The best books with fantastic heroes at war

Matt Barron Author Of Prentice Ash
By Matt Barron

Who am I?

Like so many boys, I grew up playing soldiers with my friends. Now I’m a trained historian and running around waving a stick as a pretend rifle yelling rat-a-tat, or sword fighting with fallen branches, just isn’t a good look for me. But I can still appreciate the heroism of soldiers that drew me to play those games in the first place. These books scratch that itch, as well as meeting the standard of truthfulness that the historian in me needs. Believable settings with heroes you can root for and stakes that feel real. That’s what I like to read and that’s what I write.


I wrote...

Prentice Ash

By Matt Barron,

Book cover of Prentice Ash

What is my book about?

Trained as a knight, condemned as a heretic, exiled as a convict, Prentice’s every moment is a struggle just to survive. 

The duke is dead and young Duchess Amelia, now rules the Western Reach alone. When an unknown enemy invades her lands, slaughtering all in their path, her knights are too eager for glory to see the danger. She is forced to turn to Prentice, a convict, skilled at warfare and the only one she can trust despite the dishonour. Thrust into the front lines, Prentice must fight the violence of the enemy and foolishness of his own commanders. In battle he will earn the name Prentice Ash, for no matter how intense the fires of war, even if all burns away, Ash will remain.

The books I picked & why

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The Jewel in the Skull

By Michael Moorcock,

Book cover of The Jewel in the Skull

Why this book?

This is a masterpiece of the New Wave fantasy novels of the 1960s and 1970s. The hero, Dorian Hawkmoon, is a nobleman in the far future where science has become so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic. Hawkmoon is forced to work for his enemies by a magical jewel they embed in his forehead. Hawkmoon’s world is Europe, but hardly recognisable, and a vast empire with impossible super-technology is conquering the whole continent. It’s a story of heroism vs magic in a war where the technological wonders feel alien and familiar all at once. The evil empire of Granbretan, where everyone is continuously masked, is one of the most original of the trope that has ever been written.


Sharpe's Eagle

By Bernard Cornwell,

Book cover of Sharpe's Eagle

Why this book?

A common man with uncommon courage, Richard Sharpe has risen out of the ranks of Wellington’s army in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. But without the money to back him, Sharpe’s promotion is under threat. His only chance is an act of never-before-seen heroism—the capture of a French regimental eagle, symbol of the Emperor Napoleon’s honour. No Englishman has ever done it. This is historical fiction at its absolute best. Cornwell is so vivid you can almost hear the muskets and smell the gunpowder. He transports you to another era and shows you raw courage and victory in the face of a monstrous war of attrition.


Sheepfarmer's Daughter

By Elizabeth Moon,

Book cover of Sheepfarmer's Daughter

Why this book?

Paksenarrion is a young farm girl in a fantasy world who can’t face the quiet life that seems to be her fate. Tall and strong, she runs away from home to join a mercenary company and train to be a soldier. Then she goes on the campaign and through grit and determination survives and thrives, impressing her commanders to rise to a command of her own. The book’s low magic setting and focus on the reality of military life make for a refreshing change in fantasy. There’s no chosen one, no prophecy, no evil wizard threatening the whole world; just a girl growing into a woman and a warrior through effort and courage. 


Ship of the Line

By C.S. Forrester,

Book cover of Ship of the Line

Why this book?

This is C.S. Forester’s famous naval hero Horatio Hornblower at his best. Captain Hornblower is in command of his first ship of the line. Forester knows ships from bowsprit to sternchasers and you can feel it in every word. There's a truth to the writing that puts you right down in the thick of it. Duty, skill and courage are on display throughout and the climax, when Captain Hornblower accepts an impossible task to protect his allies, and turns his ship to face three to one odds, knowing he cannot win? It’s a masterclass in writing a battle scene, sailors facing certain death with iron will. Nerve wracking doesn’t begin to cover it.


On Basilisk Station

By David Weber,

Book cover of On Basilisk Station

Why this book?

The first Honor Harrington book, On Basilisk Station, is space opera the way it should be written. Weber’s space navy isn’t ‘pew, pew’ laser bolts, it’s cool and well-thought-out hard sci-fi. Technology leads to tactics; tactics lead to strategy; and strategy wins and loses wars. And then he drops Lieutenant Honor Harrington, fresh out of the academy, down in the middle of it, with her first ship. She’s a great character with the strength, skill, and courage to do her duty, figuring out which rules of war to follow and which ones to break, to win through to victory. And Weber never forgets the personal cost of war, which lends his books that extra impact. The first book in a great series.


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