The best historical fiction books with compelling heroes

Who am I?

I was a science fiction guy as a young man but stumbled upon a historical fiction novel as a young Lieutenant serving in the Army in Germany. It was a book about Robert the Bruce and the first in a trilogy that traced the rise of Bruce to the throne of Scotland. The author brought that story to life in a way no straight history text could and I was hooked. Inspired, I took two weeks' leave from the Army and drove from Bavaria to Scotland to visit the battlefield of Bannockburn! Since then I’ve become an avid reader of both historical fiction and more scholarly works of history and have thrilled to the exploits of great characters, both real and fictional.

I wrote...

Longbow (The Saga of Roland Inness)

By Wayne Grant,

Book cover of Longbow (The Saga of Roland Inness)

What is my book about?

It’s a starving time in the winter of 1189 when fourteen-year-old Roland Inness uses his longbow to poach a deer on the Earl of Derby’s land and has his world turned upside down. Made a fugitive for his crime, Roland must find a place for himself in Britain under the iron rule of Norman barons. But not all Normans are brutal overlords and Roland is taken in by a genial Norman knight in need of a squire who’s handy with a longbow. 

From the wild borderlands of Wales to the coronation of King Richard the Lionheart and on to the killing fields of the 3rd Crusade, Roland’s skill and character are tested to the limit.

The books I picked & why

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Jubal Sackett: The Sacketts

By Louis L'Amour,

Book cover of Jubal Sackett: The Sacketts

Why this book?

My favorite novel from one of my favorite historical fiction writers. Louis L’Amour is best known for his many western novels, but his earlier Sackett tales harken back to the days when Europeans were first settling the edge of the great North American continent. No one writes swashbuckling, daring-do adventure stories better than L’Amour, but what makes this book really stand out is his hero, Jubal Sackett. Jubal, the youngest son of the adventurer Barnabas Sackett, has his father’s wanderlust and yearns to see new lands that lie to the west of his home in the mountains of North Carolina. 

He sets out alone, is befriended by Keotah, a Kickapoo warrior, and together they cross the Mississippi and venture out onto the great grass prairie the Natchez tribe calls “the far-seeing land.” Jubal’s a bit of a mystic, but it’s his competence, courage, and integrity that keeps him alive in a savage new land.

Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

By C.S. Forester,

Book cover of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower

Why this book?

The first and still one of my favorite books in CS Forester’s fabulous Hornblower series. Young Horatio is an unlikely hero. Tall, gawky, prone to seasickness, and terrified of heights, this young midshipman enters the Royal Navy near the beginning of Britain’s long struggle against Napoleon. He may not (at first) fit the mold of a dashing naval officer, but his quick thinking and rapid mastery of the fundamentals of seamanship draw the attention of Captain Edward Pellew, one of Britain’s most daring and successful captains. His patronage is rewarded as the awkward Midshipman proves his mettle against the French and the vagaries of the sea.

Sharpe's Rifles: Richard Sharpe and the French Invasion of Galicia, January 1809

By Bernard Cornwell,

Book cover of Sharpe's Rifles: Richard Sharpe and the French Invasion of Galicia, January 1809

Why this book?

Richard Sharpe— rifleman, rogue, and child of the London slums, is the only “anti-hero” on my list.  Raised from the ranks to command a platoon of riflemen after saving General Wellington’s life, Lieutenant Sharpe must first beat the disdain out of the “chosen men” of his rifle platoon and then contend with the disapproving gentlemen officers of the English army as Wellington tries to save Portugal from Napoleon’s legions. With a mix of native cunning, raw courage, and his own brand of integrity, Sharpe becomes Wellington’s secret weapon against the overwhelming French onslaught. 

The Bruce Trilogy: The Steps to the Empty Throne/The Path of the Hero King/The Price of the King's Peace

By Nigel Tranter,

Book cover of The Bruce Trilogy: The Steps to the Empty Throne/The Path of the Hero King/The Price of the King's Peace

Why this book?

Nigel Tranter’s Bruce Trilogy was the first historical fiction series I ever read. It fired a love of the genre that still drives my reading habits and writing today. The story of Robert the Bruce’s rise to the throne of Scotland and his fight to free Scotland from English domination can be found in history books, but Tranter made this hero of Scottish independence come alive like no straight history book could.

The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War

By Michael Shaara,

Book cover of The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War

Why this book?

This most lyrical of war novels beautifully reveals what drives men to face death for a cause and manages that while ratcheting up the action and drama of the greatest battle ever fought on American soil. To me, Shaara is the gold standard of historical fiction authors and he populates The Killer Angels with memorable characters, both real and fictional. The better-known soldiers such as Lee and Longstreet are there at Gettysburg, but the true hero of this story is an obscure former professor from Bowdoin College, Joshua Chamberlain, who knows exactly what he’s fighting for. Colonel Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Infantry find themselves on the far left of the Union lines as John Bell Hood’s Confederate veterans try to turn the flank of the Army of the Potomac. Chamberlain’s desperate defense of Little Round Top might very well have saved the Union that day.  A hero indeed.

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