Sunday 24 March 2013

Ten great historical fiction novels or series

Historical fiction is a massive genre with many sub-genres. There are different historical periods and approaches to books. Some writers take a real historical figure and write about their life. Others create purely fictional characters set in a historical setting. This is often used for historical romance novels. The time and place is fixed in history, but most of the characters and events are purely fictional.
Lots of novels that could be considered historical fiction are really a different genre, placed into a time in the past. An example of this would be Umberto Eco's, "The Name of the Rose". It is really a whodunit thriller, but happens to be set in a medieval monastery. The ambiance of the place and time work with the story and have a considerable impact on people's actions, but in essence, the story is about a detective catching a killer.
The novel I am working on is set in a real historical period (the first half of the seventh century) and includes several real historical characters and events, but the story is told mainly through the eyes of a fictional protagonist and other people who exist only in my imagination (and hopefully the imagination of those who read the book once it is published). This is a popular format used by many other historical fiction writers and allows the freedom to explore things outside the scope of known historical fact.
Here I have presented a list of ten great historical fiction novels or series of novels with a short description. They are in no particular order and I have not written a lengthy review of each book, as I am sure that anyone reading this can find a wealth of information and reviews using Google.
Click the book titles to find more information.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of epic proportions. Set in the American West towards the end of the nineteenth century. No other novel I've read has deeper or richer characters and plot, woven together with the eye of a master writer.
Violent, shocking, at times funny, poignant, sad and joyful. A triumph of a book. One of my all time favourite books of any genre. The TV miniseries is good too, but read the book first.
The other novels in the series, whilst still enjoyable reads, pale into insignificance against the original book, "Lonesome Dove". Don't be tempted to read the prequels first. Read "Lonesome Dove" and then, if you love the characters, which you probably will, read the sequel, "Streets of Laredo".

The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell

The story of Arthur retold in gritty, action-packed realism. All the main characters are there. Merlin is magical, but it is never clear whether he real wields mystical powers or if he simply knows the ways of nature and the minds of men.
Native Britons defend their kingdom from the advance of the Sais (Saxons). Battles, betrayals, love and death.
Dark Ages Britain has never been so much fun to read.

The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell again. This time a few centuries later and based firmly in historical fact. The story of Alfred of Wessex and the struggles against the Danes as told from the point of view of the larger than life character of Uthred of Bebbanburg.
Not quite as good as the Warlord Chronicles in my opinion, but great books nonetheless.

The Conqueror Series by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden is firmly in the vein of Bernard Cornwell's action-packed storytelling, but focusing more on the actual historical figures rather than fictional characters involved in the events.
This, his second series of historical books, follows the rise of Genghis Khan and the Mongol nation. Gripping stuff.

The Emperor Series by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden's first series follows the life of Julius Caesar. You may think you know all about the Emperor of Rome, but the story stretches over four books and never gets boring.
If you like Roman history, this series is a must.
Update: There is now a fifth book in the series - "Emperor: Blood of Gods". This tells the story of the bloody aftermath of Caesar's assassination.

Shieldwall by Justin Hill

I've only just read this book but think it deserves a place in this list. It is the first in a series leading up to the Battle of Hastings. Justin Hill's clever use of language that is directly derived from Old English and the meter of his prose that could so easily be imagined echoing in a great mead hall as part of a scop's epic saga, lends this page-turner a real sense of authenticity.
Strong characters, bloody battles and beautiful prose. What's not to like?

The Aubrey-Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian

The absolute master of historical fiction. The best praise for this series is that it feels as if it could have been written in the early nineteenth century - the time the books are set. The attention to detail is incredible and the main characters, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, are so well formed that you feel you know them like members of your own family by the end of the series.
The writing can be hard going, especially to start with, but persevere and you'll be rewarded with twenty of the best historical fiction novels ever written.

The Troy Series by David Gemmell

David Gemmell is not best-known for historical fiction, he is much more famous for his fantasy writing, but this series, set around the battle of Troy is rich with historical details and Gemmel's usual flair for strong characters and exciting story lines.
Gemmell sadly died before finishing the last of the three books in the series and his wife, Stella Gemmell finished the book. The aptly named "The Fall of Kings" has an added poignancy as a result, but unfortunately suffers from a lack of consistency.

The Chronicles of Iona by Paula de Fougerolles

I have to admit that I haven't actually finished this one yet, but from what I have read so far, the writing evokes the time and place with aplomb. The characters of Columba and Aedan are robust and engaging and it is a story I know little about. It is set some eighty years before my own novel starts, so I was particularly interested to see how she deals with the location and the period.
So far I am not disappointed.

Legend by David Gemmell

OK, so this isn't really a historical novel. It is David Gemmell's first novel and set in his fantasy setting of Drenai. It tells the story of the siege of Dros Delnoch and introduces his wonderful character, Druss the Legend. Anyone who likes action-packed adventure, battles and great characters will love this book.
It is escapism at its best and one of my favourite books.


  1. Legend is one of my all time favourite books too, of your selection also really like the Cornwell Arthurian and Uhtred series

    1. Have you read some of the others? Conn Iggulden will be right up your street as he is the closest to Gemmell and Cornwell. Hopefully I'll find a publisher soon and you can read The Serpent Sword. Given the books you like, I think you'll enjoy it.

    2. I've read most of Gemmell's books, maybe nearly all. I do like Conn Iggulden, have read some of the Genghis Khan series, I agree in that I found his style reminiscent of Gemmell too in some ways - I look forward to you getting your book published, will definitely read it.

    3. Don't forget Jack Whyte's wonderful series! Beginning with Arthurian Briton (6 novels including The Skystone), Whyte's novels are well worth reading--and re-reading. See his web site for his latest work, which includes a series on the Knights Templar and others. His writing and his skill in developing unforgettable characters are uniquely fine--Jack Whte deserves more than an honorable mention!

    4. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I have one of Jack Whyte's books on my shelf in the ever-growing "to be read" pile! Your endorsement of his work will make me move it closer to the top of the pile! The list here is not exhaustive, there are many other writers and series all worth a mention. I'll put together a new list with other books in the future.

  2. Love the Medieval Murderers series - a collection of well-known historical writers following one story - each contributing one section. Fascinating and intriguing. You get a taste of these authors' style as well as getting a brilliant novel.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Lesley.

    That series sounds fascinating! Another one on the TBR pile!

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