The best books about the Age of Sail for lovers of the period who want to know a bit more

Philip K. Allan Author Of The Captain's Nephew
By Philip K. Allan

Who am I?

I have a passion for ships and the sea which I try and bring to my writing. I was first drawn to the Age of Sail by earlier novelists in the genre who opened my eyes to a fascinating world. I went on to study the 18th-century navy at university, I sail myself whenever I can, and have always loved the sea. When I decided to give up a well-paid job in industry to try my hand as an author, there was only one genre for me.


I wrote...

The Captain's Nephew

By Philip K. Allan,

Book cover of The Captain's Nephew

What is my book about?

1795 - In a world torn apart by revolution and war, Alexander Clay, a young naval officer, dreams of promotion. Self-made, clever, and talented, he is a man ready for this new age. But Clay will need all his wits to bring his ship and crew through a series of adventures stretching from the bleak coast of Flanders to the warm waters of the Caribbean. Ill-conceived expeditions ashore, hunts for privateers in treacherous fog and a desperate chase across the Atlantic are only some of the challenges he faces. How can he win the hand of the beautiful Lydia Browning and what dark secrets have the crew brought with them into the wooden world of his ship?

The books I picked & why

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The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy

By N.A.M. Rodger,

Book cover of The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy

Why this book?

This book is always on my desk when I am writing. Nick Rodger is the greatest living authority on the Age of Sail, with an astounding knowledge of his subject from the grand strategy of fleets down to the daily life of individual sailors. The book is a distillation of a lifetime of careful research into a highly-readable, single volume that lets the reader step through a door into a vanished world.

The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy

By N.A.M. Rodger,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Meticulously researched, Rodger's portrait draws the reader into this fascinatingly complex world with vivid, entertaining characters and full details of life below the decks. The Wooden World provides the most complete history of a navy at any age, and is sure to be an indispensable volume for all fans of Patrick O'Brian, English history, and naval history.

Ship of the Line

By C.S. Forrester,

Book cover of Ship of the Line

Why this book?

I first read C.S.Forrester’s Hornblower series as a child and was instantly hooked. I was intrigued by the hero he had created, who was both successful, yet also deeply flawed. This book was one of my favorites. It is pacy and full of action, which obviously appealed to my teenage self, but it also left me wanting to know more about sailing ships and the sea. Without Forester I would never have written my own Age of Sail series.

Ship of the Line

By C.S. Forrester,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ship of the Line as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

May, 1810 - and thirty-nine-year-old Captain Horatio Hornblower has been handed his first ship of the line . . .

Though the seventy-four-gun HMS Sutherland is 'the ugliest and least desirable two-decker in the Navy' and a crew shortage means he must recruit two hundred and fifty landlubbers, Hornblower knows that by the time Sutherland and her squadron reach the blockaded Catalonian coast every seaman will do his duty. But with daring raids against the French army and navy to be made, it will take all Hornblower's seamanship - and stewardship - to steer a steady course to victory and…


Master & Commander

By Patrick O'Brian,

Book cover of Master & Commander

Why this book?

I can still remember my surprise when I first read Master & Commander. I was studying 18th-century naval history at university at the time, and a fellow student recommended it to me. I read the first few pages and realised that all the dialogue, attitudes, ideas were all authentic to the period. It was a revelation to me that historical fiction could be so immersive. I found myself quickly being drawn into a wholly alien world. Much historical fiction is populated with modern characters in period dress, which was why I found O’Brian’s novels so distinctive. It is something I have tried to replicate in my own work and I now appreciate how hard it is to achieve.  

Master & Commander

By Patrick O'Brian,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Master & Commander as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, R.N., and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent, against a thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of a life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson's navy are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as the great ships close in battle.


Men of Honour

By Adam Nicolson,

Book cover of Men of Honour

Why this book?

2005 saw the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar, and a slew of books about the engagement. The best of the lot was Men of Honour. In it Nicolson broadens his focus away from the mechanics of the battle to explore the psychology of the protagonists and explains the world they grew up in so that the reader understands why they acted in the ways that they did. Good history answers the ‘what happened’ question. Great history lets you understand why.      

Men of Honour

By Adam Nicolson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An unforgettable look at the contradictions of heroism, as embodied by Horatio Nelson and as tested by the battle of Trafalgar. Adam Nicolson looks at the variety of qualities - ruthlessness, bravery, kindness, cruelty - that combined in both Nelson and his troops to carry that fateful day.

Trafalgar gripped the nineteenth century imagination like no other battle: it was a moment of both transcendent fulfilment and unmatched despair. It was a drama of such violence and sacrifice that the concept of total war may be argued to start from there. It finished the global ambitions of a European tyrant…


In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Book cover of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

Why this book?

Like many with an interest in the Age of Sail, I already knew the story of the whaling ship Essex, partly through the novel it inspired—Moby-Dick, one of the foundation works of modern American literature. In the Heart of the Sea offers so much more. It has a fascinating insight into the economic importance of whaling, as well as the process of hunting such enormous animals in tiny rowing boats. I also learnt a great deal about Nantucket Island and the unique community that grew up there in the 19th century. The story of the Essex itself is very well told, steadily building up the tension even for a reader like me who knew the outcome. A great read that delivers knowledge in a highly-entertaining package.  

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked In the Heart of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The epic true-life story of one of the most notorious maritime disasters of the nineteenth century - and inspiration for `Moby-Dick' - reissued to accompany a major motion picture due for release in December 2015, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker and Cillian Murphy.

When the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket in 1819, the unthinkable happened. A mere speck in the vast Pacific ocean - and powerless against the forces of nature - Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale, and her twenty crewmen were forced to take to the open sea…


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