Okay, I confess, I am a history geek and an Anglophile, meaning I am sucker for anything with a bit of British history and culture. However, that doesn’t mean dry, boring or high brow. I still insist that the historical novels I read be interesting, fun to read, and perhaps romantic, and if they have magical elements, even better! The fairies, witty dialogue, and romance may pull you in, but you finish the book with a better understanding of history and society without even realizing it.
Tam Lin is a popular Scottish ballad from the 16th century, but the story is even older than that. It is the story of a young man captured by the Fairie Queen in order to be sacrificed to the land and bring the fairies power. Only true love (and a brave young woman) can save him. To say this story has been retold many, many times is something of an understatement, but here are just a few of my favorites that have a historical twist:
Full Disclosure: I love this book! In fact, the word love seems rather puny here in comparison to how much I TRULY ADORE this book! It is a simple story that mixes history, fantasy, and romance to perfection.
Plain, prickly Lady Kate and her sweet, pretty sister Lady Alice are ladies-in-waiting to an imprisoned Princess Elizabeth. Her sister, Queen Mary, takes exception to a letter that Alice writes her, but blames Kate instead and exiles her to the isolated manor house of a loyal Lord. However, strange things are afoot at the manor. The Lord’s young daughter Cecily vanished some months before and everyone seems to blame the Lord’s handsome, brooding, younger brother Christopher for her disappearance. When Cecily suddenly reappears and Christopher vanishes, it is up to Kate to find out the truth and save him from a tragic fate. What I love most about this book are the strong characters and witty banter. Kate is an ordinary girl with low self-worth and a wicked, sarcastic tongue, and the conversations between her and Christopher can be read over and over again and savored for their wit and obvious (and oblivious) attraction to each other. The setting is creepy and claustrophobic, the fairy lore is imaginative, and the historic backdrop of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s rivalry gives the story an added resonance. Anyone looking for a great romantic fantasy with historical street cred can look no further!
In 12th century, medieval Scotland, Lady Jeanette is the spirited younger daughter of a nobleman. Her elder sister Isabel has been dishonored and “ruined” after she went off with a young knight and returned three days later. It is up to Jeanette to restore the family honor by agreeing to a prestigious marriage to a man not of her choosing. Instead, her heart belongs to the mysterious Tam Lin, a young nobleman who has taken up residence in a nearby manor house. It is rumored that he has been enchanted by the Fairie Queen, and though Jeanette has been ordered to stay away, she cannot, and the more time she spends with him, the closer she is to becoming “ruined” herself.
While the story lacks the wit of Perilous Gard, it still has plenty of everything else. I would never want to be a woman in the medieval world. Woman are chattel — Jeanette and her sister are treated like prize animals at a fair. They are watched closely and must remain quiet in a male’s presence, and it is considered a privilege to share your meal plate with a man, only eating what he gives you to eat. This is the perfect book for lovers of many fiction genres. You won’t walk away unsatisfied.
Other historical fiction with both romance and fantasy twists:
In 1553, King Henry VIII is dead and his sickly son Edward has taken the throne. Fourteen year old Hannah is Jewish and has the gift of second sight. After a chance meeting with the handsome, dashing Lord Robert Dudley, Hannah finds a new life as the court’s fool and Dudley’s spy. Hannah finds herself involved in the court’s plots and schemes as Edward dies, Queen Mary takes the throne, and Princess Elizabeth waits in the wings. Hannah must maneuver around those that would use her and her gift for their own gains, around her growing feelings for Dudley, and around those that would persecute her for her religious beliefs. For older readers, this is an absorbing and moving period tale with a strong, female character who is both observer and player, but never a victim. Robert Dudley may be self-absorbed, but he also makes a fascinatingly complex romantic hero.
Mary is the daughter of the learned and kind Katherine Parr (the last Queen of Henry VIII) and her scoundrel husband Thomas Seymour. Orphaned at an early age, Mary is raised by Lady Strange to forgo marriage, be a white magician, join Queen Elizabeth’s court, and keep safe her reign. Once a lady in waiting, Mary maneuvers her way through the court and the ambitious courtiers who wish for more power. One of them, her darkly handsome cousin Edmund Seymour, has magical powers of his own. This is a book that is hard to put down. The mythology and magic of the story is imaginative, and while Mary and Edmund are fictional characters, many of those that surround them are not. Mary is a wonderfully strong character, and I was disappointed at the end to find that the book was not part of a longer series. Still, it is a fantastic read!
DVDs you will love too:
starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and Joesph Fiennes as Robert Dudley, it shows how a girl becomes a powerful Queen.
Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen
(2005) — a great mini-series about a young Queen Elizabeth played by Anne Marie Duff, the courtiers that
surround her, and bonus(!), it features a swoonworthy performance by Tom Hardy
as Robert Dudley.
(1986) — starring Helena Bonham Carter, this is the tragic story of young Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days after the death of her cousin King Edward.
(2008) — an epic TV series that follows the court (and all it’s scandals) of Henry VIII, as a young man all the way until his death. This series may not be for everyone, but I really enjoyed it.