Tuesday 12 December 2017

Yet another XMAS book round-up.

Sorry folks, it's yet another Christmas book round-up! This year, thanks to my monthly review column in The Times, and my chairing of judging panel for the Historical Writers' Association (HWA) Gold Crown award, I think that I have read more than 120 works of historical fiction. That is a hefty dose of swords, togas and corsets. This is an entirely personal, subjective taste of my favourites.

Some of these books were technically published in 2016, due to the way the awards were structured. But let's not quibble. There were some incredible books out there, by some talented writers. Rather than the usual structure of these lists, I thought I'd give a chronological flavour of my favourites this year.

Ancient Greece.

OK. So I'm starting with something entirely cheaty here, because these books have been out a while. But this was the year I discovered Christian Cameron's Long War series. Starting with Killer of Men, this covers the Persian Wars, through the eyes of Arimnestos, a Platean warrior. Cameron has that rare gift of making history seem vividly real. Mary Renault meets CS Forester

Ancient Egypt

Emily Holleman continues her spirited portrayal of the House of Ptolemy in The Drowning King. This is a beautifully written and fascinating series – and if it feels a little melodramatic, blame the source material. It deserves a wider audience.

Ancient Rome

Ben Kane is one of the masters of Roman military fiction. I have loved his most recent trilogy which began with a massacre of Roman legionaries in the Teutoberg Forest. In March, he brought the series to a close with Eagles in the Storm. Lucius Tullus, who survived the original massacre, is determined to discover his legion's lost eagle. Arminius is refusing to let the dream of crushing Rome die. An enthralling end to the series.


For the Odin-lover in your life, the obvious choice is the complete works of modern skald, Giles Kristian. His book this year, Wings of the Storm is the last in a trilogy about revenge and honour, as Sigurd Haraldson seeks to avenge his murdered family. Violent and compelling, with one of the best battle scenes I have ever read.

I also very much enjoyed Theodore Brun's novel A Mighty Dawn. Part Viking, part fantasy this is a big, fat and entirely satisfying fireside read.

Middle Ages:

Kingdom Come by Toby Clements is the concluding book in a four-part series about the War of the Roses which should be required reading for all fans of historical fiction. It is 1470. Katherine and Thomas, the ordinary couple whose lives have been buffeted by the ongoing war amongst England’s nobility, are drawn back into the fighting. A fitting end to an unmissable series.

SD Sykes continued her wonderful medieval crime series in City of Masks. Her hero Oswald de Lacy is pulled into a new mystery, but this time in the deceiving, beautiful surrounds of Venice.


Disclaimer: I adore Sarah Dunant. But I particularly love her two books about the Borgia family. Beautiful, dense prose and an extraordinary story collide in the second one out this year, In the Name of the Family.

Second disclaimer, as much as I love Sarah Dunant, there is a second writer of Rennaisance Italy who is just as good but does not get as much oxygen. If this fascinating era of art, money and power is your reading heaven - and how could it not be? - read all the works of Philip Kazan immediately.

Early Modern

Bernard Cornwell rather bamboozled his fans this year by bringing out a book with no swords, no battles, no blood and few beards. Fools and Mortals is the story of William Shakespeare's younger brother - a jobbing actor in a lively, theatrical London. Funny, playful and great fun.

Angus Donald kicked off a new series with the utterly delicious Blood's Game - the adventures of a young and peculiar hero in the court of Charles II.

And I wrote one too set in Cromwell's London - The Tyrant's Shadow. It's not bad.

Eighteenth Century

Squeezing in (it is set in 1799!) is Andrew Martin's new crime novel Soot. A shade painter is found dead, and a young debtor is released from gaol with a mission to find the murderer. Inventive, erudite and vivid. We were also treated to Birdcage Walk, the last novel by the late, great Helen Dunmore: a stunning portrait of a failing marriage and the sad erosion of the great ideals of the French Revolution.

Nineteenth Century

I was very taken with a debut Australian writer, Lucy Treloar, whose book Salt Creek portrays a family's struggles in the wilds of South Australia. A riches to rags tale, which takes a stark look at racism and failure. A second Australian debut was Sarah Schmidt's fantastic See What I have Done, a dark, claustrophobic and macabre take on the infamous Lizzie Borden murders.

The HWA prize for histfic went to Ian Maguire for his tale about whalers, The North Water. I urge you to read this brutal but brilliant story about murder and man's descent into darkness. Also on the shortlist was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, a wonderful book about ideas and monsters set in the Essex marshes.

Early Twentieth Century

This year I discovered Abir Mukherjee, who writes marvellous crime novels set in colonial India. In A Necessary Evil, Captain Sam Wyndham becomes embroiled in the political wrangling between a tenacious colonial Government and the Indian princely states.

World War 2

Stephen Uhly's Kingdom of Twilight was translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch and released in January. An unflinching snapshot of the war and its aftermath, in which the shooting of an SS officer by a young Polish Jew reverberates through the decades.

Sarah Day's outstanding debut Mussolini's Island revealed the little-known story of the fascist oppression of gay men. Her well-drawn protagonists are sent to prison island where they must grapple with betrayal and fear.

I also loved William Ryan's mesmerising novel The Constant Soldier, another HWA Gold Crown shortlistee. Inspired by the pictures of the Auschwitz rest-camp, where genocidal SS officers enjoyed jolly downtime, this is a heartbreaking, haunting novel.

Some of the best historical fiction reads have also been amongst the most feted and publicised this year: among these are Robert Harris' Munich; Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach and George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. What have been your best reads of 2017?


1 comment:

Annis said...

Lots of great reading there, thanks!

Love Christian Cameron, who, as well as his "Long War" series, has written the "Tyrant" series set around the turbulent Mediterranean/Black Sea area following the demise of Alexander the Great and also the medieval"Chivalry" series set during the 100 Years War and the rise of the great mercenary companies. As if that's not enough he also writes fantasy under the nom de plume Miles Cameron. When does the man find time to sleep, I wonder!

'Lincoln in the Bardo" is one of the more strikingly original and moving novels I've read. The term "bardo"is in Tibetan Buddhism a place of limbo - a transitional state between life and rebirth - this will make sense if you read the book.