There are plenty of good historical novels, but the really good ones make you want to research and learn more about a period you’d otherwise have no interest in. With that in mind, here are my personal favorites, with commentary explaining why, and followed by suggested non-fiction reading. Feel free to share your own pick list in comments.
1. Shogun, by James Clavell. 1975. (Japan, 1600.) This is a novel that completely re-contextualizes you. You begin horrified by the Japanese and somewhere, somehow, become convinced they’re the civilized ones. By the end, you’re actually thinking like a samurai and endorsing ruthless codes against your integrity. Ritual suicide and honor killings — of which there are countless in Shogun — made complete sense to me; that’s how good Clavell is making you forget who you are. It’s probably the most didactic novel I’ve ever read (its message being that western people have much to learn from easterns) and yet it never feels preachy. Clavell is a storyteller whose priorities are action, romance, and political intrigue; endless backbiting; and cracking dialogue. He wants you to live and breathe the past, and to see feudal Japan through the eyes of the first Englishman to sail there. He reinvents historical figures like Will Adams and Ieyasu Tokugawa without sensationalism, knowing exactly when to loose the bounds of his imagination. Shogun taught me as much about thrilling fiction as it made me reflect on themes that were clearly important to Clavell — death (escaping from “the abyss of life”, as one samurai reflects), love (understood in terms of duty more than affection), and treachery (the other coin to honor-shame loyalty, and sometimes esteemed as a virtue). What can I say, Shogun is The Lord of the Rings of historical novels, and its influence as direct.
Related Non-Fiction: Samurai William: the Englishman Who Opened Japan, by Giles Milton.
2. The King of Vinland’s Saga, by Stuart Mirsky. 1998. (Greenland & Maine, 1040s.) If Shogun is about the clash of east and west, this is of Viking and Indian, and the codes of honor are just as ferocious. Mirsky’s narrative is more lyrically old-fashioned, but incredibly addictive once you get used to it. The dialogue sea-saws between descriptions of what is said and the actual quoted speech. For example: “Osvif said this was all very irregular and a serious matter, ‘or didn’t you know that it is a fatal flaw to bring charges against men, if you are equally guilty of them?’” Or this: “Arnliot laughed and promised to bring her back many fine gifts from the land of the Skraelings, ‘and not least of these, the heads of those who oppose me’.” I’ve never seen this style wielded with such rhythmic discipline, and it meshes perfectly with the gloom-and-doom tone of the Norse and Icelandic sagas. The story is about Leif Erickson’s grandson who sails to North America and reclaims the territory of Vinland, assimilates into a Skraeling (Indian) tribe and battles against another, and then finds himself in hot water when the enemies he left behind in Greenland come after him. Mirsky follows the idea that Vinland was in present-day Maine rather than Newfoundland (where most historians place it) and to convincing effect. This is a page-turner of family feuds, overseas conquests, hopeless battles, and doomed warriors. And there’s no Dances with Wolves political-correctness here; neither Vikings nor Skraelings are heroes or villains. Each is fluent in savagery — and each capable of the rare tender mercy.
Related Non-Fiction: The Viking Settlements of North America, by Frederick Pohl.
3. The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay. 1995. (Spain, 1080s.) It’s set in an alternate fantasy world, but so closely modeled on our own that it passes for historical fiction. Kay shows us the Reconquest of Spain through the eyes of a Christian warrior (El Cid), Jewish doctor, and Muslim assassin, who become friends in a mercenary band until war divides them. Whenever I’m asked for the best novel about the crusades, The Lions of Al-Rassan is my answer. Few realize that the Reconquestia was effectively a crusade, predating Urban’s famous sermon which launched the “First Crusade” to the Holy Lands, though Kay telescopes the two events. Everything about this book — the characters, the court politics, the introspective drama, the bloody devastation — puts you on 11th-century soil as the Umayyad dynasty was collapsing and Islam on its way out. At heart, the story is about the pain of cross-cultural friendship in time of war, and you really feel for the lead characters who know their friendship is doomed. Al-Rassan (Ummayad Spain) is a place we grieve for before it’s crushed, not only for the fountains, gardens, ivories, advanced medicine, and decadent festivals, but because it compels by all its tensions. It was enlightened for its time, but Kay isn’t a romantic or propagandist. Muslim Spain may have been a European paradise of sorts, but a paradise with a ruthless enough infrastructure.
Related Non-Fiction: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, by María Rosa Menocal.
4. The Camulod Chronicles, by Jack Whyte. 1992-1999. (England, 367-449.) There are loads of novels about King Arthur, but this six-volume series is the one to read if you want the legend as it “could have been”. It starts with the fall of Hadrian’s Wall and spans eight decades, until in the final chapter of the sixth volume, that young king pulls the sword from the stone, with no magic involved. Whyte associates Arthur with the documented figure known as the Riothamus, “High King” of the Britons/Bretons in the fifth century, a theory I’ve always found interesting. Most interpretations of Arthur are set in the sixth century, and with a more Celtic (and less Roman) flavor. Here the legend falls into place without ever leaning on the supernatural, like Excalibur, the Round Council (“Round Table”), Avalon, and Merlyn’s sorcery. I especially like the way the Round Council harks back to the equality of the republican Roman Senate, established in Camulod to put an end to petty feuds over status. Merlyn’s metamorphosis into into a “sorcerer” — from Legate Commander of Camulod into a bitter, reclusive, and shadowy figure skilled with poisons — is handled brilliantly, not only for taking so many volumes to get there, but because of what it finally takes to make him snap, guilt and self-recriminations over the horrible deaths of loved ones. There have been endless theories about the location of Camelot, and Whyte puts it around the Cadbury area.
Related Non-Fiction: The Quest for Arthur’s Britain, edited by Geoffrey Ashe.
5. Ironfire, by David Ball. 2004. (Malta, North Africa, & Turkey, 1552-1565.) Ironfire moves like a juggernaut. It holds you in an emotional vise and makes you constantly fear for its characters. And it makes you reflect on what it really means to grow up in a world of brutality, indifference, and religious divides. I picked it up for my obsession with the Ottoman Empire, but it’s more than just a blistering account of the Siege of Malta. It’s about individual powerlessness and the will to forge your fate despite it. It begins with two siblings playing on an abandoned coast, and they are surprised by corsairs; the nine-year old brother is captured, taken to Africa and enslaved; the thirteen-year old sister won’t see him for another thirteen years. In-between, the story moves back and forth between Maria’s peasant life on Malta, and Nico’s life as a slave in Algiers and then as a royal page at the court of Istanbul. His conversion to Islam starts out skin-deep, but then evolves into something quite real, while his sister grows up suffering guilt over losing him, joining an outcast Jewish community, and stalked by a local priest who eventually becomes the island’s Inquisitor. Their lives unfold with the sort of detail that makes you think this stuff is too real to be made up, and by the end I felt like they were my own family.
Related Non-Fiction: A History of the Knights of Malta, by Whitworth Porter.
6. Tai-Pan, by James Clavell. 1966. (Hong Kong, 1841.) I didn’t want to use an author more than once on this list, but it can’t be helped for Clavell. Tai-Pan may not be the crown jewel Shogun is, but it’s still a masterpiece, and it has the most colorful cast of characters in any novel I’ve read. We all know the cliches of characters so dynamic they “leap from the page”, but cliches were made for novels like Tai-Pan. The setting is the British occupation of Hong Kong and an empire built on opium smuggling; the “hero” a Scottish pirate who dreams of uniting the best traditions of China and Europe, as he also works to bring down a former shipmate who owns a rival trading company. The vicious conflict between these men and their families is the heart of the story, and every time you think a confrontation will go a certain way, it doesn’t. As in all of Clavell’s stories, the thrill of the plot dominates in a clash of cultures, with a deep respect for the east that doesn’t patronize. (In fact, Clavell wasn’t very politically correct, and he was a capitalist to the core.) It’s the only novel on this list without battles or invasions: trade is the theater of war, and its castles are the opium, spices, teas, and silks so highly valued in an age of British colonialism. Trust Clavell to make stock prices so exciting.
Related Non-Fiction: A History of Hong Kong, by Nigel Cameron.
7. Sword of the North, by Richard White. 1983. (Scotland & Massachusetts, 1356-1398.) How Columbus got the credit for discovering America I’ll never know. Not only did Leif Erickson beat him by five centuries, Henry Sinclair probably beat him by one, and this novel is his story. Sinclair was Baron of Rosslyn in southern Scotland, and then also Jarl of the Orkney Islands, and as White portrays him a fair but firm ruler who went at heads with corrupt bishops and venal noblemen. He got around plenty before embarking on his voyage to North America — to Norway, the Faroe Islands — and there’s even an amusing scene in the book where visiting England he bumps into that father of literature, Geoffrey Chaucer. The action is light but the dialogue superb, almost poetic, yet without sounding aloof. There’s striking humor on display, and whether or not it represents 14th-century thought, it’s the book’s clear signature which sets it above the mainstream. It’s long out of print and almost unheard of, which is a shame, but the library still has a copy from the days when the author was a high-school teacher in Nashua. He went on to write the smashing western Mister Grey, and only three years ago finally published his scholarly research on Sinclair’s expeditions. Speaking of which…
Related Non-Fiction: These Stones Bear Witness, by (none other than) Richard White.
8. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon. 1955-1960. (France, 1314-1336.) I’m going out on a limb here, since I’ve read only the first two books. But so far, this seven-volume series is proving to be everything George Martin promised: the inspiration of his Game of Thrones blockbuster, and known in France as the “The French I, Claudius” — about King Philip the Fair, his royal family, the curse of the Templars, the fall of the Capetian dynasty, and the roots of the Hundred Years War with England. Thanks to the Game of Thrones craze and Martin’s praise, this long out-of-print series has been resurrected and is in the process of being translated into English. I can see how it inspired Martin’s world of political backbiting, betrayal, and tasty characters. The scope of this series isn’t quite as ambitious as Game of Thrones, and it’s historical fiction rather than fantasy. But it’s the same texture of nobles and family members who hate and scheme against each other, and you never know who to like or really why. I was impressed by Druon’s portrayal of Philip the Fair, whom I expected not to like at all for his treatment of the Templars. Druon gives him sympathetic moments, and takes swipes at feudal papists as much as royal progressives. Let’s hope the other five novels are as good… and that they roll out as quickly.
Related Non-Fiction: The Shaping of France, by Isaac Asimov.
9. Sherwood, by Parke Godwin. 1991. (England, 1070-1075.) Robin Hood is more elusive than even King Arthur, and Godwin isn’t afraid to shake things up. His most dramatic revision is the early setting of the Norman Invasion, rather than the reign of Richard the Lionheart. He explains in the afterword: “The tradition of placing Robin in the 12th century began with Scott’s Ivanhoe and continued via Hollywood and television. Beyond pure romance, this has always bothered me from a standpoint of historical truth. ‘Good’ King Richard spent no more than four months of his ten-year reign in England and regarded it mainly as a source of revenue for his wars. I chose to set the story a hundred years earlier, where the dramatic elements would not be changed but intensified.” Yes, it’s easy to imagine a figure like Robin Hood in the wake of William the Conqueror, and the Sheriff of Nottingham fits wonderfully in this scheme as a crude French knight imposing feudal ways on the more independent English; Robin is a thane attempting to retain the more democratic Saxon traditions. This grounds the outlaw-sheriff struggle in something concrete and cultural, and the beauty to this re-imagining is that I found myself liking the sheriff (more than Robin!) despite myself. He’s not so much an evil oppressor as a man shaped by his cultural background. He and Robin simply can’t understand where the other is coming from.
Related Non-Fiction: Robin Hood: An Historical Enquiry, by John Bellamy.
10. An Army of Children, by Evan Rhodes. 1978. (Germany & Italy, 1212.) The Children’s Crusade of 1212 was a bizarre and tragic event, involving two boys who had independent visions of marching to Palestine with “armies” of pacifist children, and shaming the Muslims into giving up the holy lands. This march of peace would supposedly succeed where over a century’s worth of crusading warfare had failed, and the boys attracted huge followings for their outlandish fantasy, one in Paris, the other Cologne. When the French group came to Marseille — apparently expecting God to part the seas so they could continue — local merchants offered to transport the children in seven ships; two of these ships were lost at sea, while the others went to Africa, where the kids were sold into slavery. The German group made it as far as Rome (many having died en route in the Alps) but dispersed when the pope refused to see them. Some persisted in trying to secure passage to the holy lands, and, like the French children, were shipped to brothels and slave markets, this time in the Mediterranean. This novel follows the German kids (for which historical documentation is more reliable than the French), and if you want a heartbreaking look at one of the strangest mutations of medieval crusading, then An Army of Children will leave its mark on you.
Related Non-Fiction: God’s War, by Christopher Tyerman.