While time travel and teleportation remain distance dreams, we still have one medium that never fails to transport us to other dimensions – books. And when the setting is something completely different from the one we live in, the experience becomes all the more magical. So here is a list of historical fiction books that will whisk you away to new realities.
1. The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett
A sprawling work by one of the world’s most beloved authors, the trilogy follows the lives of interrelated families based in Russia, US, UK and Germany. Seamlessly weaving together aristocratic ponderings with the harsh realities of peasants and pitting the hopes and motivations of the characters against the tidal waves of changing contexts, Ken Follet covers all the major events of the 20th century, from the two World Wars to the Cold War and after. Within the pages is the rise of the Nazi movement, the music that shaped the 60s, the struggle of the suffragette movement, and the horrors of war, all presented in chronological order in the most irresistible fashion – through the eyes of the people who live through all these life-changing events.
2. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Influential in winning its author, Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Prize for Literature, this simple but deeply engrossing story follows the life of a peasant family in pre-first World War China, headed by Wang Lung, a man of simple desires. Living a precarious existence, the family crosses moral and physical boundaries in order to survive their times. But it is O-Lan, the faithful and quiet wife of Lung, who grips your heart and squeezes it. Unique due to its context but almost universally relatable due to the story it tells, this is one of the books that will stay with you for a long, long time.
3. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
A woman of unmatched wit and beauty rises from the daughter of Persian refugees to become the most powerful woman in 17th century India. Mehr-un-nissa, or Nur Jahan as she is known today, comes alive as the fierce wife of Jahangir who acts as the real power behind the Mughal throne for nearly fifteen years, at the height of its power and glory. The tale of this unusual woman is made all the more enchanting by the vivid background of the Mughal court, the lifestyle it entailed and the land it ruled over. The book is also an excellent read that will make you realize that women across the world have held immense power even if they were never the ones who physically sat on the throne.
4. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Never has the American South been better captured in a novel than in this one. Margret Mitchell transports you to both the good and ugly of young America, as the vibrant Scarlett O’Hara navigates through the elaborate social life of the South with many a scandal, and then watches the life lived by her ancestors for generations break down as the country writhes in the throes of a civil war. Determined to not just survive but also thrive, Scarlett becomes locked in the iconic love triangle and then finds herself in love with the roguish Rhett Butler, though her true love remains just one thing – her home. But it is not just Scarlett that shines in the novel. Every page is a vivid picture of a way of life gone by and of all the little bits and pieces that made it up.
5. The Egyptian by Mika Waltari
What do you select to dramatize from one of the richest culture of the world? The juiciest parts, of course. Mika Waltari does exactly that, telling his tale through the voice of a royal physician of Akhenaten, the father of the famous King Tut and the man who forced Egypt to worship the single god, the sun disc or Aten. The intense research of the author is visible in the way a three thousand year old setting seems so close within the pages, and the book is so detail oriented and factually correct that even Egyptologists have praised its narration.
6. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
A lovely tale about a woman living her life like a thousand others seems like a good story, but is it Nobel Prize for Literature worthy? If it comes from the hands of Sigrid Undset, definitely. Based in 14th century Norway, the story charts the life of the titular character from her youth to her death in three books. But what makes this story unique is that the novel is spectacularly successful in depicting Scandinavia during the Middle Ages, which contains details and intricacies without giving way to any form of embellishments or romanticism. The end product is a powerful tale with the ultimate winning formula – a good story and a good setting.
7. Shogun by James Clavell
With an original draft of nearly 2300 pages, you can imagine the kind of treasure James Clavell’s novel is. Wrapped inside the story of the rise of a feudal lord to the position a Shogun (military dictator), this story is everything and anything you would ever want to know about feudal Japan of the 17th century. An English sailor enters the the isolated and closed country as you get into the first few pages, and both, John and you, will then be catapulted into a world full of samurais, honour, treachery, political intrigue and cultural imagery. You will be finished with the book before you know it.
In making this list, I have tried to ensure that I covered as many cultures I could. So this short list here is just a very small, horizontal slice of a very large and complex genre. Perhaps when you do read one among them, you will find a particular time that speaks to you. And before you know it, you will be deep in the era, exploring it through the books of various authors and their vivid characters that live these realities.
By Niharika Rawat