The best novels that get you right inside the minds of historical people

Why am I passionate about this?

I am the author of the Byzantine Trilogy (in 4 parts). These books depict the difficult beginning, decadent apogee, and sad end of the Byzantine empire. I think it is important to make historical fiction vivid, to immerse the reader in a distant time and place, with all its sights, smells, sounds, and tastes, as experienced by someone who was really there. I am also interested in what people believed, and why. For that reason, my historical novels are all first-person narratives, stories told by the people who lived through them. Here are some of the fictional memoirs that inspired me to start writing.


I wrote...

Mappamundi

By Christopher Harris,

Book cover of Mappamundi

What is my book about?

Thomas Deerham has survived the Hundred Years War and the Fall of Constantinople, but is trapped in Rome, serving the Pope. Trying to get back to England, he falls in with vagabond-poet François Villon, whose expertise in theft and trickery fails to save them from starvation. Desperate, they join forces with the aged mystic, Christian Rosenkreutz. Armed with a stolen map and esoteric knowledge culled from antique books, the three set off on a search for Paradise.

Through Thomas’s eyes, we see the decadence of Rome, the squalor of Paris, the confusion of war-torn England, the torments of thwarted desire, the folly of scholars, the miseries of a sea voyage, and the strangeness of an unsuspected new world. But, has he reached Paradise?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Julian

Christopher Harris Why did I love this book?

The short reign of Julian the Apostate is one of the “what ifs” of history. Raised as a Christian, Julian was a secret pagan. When he unexpectedly became emperor, he reversed the privileges of the Church and promoted his own Neo-Platonist cult, intending to restore paganism. Even though we know how things really turned out, it is fascinating to speculate about what might have happened if he had succeeded. 

Gore Vidal has filled this novel with war, politics, sex, religion, heresy, and philosophy. I have tried to follow his example (though I have been more sympathetic to eunuchs than he was).

By Gore Vidal,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Gore Vidal's fictional recreation of the Roman Empire teetering on the crux of Christianity and ruled by an emperor who was an inveterate dabbler in arcane hocus-pocus, a prig, a bigot, and a dazzling and brilliant leader.


Book cover of Memoirs of Hadrian

Christopher Harris Why did I love this book?

This amazing novel gets right inside the mind of Hadrian, a great emperor who ruled wisely over Rome’s Golden Age. In public, a statesman and soldier, in private he was thoughtful, cultured, and philosophical. He tells us much about his life, and about the empire he ruled. He is both credulous and sceptical, indifferent to and curious about pleasure, both eager and reluctant to rule. He muses about power, war, the arts, love, friendship, and much else. Perhaps the most moving episode is Hadrian’s grief at the death of Antinous, his beautiful young boyfriend, who he later deified.  

This memoir, in contemplative, narrative form, is utterly believable, and reminds us that the inner life is as important, and as interesting, as events and actions.

By Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Memoirs of Hadrian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Framed as a letter from the Roman Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian is translated from the French by Grace Frick with an introduction by Paul Bailey in Penguin Modern Classics.

In her magnificent novel, Marguerite Yourcenor recreates the life and death of one of the great rulers of the ancient world. The Emperor Hadrian, aware his demise is imminent, writes a long valedictory letter to Marcus Aurelius, his future successor. The Emperor meditates on his past, describing his accession, military triumphs, love of poetry and music, and the philosophy that informed his powerful…


Book cover of Augustus

Christopher Harris Why did I love this book?

Boldly venturing into territory already claimed by Robert Graves, Allan Massie gives us the life of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Full of authentic detail, both witty and serious, bawdy and censorious, this book makes ancient Rome thoroughly believable to modern readers. Augustus vividly describes his ruthless rise to power following the assassination of Julius Caesar, and reflects on his life and achievements, justifying his schemes, deceptions and crimes. Would we have done the same in his place? Maybe, if civilization depended on it.

I particularly like the two Prefaces, in which author, citing fake scholars and non-existent institutions, persuades us that this work of fiction has been translated from an ancient manuscript found in a monastery. I have used the same trick myself.

By Allan Massie,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Augustus was the founder of the Roman Empire, adopted son of Julius Caesar, friend and later foe of Mark Antony, patron of Horace and Virgil. Frank and forceful, this putative autobiography tells his story from the assassination of Caesar, through his military, political and personal struggles to his final days as Emperor in everything but name.


Book cover of Leo the African

Christopher Harris Why did I love this book?

The memoirs of Hasan al-Wazzan, merchant and traveller. Born in the last years of Moslem Spain, exiled to Morocco, he wandered the Mediterranean world, and beyond, encountering sultans, slaves, bandits, fortune tellers, pirates, madmen, scholars, ambassadors, kings, emperors, and popes. In Rome, he was baptised as Leo, then taught and studied, writing several books about Africa and Islam, before returning to Morocco. 

This novel reminds us of the complexities of culture, language, and religion in a tumultuous, war-torn world, not unlike our own. It is also a very good read.

By Amin Maalouf,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Leo the African as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From his chlidhood in Fez, having fled the Christian Inquisition, through his many journeys to the East as an itinerant merhcant, Hasans story is a quixotic catalogue of pirates, slave girls and princesses, encompassing the complexities of a world in a state of religious flux. Hasan too is touched by the instability of the era, performing his hadj to Mecca, then converting to Christianity, only to relapse back to the Muslim faith later in life. In re-creating his extraordinary experiences, Amin Maalouf sketches an irrisistible portrait of the Mediterranea world as it was nearly five centuries ago - the fall…


Book cover of The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus

Christopher Harris Why did I love this book?

A surreal picaresque, apparently narrated by the ghost of Columbus, who knows exactly how posterity has treated him and sets out to tell the ‘true’ story of his life and adventures. Written in a lively, vernacular style, full of jokes, arguments, boasts, anachronisms, score-settling, and shifts of tone and genre, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

This book tests the limits of the memoir, and shows that historical novels can be great fun, and don’t always have to respect their sources. 

By Stephen Marlowe,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this novel, Christopher Columbus tells the story of his life and recalls the first fateful love of his youth, thoughts on his Portuguese wife, his Spanish mistress, and Queen Isabella, and his discovery of the New World


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A Sparrow Falls

By Vicki Olsen,

Book cover of A Sparrow Falls

Vicki Olsen Author Of A Sparrow Falls

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Air Force brat World War 2 junkie Gallivanter Beret-wearing Francophile Book hoarder

Vicki's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In this book set against the backdrop of a changing America, Sarah must find the courage to confront the ghosts of her past and come to terms with her future. Sarah, a young woman from the rural town of Tolerance, Arkansas, has endured an impoverished and painful childhood.

But now, as the innocence of the 1950s transforms into the turbulent 1960s, Sarah must find the strength to overcome her traumas, forgive those who have wronged her, and discover her true self. With its moving and often disturbing narrative, A Sparrow Falls is an evocative account of a young woman's journey…

A Sparrow Falls

By Vicki Olsen,

What is this book about?

A moving, sometimes disturbing, beautifully written book...Amazon Customer Review
Set in Arkansas as the innocence of the 1950s morphs into the turbulent ‘60s, A Sparrow Falls is an evocative account of a young woman emerging from an impoverished and traumatic childhood as she finds the inner strength to overcome her past. Te ghosts of the past and come to terms with her future is in the strength to forgive those who have wronged her?
Content Advisory: This book is intended for mature audiences and contains child sexual abuse and disturbing imagery.


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