The best novels featuring controversial historical heroes

Who am I?

I’m a Scottish writer of historical fiction and historical romance. I’m also a history graduate with imagination, by which I mean I’m as interested in what might have happened as what definitely did! So much of history is open to interpretation, taking account of who wrote what for whom, and why, and that is a large part of what fascinates me. And of course, I love a good historical novel that combines compelling writing with excellent research—especially when a controversial hero is shown in a new or captivating light.


I wrote...

A Prince to be Feared: The Love Story of Vlad Dracula

By Mary Lancaster,

Book cover of A Prince to be Feared: The Love Story of Vlad Dracula

What is my book about?

Europe’s most fearsome prisoner, Vlad Dracula, gifted military commander and one time Prince of Wallachia, the notorious Lord Impaler himself, is about to be released after twelve long years, in order to hold back the tide of Ottoman aggression. The price of his new alliance with his Hungarian captors is the king’s cousin Ilona. Ilona does not wish to be married. In particular, she doesn’t wish to marry Vlad. Gentle, faded and impossibly vague, Ilona is hardly fit for court life, let alone for dealing with so difficult a husband. But Ilona’s wishes have nothing to do with Vlad’s reputation and everything to do with a lifelong love affair that finally broke her. 

The books I picked & why

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King Hereafter

By Dorothy Dunnett,

Book cover of King Hereafter

Why this book?

This book became my ultimate escapism at a low point in my life. It’s a wonderfully written, well-researched epic novel about the eleventh century Scottish king, Macbeth, based on the bold premise that he and Thorfinn the Mighty, Earl of Orkney, were one and the same man. Most of us—especially those who went to school in Scotland!—are familiar with the Macbeth of Shakespeare, but Dorothy Dunnett brings him alive in his own time, no guilt-ridden villain but a complicated warrior of great depth and humanity, true to his beliefs, his people, and his wife who is nothing like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth either! This is a rattling good read by any standards—engrossing, exciting, humorous, and moving. Even knowing the tragedy was coming, I cried. Each time.

King Hereafter

By Dorothy Dunnett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked King Hereafter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A novel about Macbeth, King of Scotland, by the author of the "Lymond" series. 11th-century Europe is full of young kings. Macbeth - part-Christian, part-Viking - has the imagination and determination to move himself and his people out of a barbarian past and into flowering nationhood.

The Stranger Prince: The Story of Rupert of the Rhine

By Margaret Irwin,

Book cover of The Stranger Prince: The Story of Rupert of the Rhine

Why this book?

I first read this in my teens and was utterly blown away. It tells the story of the young Prince Rupert of the Rhine, most famous for fighting for his uncle, King Charles the First in the English Civil Wars. I knew little about “Roundheads and Cavaliers” at the time but had the vague idea that cavaliers were silly dandies with long hair who deserved to lose, and that Rupert was a mere mercenary desperate to make money out of someone else’s war. The Rupert of this beautifully written and impeccably researched novel is so much moredashing, yes, and fascinated by war, but also skilled, thoughtful, honourable, loyal, and unexpectedly vulnerable to those he loves. I believed in Ms. Irwin’s Rupert utterly. After my own studies, I still do.

The Stranger Prince: The Story of Rupert of the Rhine

By Margaret Irwin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Stranger Prince as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


The Spanish Bride

By Georgette Heyer,

Book cover of The Spanish Bride

Why this book?

I discovered this in my early teens, which perhaps explains why I didn’t bat an eyelid that the heroine is only fifteen years old when she marries our hero. It’s based on the true story of Harry and Juana Smith during the Peninsular war and is a very appealing novel, brilliantly researched and written in Georgette Heyer’s inimitable, light-hearted style. Harry shines as the brave and lovable young officer. Both main characters, their friends, and Wellington himself, leap off the pages fully formed. I’d probably blackball a book written now about a 25 year old man marrying a fifteen year old, yet I can still easily buy into this one, accepting the different customs of their time and simply enjoying their story. 

The Spanish Bride

By Georgette Heyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Spanish Bride as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shot-proof, fever-proof and a veteran campaigner at the age of 25, Brigade-Major Harry Smith is reputed to be the luckiest man in Lord Wellington's army. Yet at the siege of Badajoz, his friends foretell the ruin of his career.

Dracula

By Bram Stoker,

Book cover of Dracula

Why this book?

Yes, I know Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t really exist! But it is thought that Stoker based him on the fifteenth century Wallachian prince, Vlad III, known as Dracula (son of the dragon), of whom a thousand tales of cruelty and atrocity are still told in Romania today. My interest in the historical Vlad Dracula actually began with this book (and in fact I once took off with three friends to follow Jonanthan Harker’s route through Transylvania!), but I love it in its own right because it is such a wonderful Gothic horror story, deliciously atmospheric, and full of suspense, emotion, bizarre characters, and understated sensuality. What could be better?

Dracula

By Bram Stoker,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Dracula as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The very best story of diablerie which I have read for many years' Arthur Conan Doyle

A masterpiece of the horror genre, Dracula also probes identity, sanity and the dark corners of Victorian sexuality and desire. It begins when Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to help Count Dracula purchase a London house, and makes horrifying discoveries in his client's castle. Soon afterwards, disturbing incidents unfold in England - an unmanned ship is wrecked; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman's neck; a lunatic asylum inmate raves about the imminent arrival of his 'Master' - and a determined group of adversaries…


Birds Without Wings

By Louis De Bernieres,

Book cover of Birds Without Wings

Why this book?

I was drawn to this book because it is set in a part of Turkey that I love. There is such charm to the characters who live simple lives until they’re upended by other people’s wars and political decisions. I felt I could relate to them through people I’d actually met, even more so when I visited the “ghost village” of Kayakoy, which inspired de Berniere’s village. The stories of the fictional villagers, alternately touching, funny, brutal, and tragic, are mingled with that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern, secular Turkey, a man of great vision and leadership, who yet oversaw the removal of ethnic Greeks from their homes. I found the novel thoroughly haunting and thought-provoking.

Birds Without Wings

By Louis De Bernieres,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Birds Without Wings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set against the backdrop of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, Birds Without Wings traces the fortunes of one small community in south-west Anatolia - a town in which Christian and Muslim lives and traditions have co-existed peacefully for centuries.

When war is declared and the outside world intrudes, the twin scourges of religion and nationalism lead to forced marches and massacres, and the peaceful fabric of life is destroyed. Birds Without Wings is a novel about the personal and political costs of war, and about love: between men and women; between friends; between those who are driven to be enemies; and…


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Interested in the Peninsular War, sagas, and Iceland?

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