Long dismissed as genre fiction, the historical novel has now established itself in the literary mainstream, thanks in part to heavyweight authors like two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel. For me, more than any other medium, historical fiction brings the past to life and makes it matter.
The best historical fiction does more than conjure up an exotic backdrop for a conventional storyline. To truly evoke the past, the characters' sensibilities and entire worldview must mirror the historical setting. Historical fiction should also challenge our preconceptions and reveal facets of history we never thought about before — what was it like to be a Bengali opium merchant in 19th century Canton, or a female physician in Renaissance Venice?
And, like all great literature, the best historical fiction must have something meaningful to say, some insight that is ultimately timeless. These six novels meet that test, helping show us how the past has shaped the world we live in today.