What is historical fiction? That’s a question I often ask myself when choosing books for lists or roundups. Does it have to take place a certain number of years in the past, or is the cutoff different for everyone? A book set in the 1980s feels contemporary to me, but to a 34-year-old reader born in 1990, it could feel like the distant past.

As a reimagining of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Percival Everett’s brilliant James (Doubleday, March 19) is doubly historical, since the book—set in the 1830s or ’40s—was, by most definitions, already a historical novel when Mark Twain published it in 1885. Now Everett has put the focus on Jim, who has escaped from slavery and is traveling with Huck down the Mississippi River on a raft—and who calls himself James. That’s just one of the facts about his character that Twain couldn’t see, and Everett reveals that the Black dialect Twain put in Jim’s mouth is a way for the character to code-switch: “White folks expect us to sound a certain way and it can only help if we don’t disappoint them,” he explains. Our starred review said that “one of the noblest characters in American literature gets a novel worthy of him.”

Carys Davies is a Welsh writer living in Edinburgh, and her novel Clear (Scribner, April 2), set in 1843, delves into a crucial time in Scottish history. Through a process known as the Clearances, landowners are replacing the tenants who farm their land with sheep; at the same time, a third of Scotland’s ministers have left the Presbyterian church, rebelling against the power of those landowners over them. Davies sends an unemployed minister to a North Sea island to earn some money by evicting the only person living there. When the minister is injured, the two men—who speak different languages—come to depend on each other. “A deft and graceful yarn about language, love, and rebellion against the inhumane forces of history,” said our starred review.

Adam Ehrlich Sachs’ Gretel and the Great War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 11) is set in Vienna just after World War I. When a mute girl is found wandering the city, a doctor solicits information about her and receives a series of bedtime stories from a man who says he’s her father. It’s an “ingeniously woven novel that offers a stylized view of interwar Vienna, a fanciful account of Gretel and her family, a reflection on storytelling and on sanity, and…a sense of how vertiginous and alienated and threatened it felt to be Jewish in central Europe in the years just before Nazism,” according to our starred review. “Playful, charming, and brilliant.”

Tracy Chevalier’s The Glassmaker (Viking, June 18) takes places on Murano, an island near Venice that’s known for its beautiful glassware. Chevalier treats time like glass, heating it up and bending it in artful ways. The book begins in 1486 and continues through the Covid-19 pandemic, but her characters barely age. “Between fascinating descriptions of artisans at work and the glassware they create, Chevalier embeds a love story that transcends time,” according to our starred review.

Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.