Find your next Historical Fiction book here by @Madouc
There are hundreds of truly fantastic works of historical fiction works, set in every time, place andfor every age group imaginable. Sometimes, however, it is hard to find all the best ones, and know when they fit in history, so here is my Timeline of Must Read Historical Novels for your enjoyment.
“There are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth.” – I, Claudius, Robert
First we must take a step back in time, so please, step into my time machine with me and let us set the clock to 4000 BC. Our first stop.
40000 BC – Neolithic Finland. The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver is a brilliant series of books, following the story of a young boy named Torak and his friend, a wolf cub. After his father is killed by a demon bear, Torak promises to get revenge and make things right, and so travels north. Along the way they run into another clan, who believe Torak to be the subject of a prophecy.
The books look at the religious beliefs and the lifestyle of the tribal people during the New Stone Age. I absolutely loved these books when I read them. It’s an exciting and intriguing story from start to finish, both brilliantly written with imagination, humour and well researched facts. What more could you want!
Now we must set our clock again, to travel forward 2000 years, and head further south until we find ourselves in the royal palace in Egypt…
1490 BC – Ancient Egypt. Princess of Egypt by Vince Cross is part of the My Story series by Scholastic. Considering it was written as part of a purposeful series to get young people interested in history it is surprising well written, with a captivating story. It follows Asha, better known in the history books as Pharaoh Hatshepsut (the one who wore a fake beard), as her world is thrown into a turmoil of plots and danger. It’s written like a diary, and I remember being particularly inspired by it when I was younger. Though it is no literary masterpiece, it’s a nice little book, and a good read for anyone into Egyptology.
Across the sea to Greece we must tread our weary, to the land of heroes and scholars…
1000 BC – Greece. Black Ships before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus both by Rosemary Sutcliff are brilliant books, the stories of the Trojan War, and the hero Odysseus’s travels home. They retell the great bard Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. They give an understanding of the Society, religion and beliefs of the Ancient Greeks, all wrapped up in a fine tale, woven by a well-practiced story teller.
A few hundred years later, and the Roman Empire is reaching its well militarised fingers out for power, and we set the destination to a small village in Gaul…
80 BC – Roman Empire. The Asterix comic books by Goscinny and Uderzo, though not entirely accurate to say the least, are very clever. Set during the rise of Julius Caesar and his Roman Empire, their true historic content is limited, but there are the occasional titbits of information in among the jokes and the humour, and a lot of the settings and characters outside the village were real, and what collection of historical fiction would be complete without this childhood gem?
Elsewhere in the Roman Empire, there are kidnappings and mysteries taking place…
79 BC – Roman Empire. The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence. No list of Roman time historical fiction books would be complete without this series. Each book tells a different historical event or story, with a lay out of clues to lead the characters, and the reader, to discover the tale of that book. They follow four children from different backgrounds, as they use their detective skills to solve the mystery. Flavia is the daughter of a rich merchant, Johnathan is the son of a Jewish doctor, Nubia is Flavia’s slave and best friend, and Lupin is a mute orphan. The adventures they get on are exciting and thrilling, drawing you in a pulling you along every step of the way in a brilliantly written fashion. I absolutely loved these books, and occasionally get the desire to get them out again and reread them.
61 BC – Roman Empire. Gladiator: Fight for Freedom by Simon Scarrow tells the story of Marcus Cornelius Primus, a young boy enslaved to become a gladiator and fighter as Rome slowly heads toward civil war, due to the rise of the great legend, Spartacus. It’s a fast paced, action and adventure book. The telling is very precise and graphic, and I remember highly enjoying it when I read it. The book is the first in a very good trilogy that I would highly recommend.
44 BC – Roman Empire. I, Claudius by Robert Graves is probably the one of the most highly acclaimed book on this list. From the point of view of Claudius in the years leading up to his reign, we see the supposed inner thoughts of the man who was to become the fourth Emperor of Rome. Claudius is advised to play the fool to stay safe among his mocking family, while his love of history and the truth drives him to write about the three Emperors to come before him, after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Sadly I have not read I, Claudius, but I’ve been dying to for a while, as it’s so famed for being fantastic.
Now we must take a step away from the civilisation of the Roman Empire, past its fall, and make our way over the seas to a colder land. A land of knights and their ladies.
400 AD – Britain. There are several books on the great, mysterious and legendary king of Britain, Arthur Pendragon. Some say he’s still sleeping, waiting to arise again when Britain is in its hour of need, some saying he already has, and some do not believe he ever existed. Regardless of whether or not there was a great king who fought against the Saxons in the way the legends suggest, and whether the King named Arthur was the one in the stories, all the Arthurian legends are based in Medieval Britain. The three books I feel do the stories justice are TC White’s The Once and Future King, Michael Morpurgo’s Arthur: High King of Britain, and Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory.
The 700s bought the Vikings to Britain, great warriors from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Famed for their beards, helmets, thirst for gold and great epics, their stories all seemed to involve the great dragons of the weather…
700 AD – Europe. Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo. There are many retellings of the myth of Beowulf, and I’ve read several different versions of the tale, but I think Morpurgo’s is probably my favourite, and not only because I love Michael Foreman’s illustrations. The story is of the great Viking hero Beowulf and the monster Grendel and its fearsome mother, telling how he defeated them and saved the town that was being terrorized every night. It shows the religious and social beliefs of the ancient Nordic people, and is beautifully told in this version.
1000 AD – Europe and Vinland. Viking: Odinn’s Child, by Tim Severin is about Thorgils Leifson, the supposed child of Leif the Lucky, the famous Viking who found Vinland. The story is based off the Viking Sagas and is acclaimed as being “packed with wonderfully re-imagined adventures” and is particularly well researched. Once the Vikings stopped invading the British shores, there was not much rest for soon they were invaded by the French. William the conqueror took the throne english in 1066, and five monarchs later, the French King Richard the Lionheart lead his army, leaving his brother John to tax the English people and rule as in his place as he saw fit. Story has it there was a certain Robert of Loxley who took a slightly less than legal approach to helping the English people, “Steal from the rich, to give to the poor,” but first…
1123 AD – Britain. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is an in-depth and graphic description of life during the Middle Ages. I’ve heard it described as a historically accurate Game of Thrones. It’s full of love, lust, deceit and betrayal, and fantastical juicy historical facts. It’s a big book, and not for the faint of heart, but if you can take it, you’re in for a brilliant read.
1180 AD – England. The Adventures of Robin Hood by Roger Lancelyn Green retells the popular folklore of the famous and beloved hero Robin Hood. Set during Crusade time England, we see the day to day struggles of the peasants in Nottinghamshire. There are hundreds of retellings of Robin Hood’s tale, but this one I felt told the tale in full, and gave a nice picture of the state of English living during the middle ages.
Now, if we step back inside our time machine and set the clock to the 1500s, we find that Britain is once again in civil war…
1500 AD – England. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Henry Tudor in the mother of the Infamous Henry VIII. It tells the story of the war of the roses, and some of you may remember and have seen the BBC television production of it back in 2013. Her other book, The Other Boleyn Girl is also very good, this one based off the life of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, set during Henry VIII reign too, is about the rise of Thomas Cromwell and it too, is highly acclaimed as a work of literature.
In other parts of the world there were many other exciting things happening during the 16th century, and if we set our course back to Italy, where the Renaissance was in full swing…
1500 AD – Italy. Daughter of Venice by Donna Jo Napoli. Donata is the daughter of one of the Venetian noble families, but she dislikes her lack of freedom, so with the help of her sister, she dresses up as a boy at night and wanders the streets of Venice. When her father finds her a suitable marriage partner she is less than pleased, and it leads to a whirlwind romance with her one of friends from the streets, Noe, and a family scandal. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and personally think it is highly underrated.
The next book is The Medici Curse by Matt Charmings. It crosses the story of a modern day girl trying to find clues about an old painting, and the story of the painter and his lover, the girl in the painting, a member of the famous Medici family in Florence. I loved this book, reading it twice and talking my mother into reading to too before I returned it to the library.
Over the other side of the world, past the spice routes we must wend our path, all the way to Feudal Japan...
1500 AD – Japan. Tales of the Otori is a series by Lian Hearn. It’s based off the Feudal Times, in Japan, and follows the life of Takeo, a young boy trained by the great samurai Lord Otori, whom adopts him as his son, and has him taught in the ways of the Tribe, a clan of highly skilled assassins to kill a murderous Daimyo. To do so he has to master the skill of walking across the Nightingale Floor, a floor made with carefully crafted boards to “sing” when walked upon. It is a beautifully written trilogy, the words flowing from the page like a crystal clear stream, each word perfectly placed and perfectly chosen. The relationships and characters are brilliantly created and told, and I would recommend the books to anyone. I loved these books.
Shogun by James Clavell is another brilliant book set in Feudal Time Japan. It follows the story of Blackthorne, the first Englishman to set foot in Japan, and how he survives among the alien culture that is so different to the one he knew at home. The attitude toward life is more than he can handle at times, but he is taken on by a wily old Daimyo named Toranaga whom plans to use his knowledge to gain peace in the turmoil of the times as they various Daimyos fight out who shall take the place of the next Shogun. Shogun is currently one of my favourite books. Its in-depth study of human nature, accurate setting and brilliant writing all lending to be a fantastic read if you’re willing to take the time for the massive tome, which I would highly recommend doing.
If we reset our clock, we head forward again, to the 1600s…
1600 AD – Holland. The House of Windjammer by V. A. Richardson is a brilliant book on the Tulip Crisis, and tells the story of a boy, who finds himself at a loss for money after his father dies and uncle is lost with a merchant ship, carrying the family’s last chance to pay off their debts. He sets off on a mission to find the last hope for the family, a tulip called the Black Pearl. It’s a nice, book, and easy to read. Highly enjoyable.
1600 AD – America. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare tells the story of Kit, a young girl who is sent from her idyllic life in the Bahamas to live with her puritan uncle and his family. She struggles to fit in, after living a decadent lifestyle, but it all starts to go wrong when she’s accused of witchcraft… A very well done book, with very good characters.Up next in America we have the classic Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. This moves us into the 1700s, and tells the story of the American civil war. It’s another large book, but has a sweeping romance and strong characters.
Our time machine is creaking as we start to near homeward bounds, but before we leave the 1700s behind, we must make a stop in the windy wilds of Scotland, to glimpse the life of a certain Scottish Rebel…
1700 AD - Scotland. Rob Roy by Walter Scott. Set during the Jacobite rise, Rob Roy explains the story of Rob Roy McGregor, whom is often referred to as the Scottish Robin Hood. The main character Frank falls in love with a girl that leads him on a fantastical adventure with the Scottish hero. Brilliantly written, it’s an exciting story, and well worth the effort of reading. Leaving the Scottish wilds behind, we must turn our journey to the 19th century.
1800 AD – Europe. Temeraire by Naomi Novik is a series of books that my mother likes to describe as “The Napoleonic war; but with dragons.” What is there not to love? They’re very well written books, and great fun to read. Spicing up history with fantasy has never been so fun!War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is an undertaking to read, and one that I am yet to attempt. Famed for being one of the longest books ever written, it tells the story of several characters in Russia during the Napoleonic war, in great and well written detail.
The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas are fantastic books if you want a gripping story and a good picture of 19th century France and Italy, and the aristocratic politics that took place. They’re fantastic books, and well worth the read, even if they are the size of bricks, but remember, not only would you have a fantastic book to read on the train home, but you also have an immediate weapon in case you ever run into trouble!
1800 AD – America. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain are both fantastic pieces of literature. They tell the stories of two young boys, and are a fantastic looks at the society and humanity during the time. Personally I always preferred Tom Sawyer of the two books, an uncommon choice I know, but that image of the white washed fences will stay with me forever.
We are nearing the end of our journey through time, as we enter the homeward stretch. Into the 1900s…
1914 AD - Europe. Europe. War Horse by Michael Morpurgo is a brilliant book, set during World War One, from the point of view of one of the horses used by the army. It’s an emotional a beautiful story that is hard to forget after reading it, and it will stay with you for as long as you live.The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgwick. Is another brilliant book on World War One. It’s got a simplistic and beautiful writing style that gives you exactly what you need, and lets the telling be pure and simple. A young girl can see the future, and the book is written as a countdown to the fates she had seen coming.
1917 AD – Russia. Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgewick tells the story of the Russian Revolution. It is told like a fairy tale, with some truly beautiful metaphors and phrases. I would highly recommend this book, as I loved it so much. It follows the story of the famous author of the Swallows and Amazons series, Arthur Ransom on his trip in Russia as a journalist.
1930 AD – America. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A famous book that you’ve probably had to read as part of an English course, it’s an absolutely brilliant read. Scout is a young girl in the 1930s, and her tale deals with is a mix up of prejudice and injustice. It’s a brilliant story, with some serious lessons to take from it. I love this book. Who could not love Atticus Finch?
1939 AD – Europe. World War Two bought hundreds of books to read, based all over the world. Set in Germany itself there’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas tells the painfully sad story of the friendship between a young German boy, and a Jewish prisoner in a concentration camp. The Book Thief, narrated by death himself is about a young girl who is adopted by a couple, and she attempts to hold the horrors of war away with stories and books. Both are brilliant and emotional reads, which I absolutely loved.Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières takes us to Greece. It’s a realistic and graphic depiction of the lives of the troops is horrific, and brilliantly told. The characters are exceptionally real, neither villains nor heroes, just all desperate survivors in the bitter world.
Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian is a beautiful story. A young evacuee arrives on the doorstep of a grumpy and disgruntled old man. As time goes one, the boy soften the old man’s heart, and he gradually falls in love with the child, taking him on like his own grandchild. Set in England, the book as about the simple people’s life during the war, and is another emotional read.
1960 AD – Belgian Congo. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver takes us to Africa with a missionary family. The fanatical father’s actions soon cause trouble among the villagers, especially when he tries to baptise them in the crocodile infested river. It’s a brilliant book, with strong characters and a strong voice. I’ve you’re easily offended and Christian, you may want to give this book a miss, but it’s brilliantly told, and if you’re willing to put up with the strong opinions, it’s a certain must read, showing culture differences and the issues they can bring up very well.
Now we find ourselves almost home, and so we make our final stop in Afghanistan, and it’s the 1970s…
1970 AD – Afghanistan. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. This book is a harsh story about the Taliban rise, and is graphic and unforgiving in its telling. It’s well written, but uncomfortable and terribly sad to read. It has some very good descriptions, especially of scenes. The picture of society is nice and well-rounded too, and if you enjoyed this you’ll certainly enjoy A Thousand Splendid Suns by the same author too.
Now our trip through time must sadly end, for now, and I must take my leave. I give you the gift of my time machine, and wish you adieu.
Happy time traveling!
Do you have any favourite works of Historical Fiction? Let us know what they are below!