(1) Sharon Kay Penman's Welsh trilogy: Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning.
It comes as no surprise to me that Penman's novels have appeared on the lists of several other HF bloggers. For me, nobody brings the personalities and politics of royal medieval England and Wales to life quite as well as Penman. Of the three, Here Be Dragons is my favorite, since I particularly enjoy reading novels about royal women of whom little has been written, and I thought Penman did a superb job bringing the story of Joanna, bastard daughter of King John, and her husband Llywelyn Fawr to life. Excellent evocation of the historical setting, characterizations, and plotting; what more can be said?
(2) Alison McLeay, Passage Home (UK title, The Wayward Tide) / Sea Change (UK title, Sweet Exile).
These are my sentimental favorites - old-fashioned romantic epics in the best sense of the term. In The Wayward Tide (I prefer the British titles), Rachel Dean, a girl living with her dysfunctional family on the Newfoundland coast in 1827, develops an immediate bond with a restless wanderer named Adam Gaunt. She follows him first to Liverpool and then to the frontier West, learning the hard way that men can't be held against their will. Sweet Exile begins a generation later with Kate Summerbee, daughter of a Mississippi riverboat captain, whose life becomes intertwined with those of Adam Gaunt and his son Matthew. Few British authors write about America, but McLeay has the setting as well as Kate's warm, humorous Southern voice down pat. Both Rachel and Kate are survivors, strong-minded yet true to their time, and Adam Gaunt makes for an ideal romantic hero, humanly flawed yet larger than life. Plus, in the course of both novels, McLeay courageously pulls off plot-wise what few authors of romantic fiction would dare try. For me, these novels can't be beat for their sweep, emotional impact, and sheer entertainment. It's disappointing to me that McLeay's subsequent novels, while enjoyable, didn't live up to the promise of the first two.
(3) Barbara Vine, Anna's Book (UK title, Asta's Book).
This is a masterpiece of historical suspense, set in London in the earlier and later parts of the 20th century, as Ann Eastbrook tries to uncover the truth about the birth of her late aunt Swanny, and its relationship to the ghastly murder of a young woman decades earlier. In alternating sections, Ann's grandmother Anna Westerby, a Danish immigrant in 1905 London, meticulously records events from her day-to-day life in a series of journals. Not coincidentally, Ann discovers that the journal pages corresponding to the dates of Swanny's birth are missing. This is an excellent historical puzzle that details the struggles and prejudices faced by newly arrived immigrants in the early 20th century. As a character, Anna isn't likable at all, yet it's hard not to sympathize with her plight. The pieces of the mystery fit together perfectly; the novel's execution is nothing less than brilliant. Despite knowing the ending, I'm still able to read it over and over.
(4) Catherine Gavin, The Snow Mountain.
How inappropriate of me to choose a novel based on a premise that, as we know, historically did not happen. I should be ashamed of myself. The love story that Gavin creates for Russia's Grand Duchess Olga, the 23-year-old daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra who, along with her family, was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, is totally fictional. Still, it's a very moving tale, and I enjoy this novel for the way it gives insight into the personalities of four young women normally thought of as children, but who were really adults and young adults perfectly capable of knowing their own minds. Olga's romance with a Russian soldier who serves her family can't help but be overshadowed by the reader's knowledge of her tragic, unavoidable end.
(5) Morgan Llywelyn, The Wind from Hastings.
Llywelyn's first novel was the only one she set in Wales, and I don't think it's the best she's written; that honor belongs to 1916, in my humble opinion. Yet it's on my favorites list because it's one of the first historical novels I ever read - it was published in 1978 - and it does a wonderful job of portraying a well-known historical era, events leading up to the Battle of Hastings, from a different point of view. In keeping with the times, Edyth of Mercia has no say whatsoever in who she marries, and her true character reveals itself when she finally accepts her fate as wife and queen to Harold Godwineson, the murderer of her first husband, Griffith of Wales. Llywelyn wrote this novel in a deceptively simple style, and her novel is both moving and thought-provoking.
Numerous runners-up as follows, in alphabetical order.
Jane Alison, The Love-Artist
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Robert Goddard, Painting the Darkness
Hella Haasse, In a Dark Wood Wandering
Cecelia Holland, Railroad Schemes and Rakossy
Margaret Irwin, The Bride
Catherine Jinks, The Notary
Katherine Neville, The Eight
Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red
Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost
Rebecca Ryman, Olivia and Jai
Nigel Tranter, The Master of Gray trilogy
Richard S. Wheeler, Second Lives
Janice Woods Windle, Hill Country