Historical Musings #64: My Year in Historical Fiction – 2020

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. For my first Musings post of the year, I am looking back at the historical fiction I read in 2020 and have put together my usual selection of charts and lists! I have kept the same categories as in the previous four years so that it should be easy to make comparisons and to see if there have been any interesting changes in my reading patterns and choices (my 2019 post is here, 2018 here, 2017 here and 2016 here).

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Time periods read about in 2020

For the last four years, the 19th century has been the most popular time period for my historical fiction reading (in 2019, it was the setting for more than a third of the books I read). In 2020, there was a different winner: the time period I read about most often was the 17th century, with the 19th in second place, just ahead of the 20th and 16th.

I read 12 books in total set during the 17th century, with topics ranging from the Pendle Witch Trials (The Familiars by Stacey Halls) to the 1617 Vardø storm (The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave) and the Barbary pirate raid on Cornwall (The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson).

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32% of the historical fiction authors I read in 2020 were new to me.

This is down on 2019’s 54%, but I’m pleased that I still discovered a lot of new authors as well as reading books by favourite authors.

Three books I’ve read by new-to-me historical fiction authors in 2020:

The Almanack by Martine Bailey
Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin
The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

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Publication dates of books read in 2020

As usual, most of the historical fiction books I read were published in the current year. Not even a quarter of the books I read were published before 2000, which is disappointing for me as those older books are the ones I usually end up loving the most. I need to stop being tempted by all the new books on NetGalley!

The oldest one I read was The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883).

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10% of my historical reads in 2020 were historical mysteries.

This is lower than 2019’s 20% and 2018’s 14%.

Three historical mysteries I read last year:

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor
The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson
The Butcher of Berner Street by Alex Reeve

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I read historical fiction set in 19 different countries in 2020.

This is slightly more than the 16 different countries I read about in 2019, but I still want to make an effort to visit more countries in my reading this year, particularly African and Asian ones.

Three books I read last year set in countries other than my own:

The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies (Myanmar)
The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting (Norway)
Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten (Russia)

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Four historical men I’ve read about this year:

Bram Stoker (Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor)
Raphael (The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle)
Charles of Orléans (In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse)
Henry VIII (The Great Matter Monologues by Thomas Crockett)

Four historical women I’ve read about this year:

Eleanor of Provence (The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath)
Joan Vaux (The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson)
Aoife MacMurchada (The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick)
Belle Bilton (Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor)

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What about you? Did you read any good historical fiction last year? Have you read any of the books or authors I’ve mentioned here and have you noticed any patterns or trends in your own reading?

26 thoughts on “Historical Musings #64: My Year in Historical Fiction – 2020

  1. jessicabookworm says:

    Another great year of historical-fiction reading for you, Helen and interesting that the 17th century beat the 19th century this year for your most read period- I wonder if that is partly down to more books set in that period being published recently? I have also had a very good year of historical-fiction reading. In fact, it was that good that it was my most read genre of 2020! I didn’t manage to read any of the books you mention here, but I am hoping to read Joanna Hickson’s The Lady of the Ravens some time this year. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed my breakdowns, Judy. I’m sure I’ll be reading more books set in the medieval period this year, so I hope some of them will interest you!

  2. Lory says:

    Burial Rites was the best historical fiction I read last year, it gave me a visceral sense of time and place, of the otherness as well as an emotional connection to our own times. To me that’s what the best historical fiction can give us, not costume drama.

    Thanks for your review, fascinating as always!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I read Burial Rites a few years ago and I was impressed by the strong sense of time and place. It was such an atmospheric book. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    I wish I could say I’d read more than I thought, but sadly that’s not the case. Most of my ‘historical’ reading was on the fantastical side, such as Robin Hobbs’ pseudo-medieval fiction. More realistic was Ursula Le Guin’s multi-period Orsinian Tales which although set in a fictional Central European country echoed actual historical events such as the Thirty Years War and the Hungarian Rising. The closest I came was The Death Maze (which you’d previously reviewed) which riffed on Henry II’s reign, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Hound of Ulster which was set in Ireland’s Heroic Age, full of cattle raids and the fairy people’s intervention in human affairs.

      • Helen says:

        Thank you – I was pleased to find I’d read such a wide range as it didn’t feel that way at times throughout the year. I still haven’t read anything by Ursula Le Guin but Orsinian Tales sounds fascinating.

  4. setinthepast says:

    I’d quite like to find more books set in the 18th century. I think British writers have this mentality, installed by school, that the Tudors and the Stuarts are exciting, then the 18th century’s all about water frames and rotating turnip crops (unless you want Walter Scott talking about Jacobites), so let’s jump forward to the 19th 🙂 .

    • Helen says:

      Yes, the 18th century does seem to get a bit neglected compared to other periods! I do enjoy reading about the Tudors and Stuarts, but it’s nice to have some variety.

  5. cirtnecce says:

    Such an insightful breakdown! I would think many of us end of reading historical fiction based in 19th century so it is quite refreshing to see your 17th century stack! Here’s wishing you another awesome bookish year!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I was surprised to see that I’d read so many books set in the 17th century, but it made a nice change! I hope you have a great year of reading too.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you! I didn’t feel as though I’d read a very good variety of books in 2020, so I was pleased to find that I’d read a better range of periods and places than I’d thought!

  6. Jane says:

    Brilliant graphs, especially the countries visited – this is something I need to concentrate on with my own reading. Happy reading this year!

    • Helen says:

      Happy reading to you too! I’m quite pleased with the number of countries visited in 2020, but I would still like to read about more countries outside of Europe and North America.

  7. Lexlingua says:

    Love the stats! Very meticulously arranged, esp. century- and country- wise. Did you collect the data at the end of the year, or do you track as you read along?

    And I’m so happy to see Black Arrow on this list. I really, really like it. Dick and Joanna are one of my favorite historical OTPs. That 1985 movie they made on it was awful. *grumbles* … I read your review, and agree that R.L. Stevenson can be a hit or miss, and I’m sorry you didn’t like it more. Possibly I’m biased, I read it when I was in my teens and was all for swashbuckling heroes, haha.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you! I collected the data at the end of the year, but this year I’m planning to track it as I go along to make things easier. I’m glad you enjoyed The Black Arrow. I did find parts of it very entertaining, although I didn’t love it overall. Have you read The Master of Ballantrae? That’s probably my favourite so far by Stevenson.

  8. GoAnnelies - In Another Era says:

    I love these posts! And the 17th century is such an interesting era that I’m also visiting more in books. I also enjoyed the families, the mercies is still on my list! Great range of countries, do you know by hard which books you’ve read that we’re set in Belgium? I’m curious 😄

  9. buriedinprint says:

    As others have said, I love the breakdowns here, not only by time, but by setting. I think the most memorable historical story I read was inspired by my Here and Elsewhere project, which took me to Marrakech in Morocca in one month: Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light (Trans. Linda Coverdale) about the events following a coup in 1972 and the subsequent imprisonments. It was a challenging but beautiful book, perhaps best read in a single sitting; it might suit your desire for more books with African settings. Good reading to you in 2021!

    • Helen says:

      I love reading about Morocco, but most of the books I’ve read have been set earlier than 1972. I will definitely keep that one in mind when I’m looking for more African books to read. Thanks for the suggestion – and happy reading to you too!

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