The best historical fiction novels depicting premodern battle

William Havelock Author Of The Last Dying Light: A Novel of Belisarius (The Last of the Romans)
By William Havelock

The Books I Picked & Why

The Winter King

By Bernard Cornwell

Book cover of The Winter King

Why this book?

Bernard Cornwell is the undisputed master of the shield wall. What makes The Winter King special is its painstaking detail into early medieval weaponry and tactics, wrapping intimate duels, raids, and outright battle into a fabulous retelling of King Arthur.

The Battle of Lugg Vale, however, is what sets the standard of battle fiction. Meticulously foreshadowed, the reader can picture the movements of the Dumnonian Army across Dark Age Britain, but maintain focus on a narrow front of shield wall by our protagonists. Lugg Vale is a hopeless last stand, equal parts poetry and carnage. You can feel the exhaustion wearing upon its combatants, struggling to hold their lines intact against merciless charges by a more numerous enemy.

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Cloud of Sparrows

By Takashi Matsuoka

Book cover of Cloud of Sparrows

Why this book?

Some might buck at describing Cloud of Sparrows as ‘premodern battle’ – after all, it describes events of the mid-19th Century! However, Takashi Matsuoka’s novel is a soulful retelling of the Bakumatsu, or the twilight of the Tokugawa shogunate as Japan was violently pushed into the age of gunpowder.

Cloud of Sparrows is richly detailed in combat amongst a fading samurai culture. Descriptions abound of the all-important Battle of Sekigahara, which had established the Tokugawa shogunate over two centuries prior. More immediate attention is paid to countless duels amongst the retainers of Genji, the Great Lord of Akaoka, who struggle to uphold antiquated notions of honor as Japan’s warrior class confronts gunpowder and cannon. Even the most experienced historical fiction writer will learn from Matsuoka’s descriptions of blades and bows.

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By Wilbur Smith

Book cover of Warlock

Why this book?

Wilbur Smith, who sadly passed in November 2021, trailblazed adventure writing. While The River God is perhaps his most memorable entry in his Ancient Egypt series, Warlock is stuffed with descriptions of military training and combat. I particularly enjoyed ‘The Red Road’ sequence – while not battle-focused, Mr. Smith took pains to unpack the various modes of fighting available to contemporary Bronze Age Egyptians.

Smith’s detailing of chariot-centered battle would satisfy everyone from engineers to historians - particularly in Warlock’s climax. Javelins and bows hurtling from hundreds of chariots makes for a unique style of combat that is difficult to acquire elsewhere – as is the struggles of engaging in mass military operations when surrounded by desert.

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Genghis: Lords of the Bow

By Conn Iggulden

Book cover of Genghis: Lords of the Bow

Why this book?

Conn Iggulden is no stranger to historical battle fiction. Like others on this list, at least a dozen other novels could have been selected in this spot. Yet, Lords of the Bow expresses a savage bleakness in Genghis Khan’s earliest campaigns against the Xi Xia and Jin that will linger in the mind of any reader.

Mr. Iggulden’s writing regarding the Battle of Badger’s Mouth is incredible – not only for the complexities of the Mongol-Jin battle but equally due to Mr. Iggulden’s use of terrain and weather to raise tension. The battle is brief on the page, and overtaken by the extensive preparations of the Mongol and Jin armies immediately prior to combat, yet Badger’s Mouth leaves a distinct impression in a vast and growing sea of military historical fiction.

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By David Ball

Book cover of Ironfire

Why this book?

The Great Siege of Malta – a nearly four-month struggle in 1565, should be essential for any military historian to understand. Sadly, its treatment in fiction has been ludicrously underserved.

Enter Ironfire. Mr. Ball’s work builds slowly, showing the reader how various elements of the Ottoman Army (the Janissaries, in particular) were acquired, trained, and readied for war. Likewise, a failing legacy of crusade, as well as a decline in support for religious military orders, plague Christian leadership in Malta. Ball’s ‘slow burn’ narrative ignites into the island’s famous siege by a massive and well-equipped Ottoman army, facing a motley band of knights and Maltese locals reliant upon blades and fire to desperately hold their walls. Ironfire is a master class on premodern siege warfare in fiction.

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