What are the best five historical novels ever written? It’s incredibly difficult to pick just five, and every reader will have their own opinion. For readers who are new to historical fiction then it’s perhaps difficult to know where to start, but for sheer excitement combined with rich historical settings the five novels below are a good starting point, and in my view represent the best five works of historical fiction ever written. I have left out alternate history and historical fantasy on purpose, as I think it’s difficult to compare books between genres.
1. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The classic medieval mystery. A series of murders in an Italian monastery set against a background of political intrigue. Eco does a remarkable job of showing off his knowledge of the period without being boring and creating a clever mystery as well.
2. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
One of my favourite adventure stories, this is told at a rattling pace and features some excellent historical characters such as the Cardinal and the King, as well as memorable fictional ones as well. All for one, and one for all!
3. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars has an ardent following. Like Eco, O’Brian does not shy away from a wealth of detail in his setting, which I think really enhances the story he has to tell, yet doesn’t slow down the pace of the narrative.
4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
One of my all time favourite novels. Written about 60 years after the events it describes, it’s perhaps easy to not think of this as historical fiction in some ways – one might imagine that Tolstoy is relating a story that is nearly contemporary. However, the events of 1812 in particular, were symbolically essential to the idea of Russian nationality, and Tolstoy writing on the nature of history and great men is essential reading. But the heart of War and Peace is a very human story.
5. The Last English King by Julian Rathbone
This tells the story of 1066 from the viewpoint of the English, with King Harold as the last truly English King. This is an excellent interpretation of the events of the Norman invasion and makes you wonder how history might have worked out differently if the Normans hadn’t been successful.
Historical Fiction is a genre with something for everyone, and this is just a glimpse of some of the fine novels available to read in the genre.