The best seriously epic historical fiction books

The Books I Picked & Why

The Shadow King

By Maaza Mengiste

Book cover of The Shadow King

Why this book?

War is often food for epic. In Mengiste’s Shadow King a domestic beginning – our future hero Hirut a servant in a noble household, its husband and wife future leaders of the Ethiopian resistance – opens out with fascist Italy’s invasion. Internal points of view include a fascist commander, a Jewish-Italian war photographer, Haile Salassie. The novel deploys group Choruses as in Greek tragedy, imitates Homer’s Iliad in its asymmetric battle scenes, and rests on oral songs of Ethiopia in memory of the war. Hirut’s Wujigra – a crotchety old rifle, that she has to cling onto against her own side – becomes the epic hero’s cult weapon. 

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By John Caviglia

Book cover of Arauco

Why this book?

Another big, ambitious book that tells a war from both sides: here the 16th-century Spanish invasion of Chile. Equal time is given to the cast of Spaniards and the cast of Mapuche – large casts in each case. You’ll learn a battery of Mapuche words, for epics were always educative. What I love most, perhaps, about this book – after the shaman Ñamku, whom you see on the wonderful cover – is its witty style, its wordplay, gambolling in its sentences like a porpoise in the ocean, for sheer exuberance’s sake. Exuberance is a quality of epic. Along with expansiveness, and arguably, the upturn at the end, the grace note in spite of atrocities.

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The Dead Wander in the Desert

By Rollan Seisenbayev, Olga Nakston, John Farndon

Book cover of The Dead Wander in the Desert

Why this book?

A Kazakh novel about the 20th-century killing of the Aral Sea, told from the perspective of its fishing people. Government-made ecological catastrophe, extinction, toxicity, fish and children poisoned. There is no upturn at the end of this true story, only an urgent call to action for the planet. 

Spiritual connection with the lake and rivers spawns the spirit presence in the novel, its epic machinary of gods and monsters: the Father and Mother of Fishes, the evil catfish that swallows people whole; strange, intentional behaviour from the gulls and the steppe animals in protest at human damage. The narrative pattern, where lives are revealed slowly in loops of story, is informed by Central Asian traditions of oral epic and song.

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By K.R. Meera

Book cover of Hangwoman

Why this book?

Out of left field but one of the strongest novels I’ve read in the last few years. Meera’s story of Chetna, the first hangwoman in India in the modern-day, is underlain by hundreds, not to say thousands of years of Chetna’s family history as hangmen.

Chetna has an epic force of character, real but the stuff of legends too. Some of this weight and heft accrues to her from the tales she tells herself and us of the lives of public executioners past, a vast tapestry that feeds into her sense of self. How you feel about Chetna is up to you. As in the case of Achilles, she is extravagant, with the uncomfortable energies of the slightly-more-than-human epic hero. 

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Joseph and His Brothers

By Thomas Mann

Book cover of Joseph and His Brothers

Why this book?

Where historical fiction began for me. Even though I never finished these 1500 pages as a teenager, I set this book up as an idol, its invocations of an ancient style, its shivery atavism in habits of thought and behaviour. Yes, I owned the old Lowe-Porter translation with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. Maybe that was bad for me. The new Woods translation grasps for Mann’s range: both archaic plunges and creative anachronisms, his bravery of style that leaves nothing off-limits. Epic, since Homer, is high and low, past and present – refuses to stick to any one register or observe the unities. I can probably blame a lot on the early influence of Thomas Mann.

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