The best historical adventure books that also make you think

Tom Pugh Author Of The Devil's Library
By Tom Pugh

The Books I Picked & Why

The King Must Die

By Mary Renault

Book cover of The King Must Die

Why this book?

Everyone knows the story of Theseus – sacrificed to a monster in an impossible maze, he defeats the beast with a knife and a ball of string. Now imagine it retold as a perfect, full-length novel. If Theseus really sailed to Crete on a suicide mission, then defeated a terrible foe before returning home to become King of Athens – then this was surely how it happened.

I’ve been obsessed with Greek mythology forever – and I love this book for taking its story seriously as history. The writing is superb. The action is non-stop. But perhaps the book’s greatest trick is the line it walks between human ingenuity and divine intervention. There’s nothing here a human couldn’t conceivably do – and nothing to shake Theseus’ conviction that he’s a puppet of the gods. 

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt

Book cover of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Why this book?

I suspect everyone who writes shares a secret belief that a single book has the power to change the world – but how often does a world-famous academic come along with a brilliantly readable book explaining exactly how, where, when, and why this actually happened. (Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, rediscovered in 1417 by a book hunter named Bracciolini.)

The only non-fiction book on my list, I love The Swerve unreservedly for the evidence it provides – if any were needed – that while our literary dreams of making the world a better place almost certainly won’t come true, that doesn’t mean they can’t.

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The Warlord Chronicles

By Bernard Cornwell

Book cover of The Warlord Chronicles

Why this book?

Ok, so it’s a trilogy rather than a single book – an epic retelling of the legend of King Arthur and his knights – but what a trilogy! No one who’s read these books will forget what it feels like to have the life squeezed out of them at the centre of a shield wall, with spear-blades edging inexorably closer...

Like The King Must Die, The Warlord Chronicles recount a legend with so much verve and detail you’re left thinking this must be the way it really happened. Above all, it’s a moving study of heroes at the end of an age of heroes. However much they might be willing to die trying, not even the greatest warriors – or the greatest magicians – can stand against the tide of history. 

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My Name Is Red

By Orhan Pamuk, Erdag Goknar

Book cover of My Name Is Red

Why this book?

A murder mystery narrated by the victim, just as much in the dark about who killed him as we are. That alone would be enough to draw me in, but this novel has so much more – above all, a subtle insistence that we get to grips with a completely new way of seeing. The victim and each of his potential murderers are artists, their actions constrained or compelled by the rules which governed representation in 1590s Istanbul – ingrained in them since childhood. They cannot represent shadows, because God needs no light to see us by, nor perspective because He sees us all equally. 

Will anyone succeed in overcoming their conditioning for long enough to bring the killer to justice – and free his victim’s restless soul?

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By Jim Crace

Book cover of Harvest

Why this book?

Another perfectly realised novel, in which the ancient traditions of an isolated English village are lovingly resurrected and described – before being savagely undermined by enclosure. Harvest has both a murder and plenty of mystery but it’s really about desperation in the face of unstoppable, inhuman change. Crace writes prose as if it's poetry, most movingly about the villagers’ bewilderment and fury in the face of incomprehensible threats – and the sheer speed at which an entire way of life can disappear. It’s enough to make you wonder what, if anything, will remain of our most cherished traditions.

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