The best heroic epics for escaping into the conflicts of the past

Who am I?

Epic war novels follow traditions that trace to the earliest civilizations. An amateur historian since high school, I would nook away for hours reading the great campaigns of the past. As a combat veteran, I still love diving into a lengthy tome about Caesar versus the Gauls or the heroic Russian stand at Borodino. Retirement provided the time to indulge this passion by concentrating on the Western Theater of the American Civil War (ACW), an interest I have researched since the ACW Centennial. I enjoy writing rigorously researched stories to give more accurate descriptions of the events, attitudes, prejudices, and consequences of this critical period in American history.


I wrote...

Harper's Donelson

By Sean Gabhann,

Book cover of Harper's Donelson

What is my book about?

February 1862. The War of the Rebellion is a year old and the Federal armies have suffered repeated defeats on all fronts. In this first volume of the Shiloh Trilogy, three lives intertwine against the backdrop of battle. Gabhann reveals the perils faced by the common people caught in the American Civil War.

Lieutenant Jamie Harper must recover his position and the trust of the men in his regiment. Naïve Katie Malloy must settle into her new life as a “soiled dove” while her friend Eleanor promises to help her become an independent woman of means. The opportunities presented at Forts Henry and Donelson go awry when Harper is captured by Confederates operating under Bedford Forrest, yet, Corporal Gustav Magnusson is where the captured men look for leadership.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Last Kingdom

Sean Gabhann Why did I love this book?

This series is a fun, if bloody, romp through the late ninth and early ten centuries when the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were forcibly united by Alfred the Great and his descendants.

Saxon-born Uhtred of Bebbanburg is captured as a child by a Viking warlord and raised within the household until he is made homeless in a blood feud. He flees to Wessex and becomes a warrior in Alfred’s army where he is treated with respect for his fighting prowess but with suspicion for his Viking heritage. The books describe the course of Uhtred’s life as he grows in influence to become a warlord of Wessex and Mercia but whose name is omitted from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles due to jealousy from the church establishment.

By Bernard Cornwell,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Last Kingdom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first book in the epic and bestselling series that has gripped millions.

A hero will be forged from this broken land.

As seen on Netflix and BBC around the world.

In a land torn apart by conflict, an orphan boy has come of age. Raised by the Vikings, deadly enemies of his own Saxon people, Uhtred is a fierce and skilled warrior who kneels to no-one.

Alfred - Saxon, king, man of god - fights to hold the throne of the only land still resisting the pagan northerners.

Uhtred and Alfred's fates are tangled, soaked in blood and blackened…


Book cover of The Iliad & The Odyssey

Sean Gabhann Why did I love this book?

These are epic poems that have been presented in the courts and amphitheaters from ancient Greece into the modern era. I first read The Iliad as a high-school summer-reading assignment. Later in college, I read The Odyssey for personal entertainment.

The Iliad begins during the siege of Troy (c.1200 BCE) and describes the personality conflicts among the Achaean besiegers as well as detailed descriptions of army and personal combat in this era. The Odyssey is the story of the return of the King of Ithaca and his retinue from the war. They inadvertently offend Poseidon which results in ten additional years of misadventures. By the time Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he is alone and he must reclaim his wife and his throne alone.

I first undertook to read these epic poems because they play such a huge role in Western culture but as I read them, I became fascinated by the interplay of the characters as well as the descriptions of battle in the Bronze Age. Also, I felt fascinated by the morality presented towards respecting the will of the gods.

Book cover of The Winter King

Sean Gabhann Why did I love this book?

This trilogy presents a clever reimagination of the Arthurian legend which I found delightful, of irreverent. It presents Arthur as a talented warlord protector of the infant King Mordred. Successful at first, Arthur devolves into an anti-hero when he is betrayed by power-hungry Guinevere and Lancelot, and again when Mordred comes of age. Merlin’s magic appears as a combination of plausible manipulation of the physical and the metaphysical with a healthy dose of credulity among the populace.

The pure creativity in this series makes it a keeper and I often refer to these pages for inspiration when writing. The author once declared that this was his personal favorite of the several series he has in publication, and as a fellow author, I can understand why.

By Bernard Cornwell,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Winter King as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uther, the High King of Britain, has died, leaving the infant Mordred as his only heir. His uncle, the loyal and gifted warlord Arthur, now rules as caretaker for a country which has fallen into chaos - threats emerge from within the British kingdoms while vicious Saxon armies stand ready to invade. As he struggles to unite Britain and hold back the Saxon enemy, Arthur is embroiled in a doomed romance with beautiful Guinevere.


Book cover of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

Sean Gabhann Why did I love this book?

This was the first series of heroic historical fiction I ever read. Forester’s narratives had the power to pull me into the stories as if I was serving alongside Horatio Hornblower.

The series follows the exploits of seventeen-year-old Midshipman Hornblower in 1794 as he rises in rank and responsibilities to flag rank by 1815. During the course of the series, we watch Hornblower mature from an unsure, bookish teenager to become a self-confident and bold commander. Forester’s ability to meld true historical events and personages into his narratives captured me from the start and is a quality that I strive to accomplish in my own writing. I read these books decades ago and still keep them on my bookshelf for when I need inspiration or want to understand how Forester resolved certain authorly issues.

By C. S. Forester,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Mr. Midshipman Hornblower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Join young Horatio Hornblower in the thrilling naval adventure from the author of The Good Shepherd, now a major-motion picture starring Tom Hanks

'A joyous creation, a perfection in words. Young Hornblower is, simply, one of the most complete creations of character in fiction' Conn Iggulden, The Independent
_______

1793, the eve of the Napoleonic Wars, and Midshipman Horatio Hornblower receives his first command . . .

As a seventeen-year-old with a touch of sea sickness, young Horatio Hornblower hardly cuts a dash in His Majesty's navy.

Yet from the moment he is ordered to board a French merchant ship…


Book cover of Sharpe's Eagle

Sean Gabhann Why did I love this book?

This is the army counterpart to the Hornblower Series. The story begins in 1794 with 17 y/o Richard Sharpe deployed to Flanders as a private and continues through India, Spain, and France, ending as a lieutenant colonel at the Battle of Waterloo. A final volume carries the series to St. Helena and Chile, ending in 1820.

Sharpe and his men are always presented with challenges that require heroic acts of daring-do where Sharpe’s gutter-snipe cunning and that of his men ensure that he somehow accomplishes the mission. As one might expect, the size of his company of chosen riflemen dwindles continuously through the series, and becoming Sharpe’s love interest often seems a fatal prospect.

I enjoyed reading many of the stories at a time when I commuted regularly between the west and east coasts. The books are convenient in that one can begin a story during the outbound flight and finish it during the return flight, although I often found myself in the hotel, compelled to keep reading into the early morning.

By Bernard Cornwell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Sharpe's Eagle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bernard Cornwell's action-packed series that captures the gritty texture of Napoleonic warfare--now beautifully repackaged

Captain Richard Sharpe prepares to lead his men against the army of Napoleon at Talavera in what will be the bloodiest battle of the war. After their cowardly loss of the regiment's colors, the men's resentment toward the upstart Sharpe turns to treachery, and Sharpe must fight to redeem the honor of his regiment.


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Bessie

By Linda Kass,

Book cover of Bessie

Linda Kass Author Of Bessie

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Bookstore owner Learner Reader Historical novelist Long distance cyclist

Linda's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In the bigoted milieu of 1945, six days after the official end of World War II, Bess Myerson, the daughter of poor Russian immigrants living in the Bronx, remarkably rises to become Miss America, the first —and to date only— Jewish woman to do so. At stake is a $5,000 scholarship for the winner.

An intimate fictional portrait of Bess Myerson’s early life, Bessie reveals the transformation of the nearly six-foot-tall, self-deprecating yet talented preteen into an exemplar of beauty, a peripheral quality in her world. It is the unfamiliar secular society of pageantry she must choose to escape her roots as she searches for love and acceptance, eager to make her mark on the world.

Bessie

By Linda Kass,

What is this book about?

Just days after the close of World War II, Bess Myerson, the college-educated daughter of poor Russian Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx, is competing in the Miss America pageant. At stake: a $5,000 scholarship. The tension and excitement in Atlantic City's Warner Theatre is palpable, especially for traumatized Jews rooting for one of their own. So begins Bessie.


Drawing on biographical and historical sources, Bessie reimagines the early life of Bess Myerson, who, in 1945 at age twenty-one, remarkably rises to become one of the most famous women in America. This intimate fictional portrait reveals the transformation of the…


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