The best historical adventure novels that are colourful, pacy and have a dash of humour

Colin Falconer Author Of When We Were Gods
By Colin Falconer

Who am I?

I grew up devouring old Classics Illustrated comics. By the time I was 12, I’d read all the great adventure stories from H. Rider Haggard to Jules Verne. My childhood obsession became my career. My research has taken me down the Silk Road, into the jungles of Mexico and the mountains of the high Atlas, and following opium caravans through the Golden Triangle. I’ve now written more than twenty novels of historical adventure that have been translated into 25 languages.


I wrote...

When We Were Gods

By Colin Falconer,

Book cover of When We Were Gods

What is my book about?

Caesar, Antony, Cleopatra, Augustus. Only one can rule. Only one can live. Alexandria 51 BC: When Cleopatra VII assumes the throne of Egypt, the Roman empire rules the Mediterranean with an iron fist. But Cleopatra has an audacious plan to change the course of history. Allied first with Caesar and then with his protégé Marc Antony, she dares to challenge the might of Rome. What follows is a bloody game of thrones, in the palaces and on the battlefields of Greece, Syria, and Egypt.

"Spectacular historical fiction blazing with intrigue, romance, and dramatic action." Booklist.

The books I picked & why

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Shōgun

By James Clavell,

Book cover of Shōgun

Why this book?

Set in Feudal Japan at the end of the 16th century, Clavell’s towering novel is for me the benchmark for historical epics. It balances sheer adventure with Clavell’s consummate eye for historical detail. If you want action, while feeling totally immersed in another time and culture, then Clavell’s classic is the book for you. I love the way he uses actual people and events to build a plausible and gripping story. Although a little long for contemporary tastes, it remains one of the best books of Asian fiction ever written, and one I come back to again and again.


Shout at the Devil

By Wilbur Smith,

Book cover of Shout at the Devil

Why this book?

This is loosely based on the 1915 sinking of the SMS Königsberg, in the Rufiji delta of East Africa. I love this not only for the fast-paced plotting, but for the characters, who are far less wooden and predictable than in some of Smith’s later work. The amoral and irascible Flynn O’ Flynn is impossible not to love, as is the utterly gormless hero, Sebastian Oldsmith—brave, loyal and handsome, if not actually the full quid. I like the sheer unpredictability of this one. Smith was not constrained by the formula he followed later in his career. It is by turns thrilling, funny, and shocking. I imagine his publishers eventually persuaded him not to write any more like this. He died with more than a hundred million pounds in the bank, so perhaps they were right. But for me, this outlier remains an absolute gem.


Flashman

By George MacDonald Fraser,

Book cover of Flashman

Why this book?

Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE, originally appears in Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days as the notorious Rugby School bully who is expelled for drunkenness. Fraser’s reinvention of him remains one of my favourite fictional creations. Flashman’s adventures encompass many of the British Empire’s 19th-century wars, and Fraser is able to blend real historical characters and incidents with non-stop action. Flashman, which details our eponymous hero’s exploits in India and Afghanistan in the early 1840s, sets the tone for the rest of the series. It’s funny, page-turning, and extensively researched. There are even footnotes. Addictive.


Caravans

By James A. Michener,

Book cover of Caravans

Why this book?

The story is set in Afghanistan, just after the end of World War 2, and takes the reader on a journey that would be virtually impossible for a westerner today. I love its authenticity—Michener travelled the country extensively in the sixties—and the combination of brutality and humour make this a unique adventure. There’s also a handful of characters who could have come straight out of Game of Thrones. It’s not one of Michener’s usual house brick size novels—this is less intimidating, more like a roofing tile. I’ve read it many times over the years. For me it remains his best work. A great story combined with a breathtaking insight into the culture, history, and geography of a forbidding and fascinating country. 


Sharpe's Tiger

By Bernard Cornwell,

Book cover of Sharpe's Tiger

Why this book?

This prequel to the Sharpe series covers the eponymous hero’s adventures in India at the siege of Seringapatam before the Peninsular War. For me, Cornwell’s books are a perfect mix of history and breathless action. This one even features a cameo from Wellington. If only they’d let me read this in history at school, I might have stayed awake more often. Cornwell pays great attention to historical detail, and if he messes with it, he does it deliberately. There are sumptuous palaces, epic battle scenes, rockets exploding, and people getting eaten by tigers. There’s also the deliciously nasty Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill. What’s not to love? 


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