The best historical fiction stories that make you feel like you’re really there

Adrian Deans Author Of The Fighting Man
By Adrian Deans

The Books I Picked & Why

Sharpe's Tiger

By Bernard Cornwell

Sharpe's Tiger

Why this book?

Richard Sharpe is one of the great characters of historical fiction, paralleling the true career of Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) from India all the way to Waterloo. The first book in the series introduces us to Private Sharpe fighting in India in 1799. Sharpe is relieved from the tyranny of Sergeant Hakeswill and sent on a secret mission into the fortress of the Tipoo Sultan to rescue an intelligence officer in prison.

With Lieutenant Lawford he pretends to be a British deserter and joins the Sultan’s forces in the heavily fortified Seringapatam. A gripping story with wonderful characters that kicks off an exceptional series. Cornwell is the doyen of historical fiction storytellers and makes you feel like you’re really there.


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Wolf Hall

By Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall

Why this book?

If Bernard Cornwell is the doyen of storytellers, Hilary Mantel is the master when it comes to characterisation and authenticity of time and place. Wolf Hall is the first in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy and won the Man Booker Prize. It tells the story of Cromwell’s career, becoming Henry VIII’s right-hand man during the ructions around the separation of the English church from Rome, Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and pursuit of Anne Boleyn.

There have been any number of other novels covering these events but what truly sets this writer apart is her ability to get inside Cromwell’s head. The reader is intimately privy to Cromwell’s thoughts in a way that feels authentic and makes for an incredibly rich experience. The second book in the series also won the Man Booker.


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Shōgun

By James Clavell

Shōgun

Why this book?

One of those blockbuster airport novels of the 70s which also just happens to be an outstanding piece of literature. The main characters are fictional but squarely based on historical characters and events.

John Blackthorne is the pilot of a Dutch ship which is shipwrecked in Japan a couple of years before the Battle of Sekigahara (1600). Everything about the Japanese is incomprehensible to Blackthorne but gradually he assimilates and becomes an important piece in the political game being played out between the ruthless and bloodthirsty regents presiding over a very precarious peace.

Another wonderfully experiential novel in which – like Blackthorne himself – the reader is constantly shocked by the alien ways of the feudal Japanese.


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Ancient Evenings

By Norman Mailer

Ancient Evenings

Why this book?

This is a novel that divides. It was a work that took Mailer many years to complete and the book that he (apparently) regarded as his masterpiece. It is certainly an incredible piece of work – the product of a powerful imagination in recreating an authentic feel for ancient Egypt with details ranging from cosmology via warfare to street scenes.

Some readers find the strong focus on the sensuality of the Egyptians a bit much. Mailer’s Egyptian world is very sexualised and who’s to say he’s wrong? If you’re not turned off by that kind of thing you’ll be rewarded with one of the most richly detailed and “real” feeling historical novels ever written.


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Flashman

By George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman

Why this book?

Another book that divides in these very PC times. This is the first in a series of stories telling a kind of meta-history using mainly historical figures and also historic fictional characters. Some will remember Tom Brown’s Schooldays (published 1857). The villain of the piece was the arch cad and school bully – Flashman – who was expelled for drunkenness at the end of the novel. 

More than a century later, GMF began publishing the “discovered memoirs” of Flashman – commencing with his expulsion and recreating his entire army career in which he sees action in many of the famous campaigns of the C19. Despite his celebrity however, Flashman is the first to admit he was the basest of cowards who somehow survived, shrieking with terror, while pursuing his great talents for womanising and feathering his own nest.

Incredibly well researched and brilliantly written. You will learn some detailed history while reading these wonderful (and very funny) books that give amazing insight into the mores and manners of Victorian England.


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