Tuesday, May 2, 2023

More Historical Comfort Reads

A few years ago I posted about my favorite historical comfort reads—you know, the books you go back and re-read when you’re tired or ill or otherwise not feeling quite up to par and need a soothing old friend to keep you company. Now seems like a good time to revisit the topic, so here are a few more of my favorites. I hope that readers will tell us about some of their historical comfort reads in the comments—I’m always looking for new old friends! Please note that any links may be affiliate links.

Eva Ibbotson

Yes, I know she’s an author, not a book—a much-loved and recognized author of many delightful stories for younger readers such as The Star of Kazan, Journey to the River Sea, The Secret of Platform 13, and many others. But did you know that she also wrote five adult romances? They’re all stand-alones, set at various points between shortly before WWI and around and during WWII. All share England as part of their settings, but several include substantial portions set in Austria (where the author grew up) and on the Amazon River. Written in the 1980s, they do possess that era’s regrettable tendency to Big Misunderstandings (you know, where conflicts could be cleared up if people just talked to each other for ten minutes), but the characters (including secondary ones) and settings and plots and just so wonderful that I forgive them for that. The Secret Countess may be my favorite because it has a denouement scene worthy of Georgette Heyer at her best; but Magic Flutes, A Company of Swans, A Song for Summer, and The Morning Gift are not far behind. Part of what makes these special, I think, is that they’re slightly autobiographical: as a girl, the author fled Austria before WWII with her family, so there’s a feeling of authenticity about the small details that is enthralling. Some people consider these young adult books; I disagree, but they can be read by older teens. 

Caroline Stevermer 

Okay, yeah, she’s an author too. You really aren’t going to make me choose just one of her books, are you? If I had to, though, I’d go with A College of Magics, a marvelous young adult historical fantasy about a young woman coming into her own as ruler of her countryand as a witchset in a fictionalized pre-WWI Europe, with a few extra eastern European countries along with the usual England, France, Spain, and so on. The era feels well-depicted, especially the women’s college the protagonist attends and the brief visits to Paris and on the Orient Express. One of my all-time favorite books, and with an almost as wonderful sequel, A Scholar of Magics.



Connie Willis  I’m an unashamed Connie Willis fangirl. She’s won more Hugo and Nebula Awards than just about anybody writing science fiction today…so why am I talking about her in a post about historical comfort reads? Because she’s written multiple time travel novels (the Oxford Historian series), and written them incredibly well. Doomsday Book may be her masterpiece (about a time-traveling history grad student mistakenly sent back to England on the verge of the arrival of the Black Death), but it’s To Say Nothing of the Dog that is indeed a comfort read: two historians sent back to study Coventry Cathedral before its destruction in the Blitz get entangled in problems and time paradoxes as they bounce between the 1940s, the 1860s, and beyond…and hilarity ensues. Just a delightful, funny book with a happy ending.


Do you have any historical comfort reads you’d like to talk about?


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