The best seriously epic historical fiction books

Why am I passionate about this?

My Amgalant series follows the Secret History of the Mongols, which, though a history of the rise of Chinggis Khan, draws on an oral epic tradition. I always liked epics. Gilgamesh and the Saga of Grettir the Strong are among the fiction that most moves me. I look for historical fiction that owes to epic not only its story but its storytelling. The epic makers, ancient and medieval, knew craft we still can learn from. Quote epic at me, or misquote – homage, but own it. I like epic size and scope, but also intimate epic, with a close-up on the people that is post-19th-century novel. Epic has room for everything.


I wrote...

Against Walls

By Bryn Hammond,

Book cover of Against Walls

What is my book about?

Against Walls, the first in my Amgalant series, covers the Secret History of the Mongols sections 1-123. I let my 13th-century Mongol original guide me from event to event, with its gloriously—but concisely—told stories for bones, fleshing out into a novel. I like to say that every word in the original is found somewhere in mine.

People who know the Mongols for their conquests might find the content extraordinary. The Secret History is an intimate portrait of Chinggis Khan, with a human focus, with notes of tragedy, and whoever conflated these firsthand accounts into a written document had an eye for ethical conundrum and a flair for ambiguous character. As a novelist, I find it dream material. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Shadow King

Bryn Hammond Why did I love 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. 

By Maaza Mengiste,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Shadow King as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set during Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record. At its heart is orphaned maid Hirut, who finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. What follows is a heartrending and unputdownable exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.


Book cover of Arauco

Bryn Hammond Why did I love 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.

By John Caviglia,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Arauco as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in a land of earthquakes and towering volcanoes, weaving history with myth, Arauco tells of war, sorcery ... and a love demonstrating that a man can embrace what he was seeking to destroy.When in 1540 Pedro de Valdivia headed south from Peru to conquer lands and gold, he took with him his beautiful mistress, Inés de Suárez. With him also rode his secretary, Juan de Cardeña, whose hopeless love of Inés stems from the same romances that inspired the Quixote. Having crossed the Atacama Desert, the Spanish encounter the indomitable resistance of the Mapuche people....For the first time, Arauco…


Book cover of The Dead Wander in the Desert

Bryn Hammond Why did I love 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.

By Rollan Seisenbayev, Olga Nakston (translator), John Farndon (translator)

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Dead Wander in the Desert as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize.

From Kazakhstan's most celebrated author comes his powerful and timely English-language debut about a fisherman's struggle to save the Aral Sea, and its way of life, from man-made ecological disaster.

Unfolding on the vast grasslands of the steppes of Kazakhstan before its independence from the USSR, this haunting novel limns the struggles of the world through the eyes of Nasyr, a simple fisherman and village elder, and his resolute son, Kakharman. Both father and son confront the terrible future that is coming to the poisoned Aral Sea.

Once the fourth-largest lake on earth, it…


Book cover of Hangwoman

Bryn Hammond Why did I love 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. 

By K.R. Meera,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hangwoman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A contemporary classic' -Mint
The Grddha Mullick family bursts with marvellous tales of hangmen and hangings in which they figure as eyewitnesses to the momentous events that have shaped the history of the subcontinent. When twenty-two-year-old Chetna Grddha Mullick is appointed the first woman executioner in India, assistant and successor to her father, her life explodes under the harsh lights of television cameras. When the day of the execution arrives, will she bring herself to take a life?
Meera's spectacular imagination turns the story of Chetna's life into an epic and perverse coming-of-age tale. The lurid pleasures of voyeurism and…


Book cover of Joseph and His Brothers

Bryn Hammond Why did I love 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.

By Thomas Mann,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Joseph and His Brothers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE BOOK- As Germany dissolved into the nightmare of Nazism, Thomas Mann was at work on this epic recasting of the the great Bible story. Joseph, his brothers and his father Jacob, are at the prototypes of all humanity and their story is the story of life itself. Mann has taken one of the great simple chronicles of literature and filled it with psychological scope and range- its men and women are not remote figures in the Book of Genesis, but founders of states in a fresh, realisic world akin to our own .


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Ferry to Cooperation Island

By Carol Newman Cronin,

Book cover of Ferry to Cooperation Island

Carol Newman Cronin Author Of Ferry to Cooperation Island

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Sailor Olympian Editor New Englander Rum drinker

Carol's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

James Malloy is a ferry captain--or used to be, until he was unceremoniously fired and replaced by a "girl" named Courtney Farris. Now, instead of piloting Brenton Island’s daily lifeline to the glitzy docks of Newport, Rhode Island, James spends his days beached, bitter, and bored.

When he discovers a plan for a private golf course on wilderness sacred to his dying best friend, James is determined to stop such "improvements." But despite Brenton's nickname as "Cooperation Island," he's used to working solo. To keep historic trees and ocean shoreline open to all, he'll have to learn to cooperate with other islanders--including Captain Courtney, who might just morph from irritant to irresistible once James learns a secret that's been kept from him for years.

Ferry to Cooperation Island

By Carol Newman Cronin,

What is this book about?

Loner James Malloy is a ferry captain-or used to be, until he was unceremoniously fired and replaced by a girl named Courtney Farris. Now, instead of piloting Brenton Island's daily lifeline to the glitzy docks of Newport, Rhode Island, James spends his days beached, bitter, and bored.

When he discovers a private golf course staked out across wilderness sacred to his dying best friend, a Narragansett Indian, James is determined to stop such "improvements." But despite Brenton's nickname as "Cooperation Island," he's used to working solo. To keep rocky bluffs, historic trees, and ocean shoreline open to all, he'll have…


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