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21 Centuries of novels

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Like history? Need a good book to read? Well here’s a selection of some of my favourites. I’ve chosen one book by one author for each century, showcasing the very best of that era in my opinion. A few of those centuries are empty, mind, clearly telling me where I need to concentrate my reading, so I’ve skipped about 5. And needless to say, I’ve ignored my own humble scribblings. These are all from other writers, and of the ones I’ve met, they are not onlys skillful storytellers, but also most excellent people.

5th Century BC

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To be honest, I was going to make this list much shorter, but there was simply no way I could ignore this novel, so I had to extend the timeframe to include the best book I’ve read by one of the very best authors ever to put finger to keyboard. Christian Cameron’s ‘Killer of Men’ brings to life the world of ancient Greece in a way no other writer can. It is like climbing into the skin of the character and living through him

3rd Century BC

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Few writers have tackled the world of early Rome and done it well. One is the tremendous Ben Kane. He has rapidly risen to become one of the pillars of the Historical Fiction world, famed for several series spanning quite some timeframe. But my favourite of Ben’s novels is still ‘Hannibal: Enemy of Rome’. It is a story of friendship, family and sundered cultures in a time which even to many of us Roman-o-philes is still a fairly hazy world. Hannibal brings the Punic Wars to life.

1st Century BC

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Alongside Ben Kane, one of the acknowledged giants of Historical Fiction is the great Conn Iggulden. It all started for Conn with ‘Emperor: The Gates of Rome.’ A novel of the early life of Julius Caesar, it is immersive and gripping and set the standard for many authors to follow. And best of all, it triggered a series of four more excellent novels.

1st Century AD

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Huge selection to choose from here, and some astoundingly good books from great writers, so the competition is fierce. But for my money, the prize for the 1st century just has to go to Douglas Jackson for his superb opus ‘Hero of Rome.’ Simply the best, most harrowing, most breathtaking scene imaginable as Boudicca’s rebellion hits Colchester. Every now and then I re-read it to remind myself what I need to try and live up to.

2nd Century AD

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Again, a time well covered by some excellent writers, and with so many memorable names, but for sheer personal reading pleasure I have to go with Ruth Downie’s Medicus, a tale about a Roman military doctor and his significant other solving a case of disappearing dancing girls in Chester during the reign of Hadrian. Elegantly written, historically accurate, with flowing prose and the most wonderful sense of humour, it sort of exemplifies the most widely accessible of all historical fiction. I’ve yet to find someone who doesn’t love it. For the record, I very nearly subdivided this century to include Anthony Riches, but rules are rules, and I can only select one. But if you’re after extra reads, launch in Riches’ direction.

3rd Century AD

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Long professed on this blog as one of my favourite series, Agent of Rome by Nick Brown takes us into the troubled world of 3rd Century Rome with a member of the Imperial Security service. By turns funny, thought-provoking and gripping, the book is guarenteed to drag you along and the series never fails to disappoint. Makes me weep for the sites often mentioned in these books that I would love to visit, but are in the troubled lands of the Middle East.

4th Century AD

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Ian Ross introduces us to the Constantinian era in his debut ‘War at the Edge of the World’, showing us where the world of that most famous emperor began through the eyes of a grizzled centurion. An unusual era for Roman fiction, and a welcome addition. Gordon and I have tackled Constantine too, but Ian got there first and did a damn fine job, I must say.

5th Century AD

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‘Eagle in the Snow’ by Wallace Breem has long been considered one of the seminal works on the Roman world. Most Roman fiction authors will cite this as one of the best books written. Set at the very end of the Western empire, it is a somewhat sad and heart-wrenching view of the decline of a glorious world, and has certainly influenced my own opinions on the genre.

6th Century AD

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Alright, I know Guy Gavriel Kay writes fantasy, or at least Historical Fantasy, but his books are so heavily researched and so closely based on real events and people that sometimes they are more historical than some of the theoretical historical fiction based on the time. Such is ‘Sailing to Sarantium’, a fantasy twist on the world of Justinian and Belisarius. It is simply one of the best books (along with its sequel, being a dualogy) I have ever read in any genre. It deserves to be in this list

9th Century AD

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‘Raven: Blood Eye’ by Giles Kristian. Kristian has written a series set in the English civil war, and a new series of viking novels that are something of a prequel to this and more epic in scale. But there is something about Raven, and its sequels, that just grab me. They are adventure incarnate as Vikings seek fame and fortune across Europe. It is hard to deny the value of these books as works of great historical fiction.

10th Century AD

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And while we’re in the Viking era, though a little later, I’ll offer you ‘The Whale Road’ by Robert Low. Low’s books are very different to Kristian’s. They lack some of the ease of adventurous style of the Raven series, but they hit a new sweet spot in being very much ‘of their time’. They feel like great Scandinavian epics, and the world they explore, being Eastern Europe and the Russian steppes, is fascinating and unusual.

11th Century AD

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One could potentially accuse me of nepotism by adding Gordon Doherty. He is a good friend and we are working together on a series. However, I am drawn time and again to cite him as the very best of what the Indie publishing world can offer. ‘Strategos: Born in the Borderlands’ is a tale of the early medieval Byzantine world and is simply breathtaking in its atmosphere and colour. I defy you to disagree.

12th Century AD

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Robin Hood has been done quite a bit. In both literature and on screen. But ‘Outlaw’ by Angus Donald takes an approach I’d never considered, treating him as something of a mafioso crime lord. Seen through the eyes of Alan a Dale, this book is something new in a very old hat world. And better still, the following 7 books take Robin Hood through the whole world of the 12th and then 13th centuries. This book is simply a ‘belter’. For the record, Outlaw pipped Prue Batten’s Gisborne to the post by the width of a shadow.

13th Century AD

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Narrowly squeaking in at the end of this century I’d place Robyn Young’s ‘Insurrection’. I enjoyed Robyn’s Templar series, despite my fear of all things Templar (writers seem incapable of touching the subject without getting mystical and creepy). But this tackling of the Scottish wars of Independence under Robert de Brus takes us in unexpected directions and earns its place as a fascinating read.

14th Century AD

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Michael Jecks’ ‘Fields of Glory’. Well I knew Jecks as a crime writer. I read this entirely by accident, expecting murders and investigations. What I got instead was a saga of military campaign during the Hundred Years War, with some proper villains thrown in to boot. Jecks’ knowledge of his era shows in a tale that is so thoroughly believable and immersive. One of the best.

15th Century AD

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‘Into the Fire’ by Manda Scott is one of three books on this list some might argue as not Historical Fiction. But the fact is that it is a dual-timeline novel, and half the book is set in the time of Jeanne d’Arc, the maid of Orleanse, so it qualifies for me. This is a thriller of the very highest calibre, switching back and forth between Joan of Arc and a series of grizzly arson events in modern France. Scott cut her teeth in the ancient orld and has an instinctive knack for bringing the past to life, which she does in spades here.

17th Century AD

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‘Hunter’s Rage’ is actually the 3rd book in Michael Arnold’s series of Civil War adventures. And once more, the 17th century for me is an era rich in excellence, so Arnold has really pulled out the stops to surpass the others. Hunter’s Rage for me was the moment in this excellent series when he truly hit his stride, and the prose was effortless, the story gripping, the pace breakneck, the history thorough and the characterisation vivid and astounding.

18th Century AD

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The 18th century for me is a largely unplumbed time, but recently I was introduced to the works of Robin Blake, and so I have no problem filling this century.’A Dark Anatomy’ is the first of four books (so far) in a series of historical mysteries that have kept me entertained, researching the events surrounding them, and hungry for more.

19th Century AD

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Oh, Paul Fraser Collard, why’d you have to be so damn good? You knocked D.E. Meredith off the top spot by a fraction of a hair’s breadth. The Jack Lark series have been likened to Sharpe. They’re not. They’re better than Sharpe. They are what Shapre should wish to be. ‘The Scarlet Thief’ was the first in the series and a book I didn’t believe could possibly sprout sequels. I was wrong. Collard is at the top of his game from square one, which is incredibly rare. Read this book, set in the time of the Crimean war, and you’ll agree.

20th Century AD

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‘Traitor’s Gate’ by Michael Ridpath is fascinating. It’s not quite a historical saga. It’s not quite a thriller or whodunnit. It’s not quite a war story. But in some ways it’s all of those. It is one of the best books I have read in the modern era, showing you the world of Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the war. I felt for the characters, and the premise at times chilled me to the bone. I loved it. So will you.

21st Century AD

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Simon Toyne’s ‘Sanctus’ is the third of the ‘not-quite’ hist-fic books on this list. Yes, it’s set in this century, but the themes, culture and alternate history suffusing and surrounding it for me qualify it as Historical Fiction. It is the first of a trilogy of quasi-religious myseries in a similar vein as (though to my mind better than) Dan Brown. As a story it is a unique and fascinating idea, and truly hit the big time in my top books. 21st century meets thousands of years of history in this blinder.

So there you go. A book a century. If you’ve not read them, you can fill your reading llist in advance for winter. Have fun and happy reading.

Written by SJAT

October 16, 2016 at 6:59 pm

Top Ten Reads of 2014

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It’s that time again where I choose the top ten books I read throughout the year. This year I have reviewed fewer books than in the previous two. A few I’ve read have not made it to review because they didn’t quite match up to the level of quality of those I have done, but others were held back because they have not yet been published and were still in draft manuscript form (I read quite a lot of those this year.) Note that these ten are in Author order, not preferential countdown. If you missed these books in 2014 go read them in 2015.

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I suspect I have now reached a point where certain authors are pretty much guarenteed a place in my top ten unless a new unknown suddenlyblows my socks off. Mike Arnold is one such. Captain Stryker’s adventures are a highlight of my year and are always highly anticipated, never failing to thrill. In this fifth installment, Arnold created a perfect tightly-knit mix of action, suspense, intrigue and character. See my full review here.

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In one of the most outstanding Roman series available, Nick Brown upped his own game again this year with a heady, evocative, exotic thriller, sending Corbulo on the hunt for a stolen relic in the eastern provinces. Corbulo and his allies continue to grow and evolve as characters, and Brown quickly shot to the top reaches of the Roman A-list for me. See my full review here.

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Paul Collard managed a rare thing last year with the Scarlet Thief: he took a barely touched milieu and a fresh, unusual idea for a character and crafted a stunning debut. This year’s sequel could easily have been either a poor follow up or a yawn-worthy repeat of book 1. Yet, despite the inherent difficulties, he managed to keep the tale fresh and exciting, and the story echoed at times one of my fave movies – Zulu. Read me full review here.

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One of history’s fiercest sieges retold in one of the year’s most tense, gripping novels. Angus Donald’s characterisation of Robin Hood continues long beyond the death of Richard I and into the reign of the ignoble King John in this latest offering, which is one of the strongest in the series so far. See my full review here.

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Valerius Verrens is one of the best Roman characters in literature, running the whole gamut from war hero to tortured lover to dishonoured refugee to spy and so much more. Jackson has written books that are tense, dark, exciting, edgy and more, and in this latest, he really doesn’t disappoint. Read the full review here.

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This far, Hannibal has been my favourite of the three series by Kane. It is, I think, the most human, the most sympathetic and the most varied in scope, despite how geographically wide the Forgotten Legion books were. Hanno and Quintus are well-pitted against one another, and are both taken to the reader’s heart. This latest in the series takes one of the most critical moments in the Punic Wars and weaves an exciting tale around it. Read the full review here.

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I had read Kristian’s Raven saga and, like you I’m sure, was hungry for more. But he was busy on his civil war series. And then suddenly we were treated this year not to a new Raven book, but to a prequel. The beginning of it all, as Sigurd flows into the pages of fictional history. Gods, I’d missed Sigurd, and he came back with a bang. Read the review here.

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Remember how I mentioned the possibility of a new find blowing my socks off? Well had it not been for a read of Ridpath’s opus on a whim, Douglas Jackson would have had two books in this list! Ridpath’s tale of love, loss, intrigue, espionage and tense uncertainty in pre-war Berlin was something of a surprise for me. One of my absolute faves. Read the full review here.

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Kydd is as much the quintessential Napoleonic era sailor character as any Hornblower, Bolitho, Ramage or Aubrey. And he travels to some stunning locales to take part in some truly nail-biting escapades. Stockwin manages to write in a very authentic period prose and yet tell tales with the cinematic punch of a blockbuster, and I think Pasha is his most absorbing to date. The story also contains changes that will affect the future of the series. Read my full review here.

So there you go. Ten books to catch up on if you missed them. Happy new year every one. I hope you all have a good one, and I cannot wait to see what new gems 2015 will produce.

Written by SJAT

December 31, 2014 at 9:00 am