The Best Historical Novels

By Andrew Hudgins

The Books I Picked & Why

Julian

By Gore Vidal

Julian

Why this book?

Two philosophers who were once close to the emperor Julian write each other long epistolary recollections of and reflections on the emperor’s failed attempt to overthrow Christianity and restore paganism as the official religion of the Roman empire. The book sounds boring when described that way, but one of the philosopher’s wants to write a biography of Julian while the other possesses and it reluctant to part with Julian’s own narrative of his life and thought. Julian’s rise and fall is full of action and heartbreak, and the jockeying between the men who distrust each other while each claiming the legacy of the long-dead emperor is amusing. The post-modern refractions of the three views of Julian (the two philosophers and Julian’s himself) make a rich story that is also a mediation on how history is lived, shaped, written, and received. For yet another perspective, it’s entertaining to watch Vidal put into play his own anti-Christian biases and his longing for a tolerant paganism that probably never existed. For other takes on other Roman emperors it’s hard to beat Margaret Yourcenar’s meditative Memoirs of Hadrian, John Williams’ Augustus, and Robert Graves’ towering I, Claudius.


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Aztec

By Gary Jennings

Aztec

Why this book?

Mixtli, an elderly Aztec lord captured by the Spanish, is reluctantly questioned by a Catholic bishop charged with reporting to the king of Spain about the customs and mores of his new unwilling subjects. The bishop is repulsed and appalled by the violent history and, to his mind, sexual looseness of the Aztecs while blind to the violent depredations of the conquistadors who protect him. But the story that outrages the bishop is for the reader a spectacular tragic saga of the end of the Aztec empire from the point of view of the conquered and a telling of what was lost.


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The Long Ships

By Frans G. Bengtsson, Michael Meyer

The Long Ships

Why this book?

Whenever someone asks me to recommend a historical novel, the first title out of my mouth is always The Long Ships. I loved it when I read it as a boy and then loved it all over again half a century later when I reread it. The Long Ships is the epic 11th-century story of Red Orm, who is abducted as a boy by Vikings and then abducted again put work as a galley slave and later bodyguard in the service of Almansur, the Arab warrior who is intent on spread the Islamic influence in Spain. And that’s just the beginning of the action-packed and thrilling story.


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Circe

By Madeline Miller

Circe

Why this book?

The rebellious half-human daughter of Helios, the sun, gets sideways with her father and ends up exiled to a small island. Sure, Circe is not technically historical fiction in the way that Mary Renault’s The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea aren’t historical either, but like Renault’s books, Circe is also a sensationally immersive reimagining of myth. It’s a great story of a woman making a personal paradise out of her enforced isolation, which is punctuated by a cameo appearance by such famous lovers as Daedalus, the sexy enigmatic Hermes, and, halfway through the book, Odysseus. When she transforms Odysseus’ sailors into pigs the reader is cheering her on. They are swine to begin with; she’s merely turning the metaphor into fact.


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Hannibal

By Ross Leckie

Hannibal

Why this book?

Ever wonder how in the world Hannibal got elephants across the alps? Ross Leckie’s violent and graphic account answers that question and more as it plunges the reader into the mind of the Carthaginian general driven to avenge his father’s defeat and this country’s humiliation in the first Punic War. The book revels in the fascinating details of ancient military campaigns and battle tactics. It’s a blood-drenched fever-dream of a novel that’s not for the squeamish, but a compulsive read for the rest of us.


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