The best historical adventure books that also make you think

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

Who am I?

People give me funny looks when I say my historical novels are autobiographical. Yes, I spend months doing research, but the idea for The Devil’s Library actually came from a motorbike trip through Europe (think horses for motorbikes) and the friendship at its heart is partly a homage to the Shane Black scripted buddy movies I grew up with (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout...). Every great historical novel is a journey from the present to the past, in other words. We take something with us when we crack the spine. And – when it works – find something life-changing to bring back home with us at The End. 

I wrote...

The Devil's Library

By Tom Pugh,

Book cover of The Devil's Library

What is my book about?

“Exiled soldier Matthew Longstaff and unpredictable physician Gaetan Durant fight their way south – from the snowfields of Muscovy to the sun-baked plains of Italy – where an aging scholar and his beautiful, young protégé hold the final clue to unlocking the secrets of the Devil’s Library. Can the four of them take on the might of the Roman Church and win?”

A renaissance thriller, my book follows two sixteenth-century adventurers racing to prevent the contents of a fabled library from falling into the wrong hands. The book features plenty of sword fights and horse chases, but also explores the ideological chaos wrought in Europe by the rediscovery of ancient humanist texts by writers including Plato and Lucretius.

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The books I picked & why

The King Must Die

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of The King Must Die

Why did I love 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. 

By Mary Renault,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Theseus is the grandson of the King of Troizen, but his paternity is shrouded in mystery - can he really be the son of the god Poseidon? When he discovers his father's sword beneath a rock, his mother must reveal his true identity: Theseus is the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, and is his only heir. So begins Theseus's perilous journey to his father's palace to claim his birth right, escaping bandits and ritual king sacrifice in Eleusis, to slaying the Minotaur in Crete. Renault reimagines the Theseus myth, creating an original, exciting story.

Book cover of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Why did I love 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.

By Stephen Greenblatt,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Swerve as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the winter of 1417, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties plucked a very old manuscript off a dusty shelf in a remote monastery, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. He was Poggio Bracciolini, the greatest book hunter of the Renaissance. His discovery, Lucretius' ancient poem On the Nature of Things, had been almost entirely lost to history for more than a thousand years.

It was a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functions without the aid of gods, that religious fear is damaging to…

The Warlord Chronicles

By Bernard Cornwell,

Book cover of The Warlord Chronicles

Why did I love 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. 

By Bernard Cornwell,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Title In This Collection:- The Winter King Excalibur Enemy of God The Winter King 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. Excalibur Arthur has crushed Lancelot's rebellion, but at a cost. Guinevere's betrayal has left him reeling, and his Saxon enemies seek to destroy him while he is weak. Chaos threatens to engulf Britain. Yet…

My Name Is Red

By Orhan Pamuk, Erdag Goknar (translator),

Book cover of My Name Is Red

Why did I love 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?

By Orhan Pamuk, Erdag Goknar (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Name Is Red as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling murder mystery from Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Award

'Wonderful' The Spectator
'Magnificent' Observer
'Unforgettable' Guardian

My Name is Red is an unforgettable murder mystery, set amid the splendour of sixteenth century Istanbul, from the Nobel prizewinning author

In the late 1590s, the Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day - in…


By Jim Crace,

Book cover of Harvest

Why did I love 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.

By Jim Crace,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Winner of the 2014 James Tait Black Prize
Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize
Shortlisted for the 2013 Goldsmiths Prize
Shortlisted for the 2014 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

As late summer steals in and the final pearls of barley are gleaned, a village comes under threat. A trio of outsiders - two men and a dangerously magnetic woman - arrives on the woodland borders triggering a series of events that will see Walter Thirsk's village unmade in just seven days: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, cruel…

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