I love historical fiction. I love reading it. I love writing it. I love the “realness” that fictional characters bring to historical events and facts. But not too long ago I read a historical novel that, in my opinion, wasn’t a novel at all.
First understand: this was a NYT Bestseller when it was released. (It wasn’t a brand new book, but it was less than 2 years old.) I had high hopes. After all, it took one of my favorite times in history and married that with an obscure historical figure. Growing up on Eugenia Price books that did just that, I was poised to love it!
I knew from the first page the book wouldn’t match my expectations. By halfway, I considered not finishing it. But the history nerd in me wanted to know how the “story” ended. So I read on, becoming more and more frustrated with each passing page.
Why did this novel upset me so? It wasn’t the research. That seemed meticulous. It wasn’t the subject of the book. The person was fascinating. No, my issue was that the book was more history than novel, both in what was said and in how it was said.
For instance, from the beginning, there was no clear POV. (Point of View, for the non-writers out there.) Omniscient? Kind of. Yet not quite. In fact, through much of the book there seemed to be no emotional attachment to the story or the characters. Which leads to my second issue: it was simply a history told.
Now all good writers–and many good readers–know that the goal in storytelling is show, don’t tell. The showing is what draws the reader in, makes them connect, elicits an emotional response. This read like a history book, a recitation of the facts discovered during research–both facts relating to the person central to the book and facts about the general time period. Granted, there would be occasional dialogue thrown in–the “fiction” part, I presume–but these small scenes of dialogue were separated by long stretches of telling the facts, of moving time forward.
The truth is, these faults I’ve named above could have been overcome with good storytelling–an engaging plot, a clear character arc. But again, the pages of this “novel” read more like a biography. There was occasional conflict, yes, but no central conflict, no desire to be pursued and won or lost, no change in character from beginning to end. Those are the things that differentiate a novel from a history book. I don’t mind reading a history book. I’m nerdy that way. But when I sit down to read historical fiction, I want all those story elements that make me live with the character, not just observe from afar.
In my opinion, historical fiction should be first and foremost rooted in storytelling, like any good work of fiction. The history in historical fiction is secondary. Not that the facts shouldn’t be well-researched. They should. But the scope of the history given to the reader must serve the character whose story is central. Only then does a book deserve the definition historical novel.