Historical fiction has the power to transport readers to a different time and place, allowing them to experience history through the eyes of fictional characters. While the genre has long been a staple in literature, it has evolved over time to encompass a wide range of sub-genres, each with its own unique spin on historical events. From sweeping epics set in ancient civilizations to intimate portrayals of everyday life during wartime, historical fiction offers something for everyone. In this article, we’ll explore 10 historical fiction sub-genres that will leave you amazed, taking you on a journey through time and immersing you in worlds that are both familiar and foreign.
10 Historical Fiction Sub-Genres That Will Leave You Amazed
Alternate History and Historical Fantasy
Alternate history is a sub-genre of historical fiction that explores the idea of how the world would have turned out if historical events had unfolded differently. It imagines alternate timelines and presents a different version of reality, often diverging from a key point in history. This sub-genre allows authors to speculate on the consequences and implications of these changes, providing a fresh perspective on familiar historical periods.
Popular books in the alternate history sub-genre:
- “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick: Set in a world where the Axis powers won World War II, this novel explores the Nazi-occupied United States and the resistance movements that arise.
- “11/22/63” by Stephen King: In this book, the protagonist travels back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, leading to unexpected consequences.
- “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth: This novel presents an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh, a prominent aviator and isolationist, defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.
- “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon: Set in an alternate history where a Jewish homeland was established in Alaska, the novel follows a detective investigating a murder in the Jewish settlement.
- “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson: This book explores a world where the Black Death wiped out most of Europe’s population, leading to a different trajectory of history influenced by Islamic and Asian cultures.
While Historical fantasy combines elements of history and fantasy, blending real-world historical settings with fantastical elements such as magic, mythical creatures, or supernatural powers. It allows authors to reimagine historical events, figures, and eras through a lens of magic and wonder, creating a captivating fusion of history and imagination.
Popular books in the historical fantasy sub-genre:
- “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon: This series follows the time-traveling adventures of Claire Randall, a World War II nurse who finds herself transported back to 18th-century Scotland, where she becomes entangled in Jacobite uprisings and romance.
- “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke: Set in 19th-century England, this novel portrays an alternate history where magic is real and two magicians revive the practice of magic, shaping the course of the Napoleonic Wars.
- “His Majesty’s Dragon” by Naomi Novik: In this book, dragons are integrated into the Napoleonic Wars, serving as an aerial force. It explores the bond between a British naval captain and his dragon companion.
- “The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker: This story is set in 19th-century New York City and follows the unlikely friendship between a golem, a creature from Jewish folklore, and a jinni, a supernatural being from Arabian mythology.
- “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden: Drawing inspiration from Russian folklore, this novel is set in medieval Russia and follows a young woman with the ability to communicate with magical creatures.
It incorporates not only historical characters and events but also includes reports of everyday events found in contemporary newspapers. This unique blend of historical accuracy and fictional storytelling creates a captivating reading experience that combines real-world events with imaginative narratives.
In documentary fiction, authors often draw inspiration from actual historical events and figures, incorporating them into their stories while also adding fictional elements to enhance the narrative. By utilizing newspaper reports and other primary sources, they provide a sense of authenticity and create a vivid backdrop for the fictional events to unfold.
Popular Books in the Documentary Fiction Sub-Genre:
- “U.S.A.” by John Dos Passos: This acclaimed trilogy, consisting of “The 42nd Parallel” (1930), “1919” (1932), and “The Big Money” (1936), combines fictional narratives with newspaper clippings, biographies, and other documentary materials, offering a panoramic view of American society in the early 20th century.
- “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow: Set in the early 20th century, “Ragtime” weaves together fictional characters with real historical figures, such as Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and Henry Ford. The novel incorporates news clippings and photographs to provide a vivid portrayal of the era.
- “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote: Although categorized as a non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood” demonstrates elements of documentary fiction. Capote meticulously researched and reconstructed the true story of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in 1959, using interviews, trial transcripts, and other factual sources to create a gripping narrative.
- “The Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer: Based on the true story of Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer, “The Executioner’s Song” blends fiction with interviews, news reports, and personal accounts. It delves into the complex motivations and events leading up to Gilmore’s execution in 1977.
- “Truman” by David McCullough: This biography of President Harry S. Truman incorporates extensive research, interviews, and archival materials to offer a comprehensive and engaging account of Truman’s life and presidency.
It is also a sub-genre of historical fiction that focuses on war and its impact on soldiers, civilians, and society. War fiction often explores the themes of heroism, sacrifice, duty, and the horrors of war. It is a powerful medium that helps us understand the human experience of war and the effects it has on individuals and communities.
Some popular books in the war fiction genre include:
- “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque: This novel follows a young German soldier’s experiences during World War I and the impact it has on him and his comrades.
- “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien: This book is a collection of short stories about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War, exploring themes of memory, trauma, and the psychological toll of war.
- “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut: This novel tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who becomes unstuck in time and experiences the bombing of Dresden during World War II.
- “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller: This satirical novel follows the experiences of a bombardier in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, exploring themes of bureaucracy, absurdity, and the paradoxes of war.
- “The Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane: This classic novel follows the experiences of a young Union soldier during the American Civil War, exploring themes of courage, fear, and the harsh realities of battle.
- “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway: This novel tells the story of an American ambulance driver in World War I and his relationship with a British nurse, exploring themes of love, loss, and the futility of war.
Gothic fiction is a captivating sub-genre within historical fiction that emerged in the late 18th century. It is characterized by an atmosphere of mystery, suspense, and often features supernatural or macabre elements. The setting is typically in a gloomy, eerie, or decaying environment such as ancient castles, haunted mansions, or remote landscapes. Gothic fiction explores themes of horror, romance, and the dark side of human nature, often creating a sense of dread and foreboding.
Popular Books in Gothic Fiction:
- “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley: This iconic novel tells the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation, exploring themes of science, ambition, and the consequences of playing God.
- “Dracula” by Bram Stoker: A classic vampire tale, this novel introduces Count Dracula, a seductive and fearsome creature of the night, as he terrorizes Victorian England.
- “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë: While also classified as a romance novel, “Jane Eyre” incorporates Gothic elements through its eerie atmosphere, mysterious occurrences, and a brooding hero.
- “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier: This haunting tale follows a young woman who marries a widower, only to find herself haunted by the memory of his first wife, Rebecca.
- “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde: Although set in contemporary times, this novel explores the darker side of human nature and features a portrait that ages and shows the effects of Gray’s debauchery while he remains forever youthful.
- “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson: This novella delves into the dual nature of humanity, presenting the story of Dr. Jekyll, who creates a potion that unleashes his dark alter ego, Mr. Hyde.
- “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë: While not strictly classified as Gothic fiction, this novel exhibits Gothic elements in its depiction of turbulent love, haunting supernatural occurrences, and the eerie setting of the moor.
Historical mysteries are a captivating sub-genre of historical fiction that combines elements of mystery and suspense with a historical setting. These novels transport readers to different time periods, allowing them to solve intriguing puzzles and uncover hidden secrets alongside the characters.
The main focus of historical mysteries is usually the solving of a crime or mystery, often murder, within a specific historical context. The author meticulously researches the time period and incorporates historical events, settings, and characters to create an immersive reading experience. These novels offer a unique blend of historical accuracy, suspenseful storytelling, and the thrill of unraveling a complex puzzle.
Popular historical mystery books include:
- “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco: Set in 14th-century Italy, this novel follows a Franciscan friar and his apprentice as they investigate a series of mysterious deaths in a secluded abbey.
- “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie: This classic mystery novel features the renowned detective Hercule Poirot as he solves a murder aboard the luxurious Orient Express in the 1930s.
- “Dissolution” by C.J. Sansom: Set in Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII, this novel introduces Matthew Shardlake, a hunchbacked lawyer, who uncovers a murder while investigating the dissolution of the monasteries.
- “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr: Set in late 19th-century New York City, this novel follows a team of investigators, including a psychologist known as an “alienist,” as they track down a serial killer preying on young boys.
- “An Instance of the Fingerpost” by Iain Pears: Set in 17th-century Oxford, England, this intricate novel presents multiple perspectives and unreliable narrators as a murder investigation unfolds in a time of political and religious intrigue.
- “Maisie Dobbs” by Jacqueline Winspear: This series features Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator in post-World War I London, who tackles various cases with a focus on the aftermath and impact of the war.
These books are written in a narrative style that mimics the structure of a traditional biography, but with some fictional embellishments. The primary aim of fictional biographies is to provide readers with a deeper understanding of the life and experiences of real-life people through creative storytelling.
One of the key features of fictional biographies is that they are based on real people, events, and places. Authors conduct extensive research on their subjects to ensure accuracy and authenticity, but they also use their imagination to fill in the gaps where the historical record is incomplete or where creative license is needed to enhance the story.
Some of the most popular fictional biographies include:
- “The Aviator’s Wife” by Melanie Benjamin: This novel explores the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. The book delves into the challenges Anne faced as a woman and as the spouse of a famous figure.
- “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain: This novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Hadley Richardson, the first wife of author Ernest Hemingway. The book explores their relationship and the challenges they faced as expatriates living in Paris in the 1920s.
- “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd: This novel tells the story of Sarah Grimké, a real-life abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and her relationship with a fictionalized character named Handful, who is based on a slave owned by the Grimké family.
- “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot: This non-fiction book reads like a novel and explores the life of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cells were used without her knowledge to create the first immortal cell line, which has been instrumental in medical research for decades.
Historical Romance and Family Sagas
They are two closely related sub-genres of literature that have captivated readers for generations. These genres typically focus on the romantic relationships and family dynamics of characters living in a specific historical time period.
Historical Romance novels typically take place in the past and center on a romantic relationship between the main characters. Often, the love story is set against a historical backdrop, which can be anything from ancient civilizations to the Victorian era.
Family Sagas, on the other hand, are novels that follow the lives of a family over a period of time. These stories often explore the family’s dynamics, relationships, and struggles as they navigate various challenges over several generations.
Some popular books in this sub-genre include:
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon – a time-traveling romance set in 18th century Scotland.
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – a classic novel set during the American Civil War and Reconstruction period.
- The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons – a romance set against the backdrop of the Siege of Leningrad during World War II.
- The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – a multigenerational family saga set in Australia.
- The Luxe Series by Anna Godbersen – a young adult historical romance series set in New York City during the Gilded Age.
- A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini – a novel that follows the lives of two Afghan women against the backdrop of the country’s tumultuous history.
There is a considerable overlap between these two genres, with many novels falling into both categories. For instance, “Gone with the Wind” is both a historical romance and a family saga, while “The Other Boleyn Girl” can be considered a historical romance that also explores family dynamics.
Nautical and Pirate Fiction
Nautical and pirate fiction is a captivating sub-genre of historical fiction that explores the world of sailors, naval battles, exploration, and the daring lives of pirates. These novels immerse readers in the thrilling adventures on the high seas, providing a glimpse into maritime history and the unique challenges faced by sailors and pirates alike.
This sub-genre often depicts the life of sailors during specific historical periods, such as the Age of Sail, which encompasses the 17th and 18th centuries. The novels may feature naval officers, sailors, or pirates as the central characters, and they often delve into the intricacies of ship life, naval warfare, and maritime traditions.
Nautical and pirate fiction captures the spirit of exploration, the dangers of the open sea, and the allure of hidden treasures. It transports readers to different parts of the world, from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean, and allows them to experience the excitement and perils of life on a ship.
Popular Books in Nautical and Pirate Fiction:
- “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson: This classic adventure novel follows the young Jim Hawkins as he embarks on a perilous journey to find Captain Flint’s buried treasure, encountering the infamous pirate Long John Silver along the way.
- “Master and Commander” by Patrick O’Brian: The first book in the renowned Aubrey-Maturin series, it introduces readers to Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin as they navigate the Napoleonic Wars and face various challenges at sea.
- “Pirate Latitudes” by Michael Crichton: Set in the 17th century, this swashbuckling tale follows the adventures of Captain Charles Hunter, a privateer hired to capture a Spanish galleon carrying immense wealth.
- “Sea Witch” by Helen Hollick: This book is the first in the Sea Witch Voyages series and tells the story of pirate Jesamiah Acorne, who sails the high seas in search of love, revenge, and adventure.
- “The Pirate Hunter” by Richard Zacks: This non-fiction book recounts the true story of Captain Kidd, a notorious pirate, and the efforts of a relentless colonial governor to capture him and bring him to justice.
- “Pirates!” by Celia Rees: Set in the 18th century, this young adult novel follows the intertwined lives of Nancy and Minerva, two young women who become pirates and embrace the freedom and danger of life at sea.
Nautical and pirate fiction provides readers with thrilling escapades, vivid historical settings, and a deep sense of the maritime world. Whether it’s the daring exploits of pirates or the disciplined lives of sailors, this sub-genre offers an exciting voyage into the past.
Historiographic metafiction is a subgenre of historical fiction that combines elements of history and fiction with self-reflexive and self-conscious narrative techniques. It is often associated with postmodern literature and explores the relationship between history, storytelling, and the construction of historical narratives. In historiographic metafiction, authors not only present historical events but also question and challenge the process of historical interpretation and the reliability of historical sources.
This subgenre often blurs the boundaries between history and fiction, employing techniques such as parody, intertextuality, fragmented narratives, multiple perspectives, and metafictional commentary. By doing so, it raises questions about the nature of historical truth, the subjectivity of historical accounts, and the role of the author in shaping history.
Some popular books that fall under the category of historiographic metafiction include:
- “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino: This novel playfully explores the relationship between the reader, the author, and the act of reading while incorporating various narrative styles and storylines.
- “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles: This novel offers alternative endings and authorial intrusions, challenging the conventions of the historical romance genre and examining the act of storytelling.
- “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco: Set in a medieval monastery, this novel intertwines a murder mystery with intellectual discussions about history, philosophy, and the power of interpretation.
- “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje: Through fragmented narratives and multiple perspectives, this novel reflects on the blurred lines between personal and historical memory during World War II.
- “Beloved” by Toni Morrison: Drawing inspiration from the true story of Margaret Garner, this novel combines elements of history, slavery, and the supernatural to explore the impact of the past on the present.
Children’s Historical Fiction
Children’s Historical Fiction is a sub-genre of historical fiction that caters specifically to young readers. It aims to introduce children to different historical periods, events, and figures in an engaging and accessible way. These books often combine elements of adventure, friendship, and coming-of-age stories within a historical context.
Children’s Historical Fiction plays a crucial role in fostering an interest in history among young readers. By weaving historical facts into compelling narratives, these books transport children to different time periods, allowing them to experience the past through relatable characters and captivating stories.
Some popular books in the genre of Children’s Historical Fiction include:
- “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry: Set during World War II, this book tells the story of a young Danish girl named Annemarie Johansen, who helps her Jewish friend escape from the Nazis.
- “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank: Based on the real-life diary of Anne Frank, this book provides a poignant and personal account of her experiences while hiding from the Nazis during the Holocaust.
- “Little House on the Prairie” by Laura Ingalls Wilder: This beloved series follows the Ingalls family as they journey through the American frontier in the late 19th century, providing insights into the challenges and joys of pioneer life.
- “The War That Saved My Life” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: Set during World War II, this novel follows Ada, a young girl with a clubfoot, as she escapes her abusive mother and finds a new home with a caring guardian in the English countryside.
- “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor: Set in the 1930s during the Great Depression, this book explores the racial tensions and injustice experienced by a young African-American girl named Cassie Logan and her family in the southern United States.