually limited to royal life, royal fashion and royal sexual escapades and the royal female protagonist is generally searching for some elusive happiness (a nod to modern-day female sensibilities).
None of this is, of course, to say that modern historical fiction isn't accurate. Despite the soap opera presentation, many historical fiction novels published in the past twenty years are a marvel in their accuracy of historical events. One need look no further than Sharon Kay Penman's Eleanor of Aquitaine series for an incredible medieval history lesson, the likes of which we guarantee no college history professor could provide.
Likewise, writers such as Elizabeth Chadwick, Susan Higginbotham and Helen Hollick have done much to further the integrity of their craft, devoting years and years of intense historical research to provide readers with historical details that rival the best non-fiction available.
Take author Emma Drummond who published the novel Scarlet Shadows back in 1978. Would you believe that lurking behind this cover is a compelling love story wrapped up in the horrors of the Crimean War, including the Charge of the Light Brigade? Even more astounding than the remarkable history lesson within is the complete lack of sex scenes within? Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Not. One. Sex. Scene. And yet how many of you would never have even picked this book up based upon it's cover?
(Of course, there is such a genre known as historical romance that offers up the sex scenes for those who prefer a little spice....but that's a different post for a different day.)
So what kind of historical fiction should you be reading? That's entirely up to you. But if you take the time to find a respected historical fiction author, no matter what year they were published, you'll find yourself wrapped up in history. History can come alive in the pages of a novel.