I am frequently asked by people new to the world of the historical fiction genre (the non romance/non fantasy world that is), or by people who are beginning to dabble their toes in its waters, “what books should I read to get a feel for the genre?” I actually get asked it so much that I thought I would compile a list of 10 books that I think all self respecting readers of the genre should tackle at some stage in their lives. It is also a list for those who are new to the genre or those who are trying to branch out and rediscover the broader arms of the genre.
You are not going to like every book on this list. Heavens, I do not, why should you? In fact, there is a Bernard Cornwell book on this list that I only gave 1 star out of 5 to. But, I still think it is a must read book of the genre, whether I liked it or not.
This is also not a list of my favourite books of all time in the genre. It includes some of them, about six, but not all of them. Because this list is not for me. It is for you.
It is not for me to impress my own tastes upon you. That is why I have not delved into my personal favourites top ten in order to compile this list. I have compiled with the help of my many years of watching and listening to people talk historical fiction.
I suppose you could still say that I have added in a great deal of my own personal opinion and you would be right to say it. While they aren't all my favourite historical fiction books, some of mine are there, but I have put a lot of my own experiences into the choices and it is only by luck that some of my favourites got on it. It is a selection that I think covers the diversity within the genre, battle reads, adventure reads, mystery reads.
The idea of the list was for me to take all the historical fiction books I have read, add a little dash of personal taste, a teaspoon full of observational opinion, mix it all up and then use my experience with the genre to select the most diverse group of ten books I can think of. Books that cover the full gambit of most common story devices in historical fiction. Mystery, adventure, battle, invasion. A smattering of love and maybe a snippet of passion are sprinkled amoung the stories, if you have to have that in a historical fiction, but they are not major plot devices and play second fiddle to the main storylines.
If you were a stalwart of the genre, you would pick a completely different group of ten, I am sure. But these ten books are meant to cover a vastness of life and adventure for you to sample at will. If I have done my job properly with the list and you decide to undertake the challenge of reading all ten, then the reason for the selections will become clear. You will learn which types of historical fiction you hate, what types you think are enjoyable, and what types you really love.
Once you have discovered all that about your own tastes, you will know what types of historical fiction you want to pursue within the genre. The only way to find out what sorts of reads you will like is to sample a cross section of them all. And I hope this is what I have given you here.
*NB These books are in no particular order. They are a list of ten, as opposed to a top ten. There are books that do deserve to be on this list. But for two reasons they have not made it. One: because I may not have read them yet so won't vouch for them. And two: there is only ten spots up for grabs not fifty.
What can I say about this one. Anybody who knows me knows that I am the mega fan of this series. I love it and it was the greatest historical fiction find of my life. It also happened to be THE book that lit my path into the warm bosom of straight up historical fiction. A guiding light to me, I discovered the entire unisex genre of non romance and non fantasy related historical fiction from this one beacon of light. Boy, do I owe it my thanks.
As a stand alone book, I do not think it is the best in the series. When I first read it, it even took half the book before I got into it.
It is possible you will have the same experience and if you do, hang in there. Go on with the series - maybe the next two books - before you make a decision on whether or not to continue with it.
Not my favourite Cornwell by a long shot, but it is a unique and special book. Unlike any other one that deals with this particular subject matter. King Arthur.
For those with a specific hankering for Arthurian books, this is a must read. It may not appeal to you, but it is worth giving it a chance to see if it will.
There are a number of reasons I can give for having this book on the list. This is another unique one. There really isn't anything else like it. There are other books on Ghengis, but not like this one.
To write this book, the author lived with the Mongols for a time and I believe that comes through in the story. Surely it is worth reading it just to see how he adapted that personal experience to the story? Yes? No?
A well loved series, I think every reader of historical fiction needs to try this book (and maybe even the one that follows) to see what you make of it. From my observations, so many people who like this book go on to absolutely love the entire series. If you go on to love the series, then you will be glad I suggested you read this first book.
An absolute tour de force by this acclaimed author. Gates of Fire is, unequivocally, hands down, the greatest battle historical fiction ever written. A stroke of genius.
In my opinion, this was Steven Pressfield's masterwork. He has never done one as good as it, and I doubt he ever can again. Wherever that place was inside him that he managed to pull this book from, that place was drained of resources on its completion. He may try, but he will never write another book that can touch Gates of Fire. It is battle as poetry.
“A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men's loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them...A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.” Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
Oh bravo, Mr Pressfield. It stirs me still.
It has to be on the list. Yes, he's my favourite author, yes this is book one in one of my top two favourite series' of all time, but forget all that, this book, this series, is masterful beyond words. The best Viking historical fiction to date.
It is rough, crude brutality rolled into a shieldwall along with Norse mythology (not in fantasy form) and blasts of humour. I have to have it on this list.
Discover this series if you dare!
This is a controversial choice. For the simple reason that the punters are split on this book. Half believe it is dull and boring, the other half (of which I am one) believe it magnificently written and the kicking off point for a really marvellous mystery series set in Tudor times.
Read it, see what you think. It could be the best thing you have read, or the worst thing. You could go either way, but you probably need to find out which way that will be.
Something about this book captured my imagination and it has to make an honorary appearance on this list for that. It is so well loved. Not everyone does, mind you, but many do. Me included.
The ending. Gosh. As the volcano starts to erupt, I can still smell the ash and feel the avalanche of pumice stone on my face.
How could a book that moved me so little end up on my list of ten? Easy. Everybody else likes it but me. Considering what I am trying to achieve here with this list, that is as good a reason as any for it to be here.
If you only try one Bernard Cornwell, let it be this one. From my experience, it is quite possibly the closest thing to a guaranteed winner. Something I cannot say about The Last Kingdom or The Winter King.
I have asked myself over and over, why The Hangman's Daughter should be on the list. Once I explain my reasoning then you may understand why I did it.
There are better mysteries out there. Others you will like more than this one. This one's gravitas, during my list decision making session, was its being not only a mystery set during a period of European history that is not covered a lot in historical fiction, but because it is a translation. There are so few translations in historical fiction that can work. I think this one did most of the time.
There were times, however, where I feel it did lose something in translation, but overall, it is a good book and may awaken in you an interest in more translated historical fiction out of Europe. That can only be a good thing.
Plus it is dark and gothic and that is so in right now!
What a book to close out the ten. Pride of Carthage.
For me this book is up there with Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire as one of the best battle historical fictions ever written. Only this book has so much more to it. More characters, more lands, more cultures. It encompasses a vaster span of land mass than Gates of Fire and that really worked for me to give the story a real sense of place on the historical timeline. The reason I can't put it on the same exact pedestal as Gates of Fire is that there are times when I think Pride of Carthage waffles. For that reason, Gates of Fire pips it at the post.
This book may even get you to cry in the end. I have no shame in admitting that it made me cry. And books rarely make me cry. I can count the books that have done that to me on one hand. With fingers to spare.
You may also hate it, but isn't that the aim of this list? To stir you to action? To make you hate and love and, most important of all, to make you learn who you are as a reader in this genre?