Last weekend Lecticans posed on her blog the following question--"What is the recipe for good historical fiction?" When I was young, before I discovered fantasy and science fiction, I would have said it was my favorite genre. I adored the books of Rosemary Sutcliffe (still do). Now as an adult I find myself avoiding the books with the little covered wagons on them, because I find them generally boring and annoying, although I still re-read my old favorites.
I think that excellent historical fiction and excellent fantasy share the same key trait--the ability to convey the differences of the time and place and culture (and rules of nature) without stressing over it and making it obvious to the reader. In much the same way that characterization is better when conveyed through the characters' words and actions rather than the narrators', details about what life was life back then should not be set apart as teaching moments within the narrative. I think that when this is done well (as Sutcliffe does it), the reader stops remembering that the book is "historical" and can simply enjoy it for the plot and the characters, and only later realize how much has been learned. Of course, for this to work, the writer also has to make sure that the "history" is accurate, or else the bubble bursts (most of what I know about . For me this also applies to characterization--I liked Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, just fine, but Catherine didn't seem like a product of her time. Ditto the characters in Michelle Magorian's Not a Swan. Another potential problem in historical fiction is writers wanting to write about a historical event, and then creating characters to take part in it. I suspect all the dear america etc etc genre of doing this, and so have avoided them like the plague. I like to think that in the books I love, the author wanted to tell the characters' story, rather than the story of the event.
Besides Sutcliffe, here is a few of my all time favorite historical fiction:
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. How I learned about rev. war Boston
Katherine by Anya Seton. The eponymous Katherine was the mistress of John of Gaunt.
In Spite of all Terror by Hester Burton. The evacuation of London in WW II, Dunkirk.
A Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli (a much loved childhood favorite)