11 Historical Fiction Books About Epic Rivalries

Posted on March 27, 2017 by

Few things make for better reading than an epic rivalry — and history has some real-life doozies! Put these stories in the hands of top-notch historical fiction writers, and you’re guaranteed a page-turner. We’ve compiled a list of historical fiction featuring some of the world’s most notorious feuds, like the Hatfields and McCoys, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and more. Publishers’ descriptions included below.

 

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

When Mary Boleyn comes to court as an innocent girl of fourteen, she catches the eye of the handsome and charming Henry VIII. Dazzled by the king, Mary falls in love with both her golden prince and her growing role as unofficial queen. However, she soon realizes just how much she is a pawn in her family’s ambitious plots as the king’s interest begins to wane, and soon she is forced to step aside for her best friend and rival: her sister, Anne. With her own destiny suddenly unknown, Mary realizes that she must defy her family and take fate into her own hands.

With more than one million copies in print and adapted for the big screen, The Other Boleyn Girl is a riveting historical drama. It brings to light a woman of extraordinary determination and desire who lived at the heart of the most exciting and glamorous court in Europe, and survived a treacherous political landscape by following her heart.

 

Burr by Gore Vidal

Burr by Gore Vidal

Here is an extraordinary portrait of one of the most complicated—and misunderstood—figures among the Founding Fathers. In 1804, while serving as vice president, Aaron Burr fought a duel with his political nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, and killed him. In 1807, he was arrested, tried, and acquitted of treason. In 1833, Burr is newly married, an aging statesman considered a monster by many. But he is determined to tell his own story, and he chooses to confide in a young New York City journalist named Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler. Together, they explore both Burr’s past — and the continuing civic drama of their young nation.

Burr is the first novel in Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series, which spans the history of the United States from the Revolution to post-World War II. With their broad canvas and sprawling cast of fictional and historical characters, these novels present a panorama of American politics and imperialism, as interpreted by one of our most incisive and ironic observers.

 

The Coffin Quilt by Ann Rinaldi

The Coffin Quilt by Ann Rinaldi

Fanny McCoy has lived in fear and anger ever since that day in 1878 when a dispute with the Hatfields over the ownership of a few pigs set her family on a path of hatred and revenge. From that day forward, along the ragged ridges of the West Virginia-Kentucky line, the Hatfields and the McCoys have operated not withing the law but within mountain codes of their own making. In 1882, when Fanny’s sister Roseanna runs off with young Johnse Hatfield, the hatred between the two clans explodes.

As the killings, abductions, raids, and heartbreak escalate bitterly and senselessly, Fanny, the sole voice of reason, realizes that she is powerless to stop the fighting and must learn to rise above the petty natures of her family and neighbors to find her own way out of the hatred.

 

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The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman

In this triumphant combination of scholarship and storytelling, Sharon Kay Penman redeems Richard III — vilified as the bitter, twisted, scheming hunchback who murdered his nephews, the princes in the Tower — from his maligned place in history.

Born into the treacherous courts of 15th-century England, in the midst of what history has called The War of the Roses, Richard was raised in the shadow of his charismatic brother, King Edward IV. Loyal to his friends and passionately in love with the one woman who was denied him, Richard emerges as a gifted man far more sinned against than sinning.

With revisions throughout and a new author’s preface discussing the astonishing discovery of Richard’s remains five centuries after his death, Sharon Kay Penman’s brilliant classic is more powerful and glorious than ever.

 

Médicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot

Medici's Daughter by Sophie Peridot

It’s the winter of 1564 and the beautiful young Princess Margot is summoned to her mother’s household, where her true education begins in earnest. Known across Europe as Madame la Serpente, Queen Catherine is an intimidating and unmoving presence in France, even as her country recovers from the first of many devastating religious wars. Among the crafty nobility of Queen Catherine’s royal court, Margot learns the intriguing and unspoken rules she must live by to please her manipulative family.

Eager to be an obedient daughter, Margot embraces her role as a pawn to be married off to the most convenient bidder. Despite her loyalty, Margot finds herself charmed by the powerful and charismatic Duc de Guise and falls for him even as she is promised to another. Finally setting aside her happiness for duty, Margot leaves the man she loves for Henri of Navarre, a Huguenot leader and a notorious heretic. Yet Queen Catherine’s schemes are endless, and Margot’s brother plots vengeance in the streets of Paris. Forced to choose between her family and what’s right, Margot at last finds the strength within herself to forge her own destiny.

Médicis Daughter is historical fiction at its finest, weaving a unique coming-of-age story and a forbidden love with one of the most dramatic and violent events in French history.

 

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history — and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?

The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society — the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal — private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?

In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.

 

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer.

Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by The Times. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.

But the landscape shifts when Vanessa unexpectedly falls in love and her sister feels dangerously abandoned. Eerily possessive, charismatic, manipulative, and brilliant, Virginia has always lived in the shelter of Vanessa’s constant attention and encouragement. Without it, she careens toward self-destruction and madness. As tragedy and betrayal threaten to destroy the family, Vanessa must decide if it is finally time to protect her own happiness above all else.

The work of exciting young newcomer Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister exquisitely captures the champagne-heady days of prewar London and the extraordinary lives of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.

 

Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle

Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle

Early in Mary Tudor’s turbulent reign, Lady Catherine and Lady Mary Grey are reeling after the brutal death of their elder 17-year-old sister, and the succession is by no means stable. In Sisters of Treason, Elizabeth Fremantle brings these young women and their perilous times to vivid life.

Neither sister is well suited to a dangerous career at court. Flirtatious Lady Catherine, thought to be the true heir, cannot control her compulsion to love and be loved. Her sister, clever Lady Mary, has a crooked spine and a tiny stature in an age when physical perfection equates to goodness — and both girls have inherited the Tudor blood that is more curse than blessing. For either girl to marry without royal permission would be a potentially fatal political act. It is the royal portrait painter, Levina Teerlinc, who helps the girls survive these troubled times. She becomes their mentor and confidante, but when the Queen’s sister, the hot-headed Elizabeth Tudor, inherits the crown, life at court becomes increasingly treacherous for the surviving Grey sisters. Ultimately each young woman must decide how far she will go to defy her Queen, risk her life, and find the safety and love she longs for.

 

Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles by Margaret George

Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles by Margaret George

She was a child crowned a queen….
A sinner hailed as a saint….
A lover denounced as a whore…
A woman murdered for her dreams…

Margaret George’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles brings to life the fascinating story of Mary, who became the Queen of Scots when she was only six days old. Raised in the glittering French court, returning to Scotland to rule as a Catholic monarch over a newly Protestant country, and executed like a criminal in Queen Elizabeth’s England, Queen Mary lived a life like no other, and Margaret George weaves the facts into a stunning work of historical fiction.

 

Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey

Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey

From 1501—1505, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti both lived and worked in Florence. Leonardo was a charming, handsome 50-year-old at the peak of his career. Michelangelo was a temperamental sculptor in his mid-20s, desperate to make a name for himself.

Michelangelo is a virtual unknown when he returns to Florence and wins the commission to carve what will become one of the most famous sculptures of all time: David. Even though his impoverished family shuns him for being an artist, he is desperate to support them. Living at the foot of his misshapen block of marble, Michelangelo struggles until the stone finally begins to speak. Working against an impossible deadline, he begins his feverish carving.

Meanwhile, Leonardo’s life is falling apart: He loses the hoped-for David commission; he can’t seem to finish any project; he is obsessed with his ungainly flying machine; he almost dies in war; his engineering designs disastrously fail; and he is haunted by a woman he has seen in the market — a merchant’s wife, whom he is finally commissioned to paint. Her name is Lisa, and she becomes his muse.

Leonardo despises Michelangelo for his youth and lack of sophistication. Michelangelo both loathes and worships Leonardo’s genius.

Oil and Marble is the story of their nearly forgotten rivalry. Storey brings early 16th-century Florence alive, and has entered with extraordinary empathy into the minds and souls of two Renaissance masters. The book is an art history thriller.

 

The Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

Lionhearted by Sharon Kay Penman

They were called “The Devil’s Brood,” though never to their faces. They were the four surviving sons of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. With two such extraordinary parents, much was expected of them.

But the eldest-charming yet mercurial-would turn on his father and, like his brother Geoffrey, meet an early death. When Henry died, Richard would take the throne and, almost immediately, set off for the Holy Land. This was the Third Crusade, and it would be characterized by internecine warfare among the Christians and extraordinary campaigns against the Saracens. And, back in England, by the conniving of Richard’s youngest brother, John, to steal his crown.

In Lionheart, Sharon Kay Penman displays her remarkable mastery of historical detail and her acute understanding of human foibles. The result is a powerful story of intrigue, war, and- surprisingly-effective diplomacy, played out against the roiling conflicts of love and loyalty, passion and treachery, all set against the rich textures of the Holy Land.

 

Which of these books have you read? Let us know in the comments!

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