Cataloguing Our Favourite Historical Fiction Listens
By Cameron Phillips, Kathryn Alley, Sarunicka Satkuruparan and Nuria Berbel Torres
Here are our picks for this week’s genre, historical fiction!
Cameron’s Pick: Lords of the Bow by Conn Iggulden, narrated by Richard E. Grant
The Mongol invasions and conquests are something I’ve always been interested in but never had the opportunity to study, and these books offer a glimpse into perhaps the most unique and impressive empire ever seen – objectively speaking, of course.
Iggulden’s work is clearly well-researched, especially the chapters that look at the story from the Chinese point of view because so much of the recorded history of the Mongol empire was not from the perspective of those they had conquered. The intertwined lives of Chinggis, his wife Borte and his successor sons are wonderfully told by Iggulden. Mongol hierarchy was a deceptively meritocratic one, where loyalty, hard work and success were rewarded by the Khans in various ways, whether that be with wealth or positions of power and influence. With this in mind, Iggulden’s interpretation of Chinggis’ relationship with his competing sons unfolds brilliantly. It makes for a fantastic read that is quite clearly well-informed.
Grant’s narration is well-suited to the tone and period of the book due to his fairly consistent track record of portraying period pieces and biographical figures. Iggulden has written a few series of historical fiction but for something a bit more left field – something that isn’t Greco-Roman, French or British – the Conqueror series is a great choice.
Kathryn’s Pick: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, narrated by Zach Appelman
The best historical fiction draws us into places and periods in time that we can never truly revisit in a fascinating way. These stories bring out a newness in us, where the characters’ triumphs and struggles no longer feel distant, but a part of us. Sometimes we recognise that the past isn’t so far away from ourselves. We are all in need of belonging, hope and love. That is why my pick, All the Light We Cannot See, is so special. Anthony Doerr’s masterpiece reminds us that a story about two teenagers in World War II, a tale of hope amid horrors, can still have a resounding impact on our lives today.
Zach Appelman narrates All the Light We Cannot See brilliantly and captures the humanity of the two protagonists, Marie-Laure and Werner, in a way that makes it impossible not to love them. The audiobook is poetic by nature due to the metaphors that interweave the horrors of war and the beauty of found family. Marie-Laure is blind and has spent her life in darkness, whereas Werner is forced to join the Nazis and is unsure if he will ever find the light again. Their stories intertwine as they fight to survive in a world that is desperate to kill all hope.
All the Light We Cannot See is a devastating mixture of heartbreak and renewal that will stay with you long after you listen.
Sarunicka’s Pick: Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, narrated by Daisy Donovan
Hamnet won the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2020. It is a historical fiction story that centres around the family of William Shakespeare, although O'Farrell doesn’t mention the playwright by name at any point. This is done intentionally to validate the other family members as people in their own right since history has both sidelined and overlooked them.
When their beloved son Hamnet dies of a plague, “the husband” cannot cope with the loss and removes himself more and more from family life. Four years or so later, he writes a play called Hamlet. The book explores how the death of a child can threaten to push a marriage to the brink and shows how loss and grief are processed.
O'Farrell’s writing was a key highlight of the story. It is so lyrical, so vibrant and so captivating. Each character’s experience of grief was detailed with such searing clarity. Likewise, the detailing of mundane experiences in full makes the reader experience every character’s emotions and every sense vividly. Daisy Donovan’s narration continues to evoke this emotion, and together they present a historical fiction listen that is whimsical, emotional and powerful.
Nuria’s Pick: She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, narrated by Natalie Naudus
My pick for this issue is this beautifully written story of loyalty, family and self. Parker-Chan combines epic worldbuilding, high action, fierce love, and desire to create a tale as inspiring as it is tragic.
Set in a famine-stricken village in 1345 China, two siblings are given very different fates: a boy is destined for greatness, a girl for nothingness. When a group of bandits attack her village, the girl is determined to escape her fated death. She uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young novice where she learns that she is capable of doing anything to survive, no matter how tough, to stay hidden from her unfortunate fate. However, after the monastery is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, she seizes the chance to stop hiding and takes her brother’s fated greatness instead.
Parker-Chan’s poetic debut is best described as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles. It is filled with a wonderful array of imperfect and captivating characters that navigate the world of an alternate China.
Natalie Naudus does a fantastic job delivering this tale of ambition and fate. If you love epic fantasy and historical fiction, immerse yourself in this fourteenth-century world and the journey towards greatness.