Books that grab you and don't let go
June 15, 2008 6:20 AM   Subscribe

Looking for decently written, page-turning historical fiction.

I love, love, love historical fiction. But I find that I'm kind of picky about the books that really grab me. It seems that it's been about a year since the last general historical fiction recommendation question, so I'm hoping to get some suggestions. I find that Amazon's "people also bought" suggestions are good, but sometimes lead me pretty far astray, and I like LibraryThing and GoodReads to find suggestions, but it can be hard to wade through everything there.

My basic parameters: well-written enough so that bad writing doesn't jar me or take me out of the story, not so well-written that it feels cumbersome and a drag to get through. I'd like a dash of romance, and if it involves a mystery or suspense that would be great, but not totally necessary.

Books I love: the Outlander series, Connie Willis' "Doomsday Book" and "To Say Nothing of the Dog," Rutherford's "London" and "Sarum," (but his other books have not grabbed me), a few Phillippa Gregory books, "The Historian," everything by Deanna Raybourn and Tasha Alexander.

Books I have not enjoyed: Dorothy Dunnett (maybe I'm not giving her enough of a chance, I could not get into the two books of hers I've picked up), The Red Tent, Years of Rice & Salt. Not really "historical fiction," but I don't particularly care for Jane Austen.

In terms of fantasy books that read kind of like historical fiction but are not actually historical, I love Robert Jordan's first 5 books, but I could not get into George R.R. Martin. I have tried Pratchett and just don't enjoy his writing style. Also, because it always comes up in these book questions- I liked "Pillars of the Earth" (and kind of liked the sequel, but that was not nearly as good), but I wouldn't lump it in with books I loved. I hope these aren't horribly tight restrictions that make suggesting anything impossible, there must be people who like the same kind of books I do out there!
posted by banjo_and_the_pork to Media & Arts (65 answers total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Leon Uris is a favorite of mine.
posted by bjgeiger at 6:30 AM on June 15, 2008

I enjoyed Burr by Gore Vidal, and have heard that his Lincoln is good as well.
posted by ecab at 6:35 AM on June 15, 2008

Herman Wouk The Winds of War & War and Remembrance

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
posted by theora55 at 6:37 AM on June 15, 2008

Norah Lofts' work is mostly out of print, but I can't get enough of her, and there are lots of her books in the library; she was very prolific. Her work is very dark and yet not without romance. Her work varies in historical periods, although it is mostly British. I would recommend A Wayside Tavern, Scent of Cloves and Out of the Dark, to be going on with.

Mary Renault's ancient Greek novels have never been excelled. I recommend The King Must Die, The Persian Boy, and The Last of the Wine.

I also enjoyed The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, although the style is more meta than the above straightforward narratives.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:43 AM on June 15, 2008

Lonesome Dove
War and Peace
Robert Graves's Claudius(1) books(2).
Name of the Rose
posted by grumblebee at 6:51 AM on June 15, 2008

James A. Michener
posted by HuronBob at 6:57 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with bjgeiger about Leon Uris. His debut novel Battle Cry (1953), the story of a battalion of Marines during World War II received favorable reviews from both critics and readers. In 1953 Uris went to Hollywood to write the screenplay of the novel. Subsequently he wrote an original screenplay western, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). The film depicted the defeat of the Clanton Gang by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

The Angry Hills (1955) was an account of the Jewish brigade from Palestine that fought with the British army in Greece in World War II. In 1956 Uris covered the Arab-Israeli fighting as a war correspondent. Two years later appeared Exodus. Exodus became an international publishing phenomenon, the biggest bestseller in the United States since Gone with the Wind. Exodus dealt with the struggle to establish and defend the state of Israel. The birth of a new nation was depicted through several characters but the story of an American nurse and an Israeli freedom fighter formed the nucleus of the work.

For the next novel Uris collected material from the Memorial Archives in Warsaw and interviewed the survivors of the Holocaust. Mila 18 (1961) was set in the midst of the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1943. The title of the novel referred to the address of the command post for the Jewish resistance in the city.

In 1964 Uris and his British publisher were sued for libel by a Polish doctor, Wladislaw Dering. He claimed that Uris had mentioned him by name as one of the surgeons who had committed atrocities against the Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. The court ruled against Uris but ordered Dr. Dering to pay the legal costs of both sides. He was awarded only a halfpenny for damage. The incident provided basis for the novel Q.B. VII (Queen's Bench Seven), which was published in 1970 and dealt with British legal practices.

The background of Topaz (1967) was like from a spy story. An exiled French diplomat, who did not support DeGaulle's foreign policy, approached Uris with papers containing information about French Intelligence Service. The publication of Topaz caused a serious conflict inside the French government.

Trinity (1976) was based upon Uris' Irish experiences. While living in Dublin, he had written a photo-essay entitled Ireland, a Terrible Beauty (1975). Trinity was a chronicle of a Northern Irish farm family from the 1840s to 1916, whose fate is connected with two other families, one representing the British aristocracy and the other coming from Scotland. The central characters are a young Catholic rebel and a Protestant girl, who try to find their own place in the country divided by religion and wealth. The story of the Larkin family continued in The Redemption (1995). These two are my favorite works by Uris.

In The Haj (1984) Uris returned to the lands of Palestine. It depicted the lives of Palestinian Arabs from World War I to the Suez war of 1956. Uris was threatened by some extremist Arab groups, although this time the tragedy in the Middle East was seen through the experience of the Arab nations.

Mitla Pass (1988) was a semi-autobiographical account of the Sinai campaign of 1956. On the eve of the '56 Sinai War, the protagonist joins the Israeli forces. He is parachuted to the key junction of Mitla Pass, deep behind enemy lines.
posted by netbros at 6:58 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've just finished Lady Macbeth, and it was really good.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:16 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have you read Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books? If not, they should keep you busy and happy for a good long time.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:23 AM on June 15, 2008

I am a big fan of Sir Walter Scott--historical fiction that has itself already passed into history. Try Ivanhoe or Woodstock. I found them quite gripping when I was a kid.
posted by nasreddin at 7:24 AM on June 15, 2008

It's not really fiction (it's true), but anything by Allan W. Eckert is, to me, page turning and amazing. To an Appalachian history nerd like me, "That Dark and Bloody River" was phenominal. There's just something so deeply attached to my core about the ideas of exploration and danger and making it completely on your own.

James Alexander Thom is also pretty good, but I haven't read that much of him.

Philip Caputo has a ton of books, I've read most of the Vietnam era ones. They're good.

And I suppose it may not exactly be historical fiction, but they DO address a significant portion of our history---books like To Kill a Mockingbird and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sing are also amazingly fantastic. Of course The Jungle is also super awesome.
posted by TomMelee at 7:34 AM on June 15, 2008

The Temeraire series Naomi Novik. It's historical fiction set in the time of Napoleon. It's fairly accurate historically, with one not so minor exception. Dragons exist and they have been domesticated by humans as an air force. So you end up with aerial dragons fighting with British ships in the Napoleonic Wars.
posted by COD at 7:42 AM on June 15, 2008

Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series is spectacular.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:52 AM on June 15, 2008

Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson -- three volumes, ripping good reads about the birth of modern science with the politics of 17th/18th century European.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 7:53 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is sweet.
posted by timsteil at 7:54 AM on June 15, 2008

I second Temeraire. It's quite good, although it reads more like fantasy than historical fiction to me.
posted by Xany at 7:58 AM on June 15, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, please keep 'em coming!

I forgot to mention that I've tried Neal Stephenson and that's pretty much exactly what I mean by well-written but cumbersome. Not to knock him, because I realize that he writes extraordinarily well, but it's too much work for me when I just want a good story.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 8:09 AM on June 15, 2008

Two novels that I flog repeatedly:

Ironfire by David Ball (also published as The Sword and the Scimitar) is a wonderful saga set in the clash of Christendom and the Ottoman Empire, culminating in the Siege of Malta in 1565. Romance, espionage, and lots of bloodcurdling late-medieval warfare. (Seems like these guys had never heard of the Renaissance.)

The Far Pavilions by M M Kaye is set in British India and also explores the clash of cultures and simultaneous cross-fertilization. More romance and espionage, less bloodshed, but also has wonderful characters, plot twists, and an ending that will elicit a dreamy sigh from most readers.

I love questions like this. Gotta add a bunch of stuff to my own reading list!
posted by Quietgal at 8:18 AM on June 15, 2008

I'll second Killer Angels, and add the follow up Gods and Generals.
posted by COD at 8:23 AM on June 15, 2008

The Soldier series, by Gene Wolfe, is a series of fantasy novels set in ancient Greece. The fantasy is theme-appropriate: the gods make appearances, and so on. Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete are collected in an omnibus edition, Latro in the Mist. The third book, Soldier of Sidon, was released last year.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:24 AM on June 15, 2008

Peter Mattheissen: Killing Mr Watson, Bone by Bone, Lost Man's River. A trilogy that takes place a century ago in the Florida Everglades. A good friend of mine is a huge historical fiction fan and is eating them up.

Seconding O'Brian.

Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale.
posted by nevercalm at 8:45 AM on June 15, 2008

March by Geraldine Brooks is about the father of the March girs in Little Women/ It won a Pulitzter a few years ago.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King is another book based on a book (Sherlock Holmes). King's style reminds me of Connie Willis' in To Say Nothing of the Dog. Both are heavily influenced by Dorothy Sayers. (Gaudy Night in particular, also a great read.)

Sharon Kay Penman writes good historical epics about the middle ages. Though some are a bit drier than others. I liked Here Be Dragons a great deal. The Sunne in Splendor is the story of Richard III told from his point of view.

Mr Emerson's Wife is an interesting look at Lidian Emerson. It's a quieter book than the aforementioned epic novels, but it paints a portrait of what being married to an intellectual celebrity would be like.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 8:46 AM on June 15, 2008

I really enjoyed Voodoo Dreams, a fictional account of the life of New Orleans voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. A fascinating portrait of life in that time and place.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 8:47 AM on June 15, 2008

Does it have to be fiction? If you like some Phillipa Gregory, you'll probably like Alison Weir's biographies. Her series on Henry VIII's wives and children are really engaging and read like fiction. I'm halfway through Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette, and it seems pretty good, but without the same knack for suspense that Weir has.

Look into The Eight by Katherine Neville as well. Though not quite as engaging as The Historian in terms of historical details, it is also a story about people traveling the world to track down historical artifacts. It starts with a group on nuns during the French Revolution, and it's quite thrilling.

One last suggestion-- The 13th Tale by Dianne Setterfield. It's more like a 18th century gothic horror novel (so allow for a bit of cheese in the tale), but it has the interweaving details and mysteries that make many historical fiction novels so great.
posted by parkerjackson at 8:54 AM on June 15, 2008

I am a devoted fan of Lindsey Davis's Marcus Didius Falco series. Falco is a hard-boiled detective solving mysteries during the reign of Vespasian. Lots of dash and an engaging home life.

I've read and enjoyed a few books by Margaret George, with The Memoirs of Cleopatra being a stand-out.

Roberta Gellis has a series of mysteries featuring Magdalene la Batarde, who runs a whorehouse in 12th century London. The series starts with A Mortal Bane.

And I have no idea if your interests run this way, but I just found this page I'll be exploring more: Historical Mysteries with Women Sleuths.
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:56 AM on June 15, 2008

I've just started reading the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott (The Jewel in the Crown; The Day of the Scorpion; The Towers of Silence; A Division of the Spoils) and so far I'm really enjoying it. The novels are set in India, during the final years of British reign.

Scott is a stylist--his prose doesn't call undue attention to itself, and his grammatically complex sentences can run a little long, but the writing is beautiful. He takes his time developing characters in depth, and the pace of his plotting is more measured compared to much 21st century fiction, but I'm finding The Jewel in the Crown to be a book that I'm drawn back to multiple times during the day.

If you decide to pick these up, they've been reissued in two handsome hardcovers in Knopf's Everyman's Library--likely to be cheaper than the four trade paperbacks.
posted by Prospero at 8:57 AM on June 15, 2008

I recommend Time and Again by Jack Finney. It has all the elements you request - historical fiction (although the story begins in modern times), mystery, romance, and well written (its very detailed, but it moves well). There's also a sequel that some people seem to have liked, but in my opinion, it just ruins the first book (don't even read the plot summary of the sequel before you have read the first book, if you intend to).
posted by miscbuff at 9:14 AM on June 15, 2008

Let me encourage the Aubrey/Maturin series. It is a good mix of serious and ridiculous, and don't mind not knowing the terminology--neither does Stephen.
posted by that girl at 9:19 AM on June 15, 2008

Just here to second The Baroque Cycle.
posted by sourwookie at 9:34 AM on June 15, 2008

I really enjoyed all of Marge Piercy's historical fiction - her writing is a very utilitarian sort that allows you to enjoy her great, vibrant characters, get swept up in the plot, and learn a bit about the period without getting distracted. The best of the bunch is Gone to Soldiers - WWII, mostly homefront, with some juicy stuff about the French Resistance. I've always thought this would make a great HBO miniseries.

Also, Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier is great. And have you read The Alienist? If you liked the Historian, you should like both of these books.
posted by lunasol at 9:37 AM on June 15, 2008

I love the historical fiction by Sharon Kay Penman. Although she has recently been writing a lot of historical mysteries lately, I prefer her historical fiction novels like this one and this one better. But her historical mysteries are good reading also.
posted by gt2 at 9:44 AM on June 15, 2008

William T. Vollman's Europe Central is fantastic and hyperdetailed. There are pages and pages of endnotes where the author lists his sources. It's brilliant, but it is also long (some 750 pages) and could be seen as unfocused; most of the chapters are independent stories. I love it, though.
posted by silby at 9:55 AM on June 15, 2008

If you're willing to sacrifice a little history for a little fiction, James Ellroy's books are incredibly well-crafted. The one I can definitely vouch for is The Black Dahlia, which is vastly superior to the recent crappy movie.

Apparently, everything Caleb Carr wrote after The Alienist has been a huge disappointment. But the book itself was a good yarn.

And to complete the Murder Trifecta, you could consider going graphic and reading Alan Moore's unbelievably brilliant From Hell. (Again, please disregard the recent hugely disappointing movie). With From Hell, get a second bookmark, and read the endnotes along with the actual graphic novel. Some chapters are simply awash in historical goodies, particularly when Dr. Gull takes his coachman Netley on a historical tour of London in Chapter Four.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 9:55 AM on June 15, 2008

Also, C.J. Sansom writes some great historical fiction. Dark Fire and Sovereign were great.
posted by gt2 at 9:56 AM on June 15, 2008

I read through the entire Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome while waiting for the second season of the HBO series. At times it was a bit wordy, but she adheres pretty damned well to historical accuracy (where possible. she also is aware of her discrepancies, and justifies them in the prologue).

I third the recommendation of O'Brian. I haven't read through his entire series, but found the first few books highly enjoyable, even when I had no idea what the hell he was talking about in nautical terminology.
posted by Busithoth at 9:59 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

on preview, From Hell is a great recommendation. I'd start there. I read it as it came out and again when compiled into a nice, fat (dense) package. Great stuff.
posted by Busithoth at 10:01 AM on June 15, 2008

Roberta Gellis has also written quite a few medieval romances, but they are now out of print.
posted by brujita at 10:24 AM on June 15, 2008

You might like the Sharpe books by Bernard Cornwell.
posted by miss tea at 10:26 AM on June 15, 2008

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, which is about the Italian resistance to the Germans during the last two years of WWII. I read this book when it came out in 2005, and I still think occasionally about the characters in it.

The Richard Sharpe series and the Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. If you liked those, try all his other historical fiction - they are pretty much my go-to page turners. Similar to the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books, which are also great.

The first book in the Sharpe series (chronologically, although they were published in a different order) is Sharpe’s Tiger. I was totally absorbed by this series for a while a few years ago, reading it all in one go. Great military history type adventures. Although it tends to be pretty formulaic after a while (”Sharpe is in some impossible situation, he has to deal with an incompetent British officer, and then theres’ some girl” is how my husband described it, which is pretty dead on) it is still very, very engaging. Also a very famous British TV series with Sean Bean (AKA Boromir) in the title role.

Hanna's Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson

The Crusades Trilogy by Jan Guillou.

I second Herman Wouk's The Winds of War/War and Remembrance) and I, Claudius/Claudius the God by Robert Greaves.
posted by gemmy at 10:41 AM on June 15, 2008

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson is a great combination of historical fiction and magic realism. Everyone I know who has read it thinks it's wonderful.

Also, I'll second the recommendation NOT HERMATOTIS-IST gave for March by Geraldine Brooks. It's a delightful little book.
posted by shesbookish at 10:46 AM on June 15, 2008

The Raj Quartet, about the twilight of the British Raj. The series begins in 1942. Extraordinary.

Now I want to go back and reread them...
posted by rtha at 11:49 AM on June 15, 2008

Can't believe no one has recommended the works of James Clavell. His book Shogun was extremely influential in how we in the US view the Japanese. When I first read it, I remember thinking that he was explaining a lot of things that people already know. Then I realized that we already know this stuff about Japan, because of this book. His entire Asian saga is really well done.
posted by bove at 12:03 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

All The Tea In China by Kyril Bonfiglioli. Basically a love him or hate him kind of author, so you takes your chances.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:09 PM on June 15, 2008

George McDonald Fraser's Flasman books are the most fun historical fiction I've ever read. The protagonist is a complete anti-hero though so if know he is morally flawed going in.
posted by aburd at 12:09 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're not averse to Canadian history, I really enjoyed Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, and he has written several other historical novels.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 12:33 PM on June 15, 2008

I really enjoy Stephen Pressfield. I have just started reading "Killing Rommel" which is set in North Africa in WW2, but his previous books have been set in the ancient Mediterranean. I loved his book The Afghan Campaign, a grunts view of being in Alexander's army. I really like Pressfield's books because they are extremely well written and researched but not over long (300-400p).
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 12:42 PM on June 15, 2008

seconding Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers. i have enjoyed Michener upon a summer, but Rutherford's the new Michener, probably. (Centennial was good.) Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders and The All True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. Accordion Crimes, by Proulx. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Avalon series, plus the Firebrand. Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood.
posted by RedEmma at 12:49 PM on June 15, 2008

The Terror, by Dan Simmons
posted by deCadmus at 1:27 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

2nding bove on Shogun by Clavell. I'm half way thru another of his books, Gai-Jin, which I don't think is as good, but still worth a read.
posted by baserunner73 at 1:51 PM on June 15, 2008

I recommend Alfred Duggan. Historian, archaeologist and gifted fiction writer, he wrote about Greece, Rome and medieval Europe. The Conscience of the King is a standout. It's a tautly written historical novel with a ruthless antihero in the person of Cedric, the legendary founder of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex!
posted by storybored at 2:45 PM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I also recommend The Far Pavilions, can't say enough about it, it's the epic-est epic ever.

And anything by Sarah Waters, assuming you don't have a problem with books about lesbians.

In terms of fantasy, you might like Dave Duncan's King's Blades series, and if you like that kind of swashbuckliness you might also like The Prisoner of Zenda and/or Beau Geste, which aren't fantasy but are very romantic, in the extravagant rather than lovey-dovey sense.
posted by exceptinsects at 2:48 PM on June 15, 2008

I love Gillian Bradshaw- she's written quite a few historical novels, mostly set in Roman/just past Roman times. They're well-written (in my opinion, anyway), have romance, suspense, engaging characters, etc. My favorites are: Render Unto Caesar, Island of Ghosts, The Bearkeeper's Daughter, etc. etc. I more or less like em all.
posted by MadamM at 3:56 PM on June 15, 2008

The Good Earth
posted by HuronBob at 4:03 PM on June 15, 2008

Someone already mentioned March by Geraldine Brooks - but I'm currently reading her most recent novel, People of the Book, and I'm enjoying it immensely.
posted by jeri at 4:12 PM on June 15, 2008

I loved The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (written in the nineteenth century; set in the seventeenth.) Swashbuckling, royal intrigue and sex; what's not to like?

You might also enjoy Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael mystery series set in the 1100s.

Seconding Mary Renault, Patrick O'Brian and Jeanette Winterson (Sexing the Cherry= English Civil War plus imaginary places; The Passion= Napoleonic Wars plus Venice)

Happy reading!
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:38 PM on June 15, 2008

Seconding Gillian Bradshaw. I started with The Sand Reckoner and immediately read all the rest I could find. She writes science fiction, too, but I haven't read any of that.
posted by kristi at 4:44 PM on June 15, 2008

Thought of another: A Conspiracy of Violence by Susanna Gregory is a mystery set in Restoration London with good historical detail (the author is a historian at Cambridge University, I believe). The hero is an unemployed former spy - for Cromwell, who's recently been executed and stuck on a pike over the London Bridge - who is trying to find work with the new Royalist government. Things are not going too well for him, and at one point he has to sell his hair to a wigmaker to pay the rent. Quite a few of the characters are actual historical people and the novel stays pretty close to the truth, or plausible conjecture. (Part of the fun is figuring out who's real and who's made up.) Anyway, a good mystery plot, dry humor, and another fictional dude I'm totally in love with (another dreamy sigh ...)

And n'thing the Aubrey/Maturin series, and Gillian Bradshaw's novels of the classical world.
posted by Quietgal at 7:06 PM on June 15, 2008

I know it's classified as "young adult", but I LOVE! Pullman's Dark Materials. Alternative universe, set in the 1800s, a young girl growing up. Absolutely gripping and complex story written in compelling and simple language.

Tracy Chevalier is also good and I enjoy all her stuff, though I'm not so hot on how she has to include sex in everything.

If you're willing to step a bit away from true historical fiction towards fantasy-with-a-touch-of-colonial-Britain, I adore Garth Nix's Abhorsen series as well: Sabriel, Abhorsen, and Lirael (not sure if that's the right order) for much the same reasons as Pullman's work. The rest of Nix's stuff is children's lit, though.

Memoirs of a Geisha was so much better than the movie that it made me sick to watch it, having read it first.

I generally like most of Michael Crichton's stuff, and his Timeline is great medieval fantasy.

This is a really great thread, I also have been looking for fun - rather than pedantic - historical fiction!
posted by GardenGal at 7:23 PM on June 15, 2008

Blessed McGill We have here Texas, and Mexico, and New Mexico. We have Commanche and Apache and Mexican and Texican and cactus and whiskey and love and death and everything in between. A great book if you love Texas. As good as 'Lonesome Dove' but quite different, told from McGills perspective and told so well.

Not Between Brothers Texas, yet again. Mexicans. Texicans. Comanches. A country being born, war torn, larger than life. A huge story, from many perspectives, told wonderfully. A page turner. Hard to put down. Easy to love characters from all sides, and to sympathize with them -- hell, you're walking with them, every step of the way.

Yeah, I love Texas -- I surely do. But both of these books rise above 'Oh, here's some book about Texas' (as does Lonesome Dove). I'm hard to please, for a fact; I'm a reader, a writer, I don't stay with a book if it doesn't hold me. Both of these books grabbed on and held tight.

A great thread.
posted by dancestoblue at 7:52 PM on June 15, 2008

I was impressed by Star-Crossed, a first novel about a girl cross-dressing her way out of being a proper, jobless gentlewoman. Seafaring, 18th century, not a single wimpy female character.
posted by Xere at 8:41 PM on June 15, 2008

Well, he's a bit of a sicko (bit!) but personally I just love "Aztec" by Gary Jennings. Don't even pick up the sequels to look at it because they are crap, but the original novel absolutely blows me away. Perhaps a little dry for the first few pages and absolutely chock-o-block with really, really, REALLY taboo topics but I think it's very well done.
posted by h00py at 12:35 AM on June 16, 2008

Nthing Gillian Bradshaw and Mary Renault.

You liked To Say Nothing of the Dog but don't like Jane Austen? I would recommend Georgette Heyer: she stays pretty much in the mold of Austen, though her plots have more action.

If you can find Samuel Shellabarger's novels, I would highly recommend them. I enjoyed Prince of Foxes and King's Cavalier, set, respectively, in the Italy of Cesare Borgia and the France of Francis I. The only bit of academia that shows is the rich detail of the cultures he depicts, and perhaps some quick asides. Romance! Mystery! Derring-do!

The Captain Alatriste novels by Arturo Perez-Reverte, set in the Golden Age of Spain.

Margaret Doody's Aristotle Detective, set in classical Greece.

Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa mysteries may be a bit heavier going, but immersive.

Aside on Pullman: having diverged from our timeline at pre-historical times, one would hardly consider it historical fiction. I'm pretty sure it's an alternate world contemporaneous with our own. Major peeve: How does anyone fall in love with that whiny little brat Lyra after a night in a cave, let alone after having to save her despite herself time and again through what, three, four different alternate worlds? Trash.
posted by gentilknight at 3:47 AM on June 16, 2008

Gates of Fire, by the previously mentioned Steven Pressfield is lots of fun. Spartans battle of Thermopylae and all that.

Also, nthing the Aubrey-Maturin series. I'm in the middle of the first book in the Baroque trilogy, but on preview, you don't like it. So never mind that one.
posted by nushustu at 8:30 AM on June 16, 2008

Absolutely the Sharpe series (Napoleonic Wars) as mentioned by others. They are well-written, fast-paced and full of great historical detail. I devoured all 21 books and three short stories. Cornwell's got other historical fiction, too, but I have yet to read any of it, though I'm looking forward to reading the Warlord (King Arthur) books.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:38 AM on June 16, 2008

Cornwell's got other historical fiction, too, but I have yet to read any of it, though I'm looking forward to reading the Warlord (King Arthur) books.

nthing the Arthur books. Really, not at all what you would imagine. Went down really big in Germany, of all places.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:44 AM on June 21, 2008

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