Today as my guest, help me welcome Sarah Johnson, Review Editor (for 11 years) of Historical Novels Review. In her guest post, Sarah gives you the scoop on what she looks for when selecting books to review, and what she deems essential for a compelling historical read.
Historical fiction has perhaps the widest scope among all of the fiction genres. Although there are restrictions on timeframe – they have to be set in the past – there aren’t any limitations on geography, plot pattern, or writing style. Novels as varied as Ellis Peters’ medieval mysteries, Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, and Bernard Cornwell’s action-packed stories fall under the same umbrella as Edward Rutherfurd’s mammoth multi-generational epic New York and Hilary Mantel’s literary masterpiece Wolf Hall. The Historical Novel Society (HNR’s publisher, www.historicalnovelsociety.org) focuses on historical fiction in a broad sense, considering not only these types of works but also novels that mix historical fiction with the supernatural (a very current trend), alternate histories, and time-slip novels. Historical romances are covered very selectively in HNR, as are Westerns, if there’s enough historical detail to justify their inclusion.
It makes for an exciting and diverse genre, as well as an especially long magazine. The page count of each issue has been steadily growing, which reflects historical fiction’s popularity with both readers and publishers.
As for what gets selected for review…in some sense this is straightforward, because Historical Novel Society aims to be comprehensive in terms of historical fiction from mainstream publishers and small presses. (Self-published books and e-books are covered in its online counterpart.) In practice, though, determining whether a novel fits as historical fiction can be a judgment call. The official cut-off date is 50 years, meaning that novels would have to be set before 1960. However, I’ve requested review copies of some novels (like Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, an epic of Vietnam) that were set later than that because they focused on a well-known historical event.
Because most publishers don’t have historical fiction lines like they do for fields like romance, mystery, etc., the other reviews editors and I request many review copies ourselves, based on catalog descriptions. (One of my favorite aspects of the job is browsing each season’s catalogs.) Increasingly, as the genre has become more visible, publishers have been tailoring review book mailings to fit Historical Novel Review’s interests, and sometimes they catch titles I’d otherwise miss.
On occasion, a reviewer will comment that a novel “really isn’t historical fiction” because its sense of place and time isn’t strong enough to ground it in its setting. This is something that fans of the genre look for; they want to be persuaded, by way of the author’s use of historical details and world-building abilities, that the historical world may really have existed. If a novel is being marketed as historical fiction, we’ll go ahead and review these books anyway, figuring that if the period atmosphere is thin, readers will want to know it.
Although tastes in terms of historical setting, character (fictional vs. real), subgenre, and writing style can vary widely, I think what I want out of a historical novel isn’t very different from what others look for. That is: a good balance among the history and fiction, a compelling storyline, characters who reflect the time period, and a convincing historical atmosphere. Minor blunders in accuracy tend not to annoy me, but obvious mistakes will draw me out of a story and cause me to treat the rest of a novel with skepticism.
I read all over the map, but given the choice, I’ll go with a less common location or timeframe rather than one that’s overdone or overhyped. The rest depends on my mood. I enjoy reading literary historical novels because I appreciate an author’s creative and eloquent use of language, but sometimes I’d rather kick back and read a book purely for entertainment’s sake. I read other types of novels now and again (fantasy fiction and contemporary mysteries are other favorites) but because historical fiction is such an extensive genre, no matter what frame of mind I’m in, I can usually find something within the field to satisfy.