Five Great Historical Novels Everyone Should Read
Read these books before history repeats itself!
Many people crave engrossing tales of times past, or they would simply like to learn more about the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, cowboys and Indians in the Old West or the first Americans as they moved from Asia to North America during the Ice Age. Are you one of those people? If you are, please keep reading, because I’ve compiled a list highlighting five books lovers of historical fiction would probably enjoy devouring like a barbecued mammoth steak.
1. River God
Ancient Egypt comes alive in River God, written by Wilbur Smith and published in 1994. The novel takes place during the Middle Kingdom, or about 1700 B.C.E., a time when Egypt is fractured by civil war and banditry. The story revolves around the lives of three characters: Taita, a multi-talented eunuch slave; a general in pharaoh’s army named Tanus; and Lostris, who becomes pharaoh’s wife (and Tanus’ lover). The pharaoh is named Mamose, whose existence seems fictional. Taita, who is pharaoh’s physician and possesses many other skills, lends a hand in solving nearly every predicament, as when Tanus impregnates Lostris during their affair, he must make it appear that Mamose, in need of a male heir, fathered the child.
The biggest threat to Mamose’s kingdom occurs when the Hyksos, a warlike army from Mesopotamia, invade northern Egypt. The Egyptian army, led by Tanus, is outclassed by the Hyksos, who have hundreds of horse-drawn war chariots and the much more effective recurved bow. (At this point in history, the Egyptians had no horses or chariots.) Defeated in a rout, Mamose, Taita and the remnants of the Egyptian civilization must flee south, past the cataracts of the Nile River, hoping to regroup while they learn how to fight with chariots and horses. Eventually Tanus and Taita, as well as Mamose’s son, Memnon, lead the Egyptians back to fight the Hyksos once again. Though this book takes some liberties with Egyptian history, it’s packed with details about life in ancient Egypt and offers plenty of intrigue, treachery, love, action and adventure.
2. The Journeyer
Gary Jennings, who died in 1999, wrote many historical novels, and certainly one of his best is The Journeyer, published in 1984. This novel is based on the exploits of Marco Polo, who traveled the legendary Silk Road in the middle 1200s. Perhaps Polo’s greatest claim to fame was becoming friends with Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler who conquered China in 1260.
Jennings’ version of Marco Polo’s story seems accurate, though he probably takes liberties with Polo’s personal life, as many novelists do in such matters, of course. While Polo perambulates for some 20 years, he (Jennings’ version) has numerous sexual encounters, such as with Princess Moth in Bagdad, who teaches Marco about the Persian delights of the bedroom. As a rule, Jennings’ books are loaded with sex and violence, though always tastefully done and with an emphasis on the intellectual aspects.
When Polo meets Kublai Khan, his outspoken nature wins Khan’s favor. Subsequently, Khan sends Polo south to places such as India and Champa (Siam), so Polo can tell him which countries are worth conquering. Polo says forget about India, but Champa is worth the effort. Therefore, if you want to read about the life of one of the greatest journeyers of all time, this is definitely a tremendous book to read.
Trinity is a novel about Ireland’s struggle against British colonial rule and occupation during the early years of the 1900s, concluding with the Easter Rising in 1916. In fact, for centuries when the Irish weren’t fighting the British, the Catholics were fighting the Protestants! (Ireland is primarily a Catholic country.) On a historical note, Ireland eventually obtained its independence from Britain in 1921. Written by Leon Uris and published in 1976, Uris tells the story in both third person and first person, chronicling the lives of three Irish families: the Larkins (Catholics), the Hubbles (Protestants) and the Weeds (Presbyterians). Uris uses the third person narrative to lend historical sweep to the novel, providing insight into such tragedies as the Great Irish Famine in the 1840s.
The novel’s main character is Conor Larkin, a handsome, scrapping fellow who could have been played in a movie by either John Wayne or Russell Crowe. Larkin, while trying to further the cause of Irish independence, becomes a gun runner for the Irish Brotherhood. He also has a tragic love affair with Shelley MacLeod, who is beaten to death by partisans, injecting a tear-jerking underscore to the entire story. (Keep your tissue handy for this part.) Trinity is certainly one of the most engrossing historical novels of all time and could be Uris’s best as well. Please note that Uris wrote Redemption, a sequel to this book, published in 1995.
4. Lonesome Dove
The story of Lonesome Dove had originally been written as a screenplay by author Larry McMurtry. It was supposed to star John Wayne, but when Wayne turned down the role, the project disintegrated. Then, in the middle 1980s, McMurtry resurrected the project and produced a novel which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1986. The plot centers around Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call, two former Texas Rangers, who launch a cattle drive which begins in the border town of Lonesome Dove and ends in Montana, where they start a cattle ranch.
Neither McCrae nor Call is particularly good at establishing long-lasting relationships with women, though they have sired children over the years. Both have inner conflicts to deal with as well. Of course, the going is very tough on this long cattle drive. They encounter hostile Indians, thieves, murderers and plenty of bad weather. One particularly bad hombre they confront is Blue Duck, the son of a Comanche war chief and his Mexican prisoner. Both McCrae and Call have old grudges against Blue Duck, who seems capable of committing any heinous crime, including slavery, cattle rustling, murder, and rape. Indeed, this book is filled with numerous fascinating characters—so many you’d think McMurtry had lived during those cattle driving days of the Old West. Incidentally, lovers of books written by Louis L’Amour would probably like this wonderful book as well.
5. Beyond the Sea of Ice
This novel was written by William Sarabande, the nom de plume of Joan Lesley Hamilton Cline, who wrote a line of books known as the First Americans Series, the first edition of which was Beyond the Sea of Ice, published in 1987. The novel chronicles the adventures of various hardy folks who trek from Siberia to North American perhaps 15,000 years ago, during what is known as the Paleolithic era. These people use stone tools, live as nomads and their religion is shamanism.
As opposed to the somewhat idealized existence of Paleolithic people created by Jean M. Auel in her Earth’s Children books, Sarabande’s adventures create a much harsher, violent reality, though not to an off-putting degree; Sarabande’s books simply appear more realistic. In Beyond the Sea of Ice, the characters Torka and Lonit, a kind of first American couple, struggle to survive in a dangerous land filled with suspense and thrilling adventure. There are some definite bad guys and girls in this series of books, so if you want an emphasis on warmth, togetherness and a sex scene in every chapter, maybe you should stick with Jean Auel’s heavily stylized material. Hey, why not read the work of both authors and compare?
There are 11 books in the First Americans Series, the last of which entitled Spirit Moon, was published in 2000. All of them are worth checking out.
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© 2011 Kelley Marks