I love a good historical fiction novel. Something thick - perhaps doorstop worthy - with great scenery descriptions, historically consistent characters and characterization, an absorbing plot, spot on dialogue, and I'm set. Historical fiction gets a bad wrap from a lot of people; many of them thinking that historical fiction is a really just romance in long dresses or history's more stupid little sister.
When I was in college, I took a few courses with a talented 16th Century British historian. I decided to work on an historical fiction project for my independent study, and she was skeptical. She said that in order for it be historical, it must have an argument. One could argue that all historical fiction has an implicit argument; each writer presents the history the way they think it was and the novel itself argues for its version of the truth. I think she meant something a little more academic and thesis oriented in the way she used it, and the point is relevant, but I think good historical fiction can be good and not go that far. Often HF, merely needs to reflect the past, present consistent characters and a viable plot (perhaps something that even happened) for it to be good.
Geraldine Brooks is successful in Year of Wonders in the most satisfying and academic ways, even though her narrative trots along sans historical argument. Her depiction of life during the plague years is full-bodied and real. Many historical fiction writers fall on the spike with the dialogue (and I really can't stand this...if you can't nail dialogue, you can't nail writing), but Brooks' characters sound convincing and it works.
She bases her novel on real events, and I found myself thinking at the end that the Reverend (forget his name now) who inspired the Reverend in the novel would probably be none too pleased at his fictional transformation. :)
(In the vein of good historical fiction)
If you like this, you might also like:
Brooks' The People of the Book
Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White
Gil Adamson's The Outlander