20 best historical novels

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Wayoftheredpanda

Flaming Wonder Telepath
May 15, 2018
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I don't read enough historical fiction to really make a list but I have mentioned a YA novel I like, "Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry", about a black family dealing with oppression in the 1930's.

The only other historical fiction I can think of that I've read are "Number the Stars" and "The Devil's Arithmetic", both about the holocaust from a Jewish child's perspective, although the latter has some time travel shenanigans (Do the magic treehouse books count?), which I both remember liking but don't remember too many details. We had to read Number The Stars for a 4th grade assignment, which looking back on was a strange time to introduce the idea of genocide to a group of young children, before we read it we were pulled away in small groups one at a time while the others worked on something and shown a picture of Hitler and a Swastika before the teacher described a generalized version of the Holocaust so we would have some form of context.
 

hollis517

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Mar 16, 2020
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Ok, i made a list over my top 20 historical novels through the ages. I’m sure i missed some but before i started i made a few groundrules. Each author can only have one entry and thats it. No exceptions. And i mean historical novels, that means they have to been written some distance in years from the setting the author should not base it mostly on things he had himself experienced. There goes, for example, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Naked and the Dead and Suite Francoise out of the competition. Remarque and Mailer took part in respectively WW1 and WW2 and their books is heavily based on their experiences. Irene Nemirofsky lived in oocupied Paris even if her book wasn’t published, posthumously, until later. They are all great novels but not a Historical novel since they actually lived it. I also disqualified all novels that have somekind of timetravel thing to them. Having one of the main characters actually know something of the future and act because of it makes it, in my opinion, not a historical novel. There fell, for example, Outlander and 11/22/63. Both are great novels but not in this cathegory. I have also tried to spread it out so that many decades of authors are represented and also geographically.
So.. Now you can start to groan. I can already hear my american friends groan over,for example, Roots or Gone with the Wind. Thats OK, groan away. This is just my opinion. I will be happy to hear yours. When regarded as the best 20 during a time of over 200 years it will be tight. Ranked in no special order by the way. And since i havent used books only memory i’m sure i have forgotten something. Oh, Some of these books are part of a series and then i have taken the best in that series,IMO, of course.


20 best historical novels


I, Claudius - Robert Graves (1934)
The Far Pavilions - M.M. Kaye (1978)
All The Light We Can Not See - Anthony Doerr (2014)
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel (2009)
The Pillars Of The Earth - Ken Follett (1989)
Shogun - James Clavell (1975)
Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry (1985)
North And South - John Jakes (1982)
Winds of War - Herman Wouk (1971)
The Egyptian - Mika Waltari (Finnish) (1945)
The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas (1844)
War And Peace - Leo Tolstoj (1865)
The Days Of His Grace - Eyvind Johnson (Swedish) (1960)
The Source - James Michener (1965)
Kristin Lavransdatter - Sigrid Undset (1920) (norwegian)
Musashi - Eiji Yoshikawa (1935)
The Bookthief - Markus Zusak (2005) (australian)
The Name Of The Rose - Umberto Eco (1980) (Italian)
Imperium - Robert Harris (2006)
The Long Ships - Frans G. Bengtsson (Swedish) (1941)
As to your list, I’ve read some of them and here’s my opinion:

The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett, 1989) — Entertaining, but nothing more than that.
Shogun (James Clavell, 1975) — Amazing, enthralling, engrossing!
Winds of War (Herman Wouk, 1971) — An exciting read, better than the sequel.
The Source (James Michener, 1965) — Arguably the best novel Michener ever wrote, I reread it every decade. It is stupendous!
The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco, 1980) — A tough read for me. Luckily, a friend helped me with the religious parts. I have no desire to reread it.

Now, here are a few I’d suggest:

(1) The Chosen (Chaim Potok, 1967) — One of my favorite books about friendship, tradition, learning, and WW2 Brooklyn, city of my birth. I reread it often. The sequel sucks.

(2) The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean Auel, 1980) — A fascinating What Might Have Been story, a classic Other/Stranger in a Strange Land. I learn something new with every reread.

(3) The Mask of Command (John Keegan, 1987) — An historical examination of leadership by my favorite military historian. I adore it.

(4) The Bully Pulpit (Doris Kearns Goodwin, 2013) — The relationship between Roosevelt and Taft, the story of their wives (Edith and Nellie), and the muckrakers who crafted the Golden Age of Journalism, particularly Sam McClure and Ida Tarbell, is quite possibly the best of her excellent threesome: Team of Rivals and No Ordinary Time being the other two. My fervent wish is that it be made a quality miniseries but not by Steven Spielberg who, last I heard, bought the rights to it. He’s so horribly maudlin, it’d end up like what he did when he bowdlerized Team of Rivals to squeeze out Lincoln.
 

Kurben

The Fool on the Hill
Apr 12, 2014
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As to your list, I’ve read some of them and here’s my opinion:

The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett, 1989) — Entertaining, but nothing more than that.
Shogun (James Clavell, 1975) — Amazing, enthralling, engrossing!
Winds of War (Herman Wouk, 1971) — An exciting read, better than the sequel.
The Source (James Michener, 1965) — Arguably the best novel Michener ever wrote, I reread it every decade. It is stupendous!
The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco, 1980) — A tough read for me. Luckily, a friend helped me with the religious parts. I have no desire to reread it.

Now, here are a few I’d suggest:

(1) The Chosen (Chaim Potok, 1967) — One of my favorite books about friendship, tradition, learning, and WW2 Brooklyn, city of my birth. I reread it often. The sequel sucks.

(2) The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean Auel, 1980) — A fascinating What Might Have Been story, a classic Other/Stranger in a Strange Land. I learn something new with every reread.

(3) The Mask of Command (John Keegan, 1987) — An historical examination of leadership by my favorite military historian. I adore it.

(4) The Bully Pulpit (Doris Kearns Goodwin, 2013) — The relationship between Roosevelt and Taft, the story of their wives (Edith and Nellie), and the muckrakers who crafted the Golden Age of Journalism, particularly Sam McClure and Ida Tarbell, is quite possibly the best of her excellent threesome: Team of Rivals and No Ordinary Time being the other two. My fervent wish is that it be made a quality miniseries but not by Steven Spielberg who, last I heard, bought the rights to it. He’s so horribly maudlin, it’d end up like what he did when he bowdlerized Team of Rivals to squeeze out Lincoln.
Have only read Clan of the cave bear of these. But the last two... arent they History? They arent historical novels, are they? I have read other books by Keegan and he is a very good military historian. As for Clan i like it very much but since she isn't really, in my view, doing a historical novel i didn't consider it. Her novel is, as all novels placed so far back, pure speculation. She has, to her big credit, done her research so she is getting tools and things reasonably right but the society, rites, family and so on is pure invention. So, a great novel but not really historical. (But we do have genetical evidence that at some point during the neanderthals and out coexistence we did mate. ca 2% of our DNA comes from the Neanderthal)
About Eco..... He is almost always tough. He is one of the most learned authors on this planet and this shines through even in this relatively easy read , But mostly he is worth it IMO.
 

Kurben

The Fool on the Hill
Apr 12, 2014
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I can't make a list because I haven't read that many. But The Years Of Rice And Salt is an excellent blend of historical and metaphysical.
A great book! But also one i never considered because it isn't historical. Its premise is that the Black Death didn't kill a third of the population of europe but 99% and what would have happened then. But without a doubt Kim Stanley Robinsons best book. He gets much to wordy in his later novels.
 

Tery

Say hello to my fishy buddy
Moderator
Apr 12, 2006
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A great book! But also one i never considered because it isn't historical. Its premise is that the Black Death didn't kill a third of the population of europe but 99% and what would have happened then. But without a doubt Kim Stanley Robinsons best book. He gets much to wordy in his later novels.
Agreed. But the different stories are set in different cultures and times. Yet the same souls. I found that a fascinating idea.
 

Edward John

Well-Known Member
Aug 15, 2019
4,004
18,785
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Ok, i made a list over my top 20 historical novels through the ages. I’m sure i missed some but before i started i made a few groundrules. Each author can only have one entry and thats it. No exceptions. And i mean historical novels, that means they have to been written some distance in years from the setting the author should not base it mostly on things he had himself experienced. There goes, for example, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Naked and the Dead and Suite Francoise out of the competition. Remarque and Mailer took part in respectively WW1 and WW2 and their books is heavily based on their experiences. Irene Nemirofsky lived in oocupied Paris even if her book wasn’t published, posthumously, until later. They are all great novels but not a Historical novel since they actually lived it. I also disqualified all novels that have somekind of timetravel thing to them. Having one of the main characters actually know something of the future and act because of it makes it, in my opinion, not a historical novel. There fell, for example, Outlander and 11/22/63. Both are great novels but not in this cathegory. I have also tried to spread it out so that many decades of authors are represented and also geographically.
So.. Now you can start to groan. I can already hear my american friends groan over,for example, Roots or Gone with the Wind. Thats OK, groan away. This is just my opinion. I will be happy to hear yours. When regarded as the best 20 during a time of over 200 years it will be tight. Ranked in no special order by the way. And since i havent used books only memory i’m sure i have forgotten something. Oh, Some of these books are part of a series and then i have taken the best in that series,IMO, of course.


20 best historical novels


I, Claudius - Robert Graves (1934)
The Far Pavilions - M.M. Kaye (1978)
All The Light We Can Not See - Anthony Doerr (2014)
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel (2009)
The Pillars Of The Earth - Ken Follett (1989)
Shogun - James Clavell (1975)
Lonesome Dove - Larry McMurtry (1985)
North And South - John Jakes (1982)
Winds of War - Herman Wouk (1971)
The Egyptian - Mika Waltari (Finnish) (1945)
The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas (1844)
War And Peace - Leo Tolstoj (1865)
The Days Of His Grace - Eyvind Johnson (Swedish) (1960)
The Source - James Michener (1965)
Kristin Lavransdatter - Sigrid Undset (1920) (norwegian)
Musashi - Eiji Yoshikawa (1935)
The Bookthief - Markus Zusak (2005) (australian)
The Name Of The Rose - Umberto Eco (1980) (Italian)
Imperium - Robert Harris (2006)
The Long Ships - Frans G. Bengtsson (Swedish) (1941)
Huh, surprised you don't have any of the Arn books Kurben.
 

hollis517

Well-Known Member
Mar 16, 2020
50
208
66
Have only read Clan of the cave bear of these. But the last two... arent they History? They arent historical novels, are they? I have read other books by Keegan and he is a very good military historian. As for Clan i like it very much but since she isn't really, in my view, doing a historical novel i didn't consider it. Her novel is, as all novels placed so far back, pure speculation. She has, to her big credit, done her research so she is getting tools and things reasonably right but the society, rites, family and so on is pure invention. So, a great novel but not really historical. (But we do have genetical evidence that at some point during the neanderthals and out coexistence we did mate. ca 2% of our DNA comes from the Neanderthal)
About Eco..... He is almost always tough. He is one of the most learned authors on this planet and this shines through even in this relatively easy read , But mostly he is worth it IMO.
Yeah, you’re correct about Keegan and Goodwin. But they’re so darn accessible, the storyline just sucks you in and entrances you. Also correct about Auel, but it too reads like historical fiction: historical because of the sheer immensity of the research, fiction because of the necessity for the speculation. But the speculation is truly fascinating. And if you consider The Name of the Rose relatively easy, then I’m done with Eco. You should try The Chosen, if only for the momentous baseball game that starts it off. It’s hard to put down.
 

Kurben

The Fool on the Hill
Apr 12, 2014
9,682
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Yeah, you’re correct about Keegan and Goodwin. But they’re so darn accessible, the storyline just sucks you in and entrances you. Also correct about Auel, but it too reads like historical fiction: historical because of the sheer immensity of the research, fiction because of the necessity for the speculation. But the speculation is truly fascinating. And if you consider The Name of the Rose relatively easy, then I’m done with Eco. You should try The Chosen, if only for the momentous baseball game that starts it off. It’s hard to put down.
For Eco it is actually easy, for everyone else.....So probably a wise choice When it comes to Auel i think its a pity that she never got really close to that first book. When she decided to bring in a mate to the grown up Ayla it started to go downhill. The research is still good but the storylines.....
And i keep an eye open for The Chosen!