Monday, 16 June 2014

The 10 Must Read Books in the Historical Fiction Genre

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?

- MM


  1. I agree especially with Dissolution and The Hangman's Daughter, but how did The Sunne in Splendour and The Name of the Rose not end up on this list? The list seems a bit skewed towards novels that feature battles - personally, I find battles hopelessly boring, but there you go.

    1. 5 of the 10 are not battle books. They have an equal footing with the battle heavy ones. 5 each. Name of the Rose is just not a book that I would recommend to someone wanting to try the genre. Sunne in Splendour is not the kind of book I would add to this list. It is a romantic historical fiction. I tried to explain in the blog intro that love story/relationship story books are not a sub genre of historical fiction this blog caters to.

    2. P.S Thanks for your views though, mafiacourtesan. I understand that everyone's views differ on something like this.

  2. Interesting choices. And I love the idea of the post. Now I shall have to think of what I would pick.....
    I am surprised you didn't pick an Edith Pargeter

    1. Hi mate,
      I wanted to :) But I felt that even though I love her books and Shrewsbury is one of my faves, that they probably wouldn't suit someone dabbling in the genre.

    2. I also SO wanted to put Insurrection on it too. :)

    3. Okay, I decided on my picks last night. It was decidedly hard to think from a good cross section POV instead of favorites.

      I'd keep three of yours: The Last Kingdom, Gates of Fire (even though I don't find these battle books that accessible, I agree it's important to try one and have been informed it's the best one) and Ghengis. I'd put in Sharpe instead of The Winter King and Azincourt (even though I loved this one).
      And my other 6 would be: Byzantium (I think because it was such a big one for me. In a negative way but still important to deciding what I liked), Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (because I gotta have a naval choice), Roman Blood (almost went Eagle in the Snow for a Roman pick but I thought this one more accessible), A Morbid Taste for Bones (Cadfaels a classic), City of Thieves (I like the modern stories and wanted something non-mystery, this one is popular even though I didn't like it that much) and Blood & Beauty as my 'girly' pick because I think it's better than Penman.

    4. It's interesting how much personal preference plays into the list even when you're not going with a top ten favorites list.

      Your post really made me think about the type of books I read and what would be most accessible.

      I really wanted to put in Hild and Niccolo Rising and Master and Commander and The Janissary Tree but thought they were more second or third phase instead of first.

    5. You bring up a point that I kept in mind when I wss compiling the list. Second and third tier. There are a whole bevy of books that I would recommend as reads after this intro ten. Byzantium would devinitely be second tier for me. It is such a long book that I feel it may actually put people off the genre if it was in this 10. But it did nearly get there. Missed out by a whisker. The other reason I skipped Sharpe was the era. Same with the naval. People tend to ask in our group for earlier than those. Are more after a taste of sword fighting over gun fighting. Also, I tried to keep the list true to 'Ancient & Medieval' or as close as possible. Nothing too far over 1500s. So, now you know that! Want to try again? Challenge yourself to pick ten good, accessible, quality examples of the genre with a cut off no later than 1600. :)

    6. Oop. I mean no later than 1700. Not 1600. That's a cushion of 200 years after the medieval period finishes.

    7. I'd end up with all mystery books! Especially if I only picked from books I've read. lol
      Oh, actually that would just be 3 I need to switch out. Hmmm, 1700 huh. I have a couple ideas, The King's Spy instead of Sharpe; Armada by John Stark instead of Hornblower (probably a better first tier book anyway, lots of it takes place on land) & Lord of the Silver Bow instead of The City of Thieves.

      See now, I would have thought Dissolution as a second tier but not Byzantium.

      You know what this exercise really illustrates?? I have to read more HF, I don't have enough choices because I haven't read everything!

    8. So which one did you swap for The Winter King? I think if you have to have it off your list, then the Silver Bow should be there. The Winter King is in there to represent non fantasy mythology. Because interest in mythology brings many new readers to the genre. TWK shows that non fantasy mythology can be done and done well. Troy being mythology and Ancient would be a perfect swap for TWK on your list.

    9. Oh and I meant to say..Lord of the Silver Bow was on my shortlist. I eliminated it based on the amount of people that argue it is actually alternate history. I think it is borderline and can see sense in people's arguments. So I left it out. I wouldn't want someone's first reaction to the genre to be anger at me because I recommended a 'non fantasy' HF that turned out to be a 'alternate history' HF. :) Thought I'd play it safe in the case of this 10 'must read' list. Rather meet the person in conversation and get a feel for what they want before recommending Silver Bow.

    10. I had originally swapped out The Winter King and Azincourt for Sharpe. I didn't have any mythology on my first list. But when you said cut off was 1700 I thought I would add that one. I was thinking Outlaw or The Crystal Cave too. And The Song of Troy that we just read was also pretty good, though with Troy it's either gonna be alternate or magic.

      So my ten (following your selection criteria):
      The Last Kingdom
      Lord of the Silver Bow
      Gates of Fire
      A Morbid Taste for Bones
      Roman Blood
      The King's Spy
      Blood & Beauty

      The one thing I didn't find was a good Egyptian HF. I like a few mysteries but none of the regular HF.

    11. I just don't think there is an Egyptian HF out there that is good enough yet to add to a list like these. There are popular ones, but I find all their reviews are hit and miss. No stand outs that make me want to say YES! You MUST read this book if you are going to delve into this genre. It is an absolute MUST READ. Maybe someone needs to write one. Not me though. :) I won't do it.

    12. Some okay ones and one I would put in a Historical Mystery must reads list. But nothing really good. With all the Egyptian stuff out there you would hope there was at least one of them.

    13. River God may be the pick for me. But I have to reread that before I stand by that choice. I am going off a very 'young adult' memory, seeing as I read it in my early 20s. As an adult, my needs and judgements differ greatly. ;)

    14. I just ordered that from the library in the hopes that I'll read it next month for the poll loser thread.

    15. If you get it in time and my schedule clears, I will read it with you. I will be reading Roman Blood and don't plan on rereading The Last Templar. I may read a later Jecks book instead. If I don't, then I might be able to fit in River God in July. We'll see how it goes.

  3. Good list. I own most of them and others don't interest me. But i am one of those not interested in love stories. I want what it was really like. And if you can write battles like Bernard or Conn, then you will be on a pedestal at my place. But you could actually add the series. The khan series is amazing. Same as the warrior chronicles.

    1. Hi Matthew,
      Yep, I'm with you there. No interest in love stories. I want the events of history illuminated. I don't go in for books that dwel, of emotions and dramatic relationships.

  4. Good list. I own most of them and others don't interest me. But i am one of those not interested in love stories. I want what it was really like. And if you can write battles like Bernard or Conn, then you will be on a pedestal at my place. But you could actually add the series. The khan series is amazing. Same as the warrior chronicles.

    1. Sorry I mean as a list of the best series. Also have you read sharpe? If there was ever a unisex series it's sharpe.

    2. I did consider Sharpe. I haven't read it, but I have no doubt it is good. Even though I haven't read it, I still wondered if it should be on this list. What stopped me in the end was the number of Cornwell I already had on the list! I didn't want to turn it into a Cornwell list. :)

  5. I've read Durham's Acacia fantasy trilogy and thought he was a fantastic author with that, so I can imagine his hf would be just as good.

    1. monkey! that was supposed to be me. I guess staying signed in at different places can be hazardous...

    2. Ha. That happens to me on Facebook ALL the time! I have three pages on FB. :) Easy to forget what identity I am posting under.

      Durhams historical fiction is an outstanding example of how to write and write well. He is talented and needs to write some more HF like Pride of Carthzge.

  6. I've read a few Bernard Cornwell, which I dearly love. I' ve put the others on my to read list. Thank you for your list and reviews.

    1. Hi Sandra,
      I hope the books on this list inspire you and lead you on to many more like them. :)