Best Historical Fiction Books with Action and Adventure

History Bristling with Action and Adventure

The Best Historical Fiction Adventures

A great historical fiction adventure needs to satisfy several ingredients.  Firstly, it needs to conjure up the era in which it is set.  It doesn't matter if the action is set in a Roman Fort in Britain, the slums of Regency London or the trenches of World War 1, so long as you can feel yourself there alongside your hero.  And your hero is your second ingredient.  He need not be too handsome or perfect, we can tolerate a touch of menace or self doubt,  but overall he must be a cut above the rest.  Finally, we need action and adventure - and lots of it.  The plot must zing along, perhaps with some quiet moments of suspense - a bit of romance can be tolerated, but not dwelt upon.

If you crave action in a historical setting, or know someone who does, here are some suggestions for your bookshelf.

Just what is "Historical Fiction?"

Not sure exactly what is and what isn't historical fiction? Or maybe you want to know how you go about writing a historical fiction book. In either case, there's lots of information in my hub about what makes a historical fiction book.

The Sharpe Series by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell began writing about Richard Sharpe in 1980 and continues to do so. Sharpe was already popular, but when the TV series starring Sean Bean hit the screens in 1993 there was a renewed interest in the books and Cornwell began writing more adventures for his hero.

The Sharpe books revolve around the adventures of Richard Sharpe, the illegitimate son of a prostitute, who turns his back on a life of crime and rises through the ranks of the British Army during the Peninsula Wars. Sharpe has to contend not only with Napoleon's army, but also with the prejudice and bigotry of his fellow officers, who despise his humble origins. Since writing the original books Cornwell has added some prequels, which extend the series back in time to Sharpe's time in India.

Sharpe is a typical action hero: brave, loyal, daring and irresistible to the ladies. Cornwell researches his books painstakingly and this attention to detail pays off handsomely. In addition to his magnificent hero and realistic settings Cornwell crams his books with a pacey mixture of combat, intrigue, betrayal, adventure and a dash of romance.

There are numerous Sharpe adventures to choose from, and since Cornwell has published prequels and sequels, it is hard to put them in an order; do you go for the first published, or the first chronologically?  

Whet Your Appetite for Sharpe

The Hawkwood Books by James McGee

Matthew Hawkwood is a contemporary of Richard Sharpe and the two men have some similarities.  Both served in the Rifles during the Napoleonic Wars and both were worthy of the attention of the Duke of Wellington.  However, whilst Sharpe is a fairly straightforward character, Hawkwood is an altogether more dark proposition.  He faces his enemies not out in the open on the battlefield, but in the foetid alleyways of London's slums, where he works as a Bow Street Runner.  

James McGee has created not only a compelling hero in Hawkwood but an engaging vision of London's seamy underworld - the stench almost comes off the page!  Add to this a solid supporting cast of characters, ingenious and well-researched historical plots and you cannot fail to enjoy McGee's books.

So far there are four books; start with Ratcatcher, follow it with Resurrectionist, then Rapscallion and finally, this year's Rebellion.

The Eagle Series by Simon Scarrow

Simon Scarrow writes great battle scenes and there are plenty of them in his Roman military adventure series. He has two main characters, Quintus Licinius Cato, young and fairly intellectual and Lucius Cornellius Macro, a tough veteran. The series follows the two soldiers in the Imperial Army around 42 AD with the action ranging from the Rome to the Rhine to Britain and beyond.

Scarrow's plots march along with no complicated twists and turns, which is in no way a bad thing. Battle scenes are described blow by blow and feature bucket loads of blood and guts. The dialogue is rough and ready, as you would expect from soldiers - including plenty of expletives.

Start the series with Under the Eagle.

The Grail Quest Trilogy by Bernard Cornwell

The Grail Quest Trilogy follows the adventures of Thomas of Hookton, an archer, during the reign of Edward III, and his quest to avenge his father's death and retrieve a stolen artefact. Cornwell weaves a story full of vengeance, betrayal and love, all pulled together with historical accuracy and fast-paced action, set against a backdrop of England and France.

Thomas of Hookton is a likeable hero, driven by a desire for personal vengeance against various enemies, including his dastardly cousin, Guy Vexille.  Along the way he is involved in some bloody battles, both large and small, and manages to romance a couple of ladies.  

The Grail Quest begins with Harlequin, published as The Archer's Tale in the USA, followed by Vagabond and reaching its finale with Heretic.

The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell

No apologies for including another of Cornwell's series - he is the master of the historical adventure yarn! The Saxon Chronicles are set in 9th Century Britain and have as their hero Uhtred Ragnarson. Uhtred is an orphaned Briton, dispossessed of his birthright and adopted by Danes. The story unfolds against the backdrop of King Alfred's battle to save the last remaining kingdom, Wessex, from the invading Danes.

Cornwell has created another engaging hero in Uhtred and the plot twists and turns as Uhtred's loyalties are tested. The action is provided by Uhtred's flight from his captors and the battles in which he fights. As you expect, the historical detail is well-researched and it is a pleasure to read a book set in a period often overlooked by popular fiction.

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Comments 35 comments

point2make profile image

point2make 5 years ago

Great hub, I am a huge Cornwell fan especially the "Sharpe" series. I have not tried McGee but thanks to you I soon will. Thanks again and voted this hub up!

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 5 years ago from UK Author

Thanks very much, point2make - it's great to have positive feedback. I am sure that Hawkwood won't disappoint - I am just finishing the latest book, Rebellion, and enjoying it as much as the first three.

thebookmom profile image

thebookmom 5 years ago from Nebraska

Really good suggestions! I've only read "Sharpe" so it will be touch which of your suggestions to try first.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 5 years ago from UK Author

thebookmom - you're right, tough call, but I would go with Hawkwood, just to try something different. Happy reading!

DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 5 years ago from Iowa

I love historical novels but haven't read any of these. I'll have to check them out. Thanks for the suggestions.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Deborah - thanks for the comment, hope you enjoy reading one, if not all, of them!

ellahall2011 profile image

ellahall2011 5 years ago

Love this article.Cool and interesting topic.Thanks.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Ella - so pleased you found this interesting - thanks for your comments :-)

Andy V 5 years ago

Some excellent suggestions Judi. May I also add Anthony Riches (Empire series), Ben Kane (Forgotten Legion Chronicles), Angus Donald (Robin Hood series), Christian Cameron (Tyrant series & Long War series), Conn Iggulden (Emperor series & Conqueror series), David Gemmell (Troy series), Douglas Jackson (Gaius Valerius Verrens series), Giles Kristian (Raven series), Gordon Doherty (Legionary series), Glyn Iliffe (Adventures of Odysseus series), Harry Sidebottom (Warrior of Rome series), Jack Ludlow (Republic Series), James Duffy (Gladiators of the Empire Series), John Stack (Masters of the Sea series), Robert Fabbri (Vespasian series), Robert Low (Oathsworn series), Michael Arnold (Stryker Chronicles) & S J A Turney (Marius' Mules series). Yep, I'm an historical military fiction junkie!

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi Andy - what a great list - thanks for taking the time to write it! I just need time to read them all now. I am toying with writing another hub which would certainly take in one of your listed authors. I am not familiar with all these writers, so thanks for the heads up :-)

JKenny profile image

JKenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

Good list, Judi. I'm also a big Sharpe fan, I've read all the books from cover to cover, and love how Cornwell makes you feel like you're actually there. Have you read any of Conn Iggulden's books on Caesar and Genghis Khan? They're well worth it, I can assure you.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 5 years ago from UK Author

Hi JKenny - I haven't read any of Conn Iggulden's books yet, which is ridiculous because I have bought some for my brother as a gift in the past. The trouble is that now I spend more time writing than reading, which is a shame.

Thanks for your comments, and the recommendation :-)

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

You have mentioned so really good material here. I will have to look into some of these as gifts for Father's Day and Christmas. Thanks for sharing and voted up!

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi teaches12345 - glad you enjoyed this selection, I should really add a few more too!

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I appreciate it :-)

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Judi, some good choices I think. I am more of a Victorian period reader, I really like Sarah Waters books, Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet but have always wanted to read a Sharpe book (Sean Bean in uniform, who could refuse!).

Voted up and shared.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Jools - I like the Victorian period too, but to some extent it seems to have been overtaken by the Regency and Medieval periods in popularity. I haven't read any Sarah Waters books (I do remember that Tipping the Velvet was adapted for TV, didn't see it though), shall look out for them at the library.

Thanks for commenting, appreciated as always!

Docmo profile image

Docmo 4 years ago from UK

I love the Sharpe books (as well as some of the TV episodes) I've got a Simon Scarrow on the to read list. Thanks for introducing us to some good examples of historical fiction- I think its a great way to learn a bit of history and period details too apart from the rip roaring adventure and thrills. Great hub/well collated, Judi Bee.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Docmo - historical fiction is definitely a great way to dip a toe into a historical period - usually far more satisfying than a text book. My "to read" list is growing so much lately that I doubt I am ever going to get to the end of it, Jools has just added to it!

Thanks so much for your comments, much appreciated :-)

GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

Mary Renault got me going on historical fiction when I was little. Pretty soon now, I'm going to have time on my hands to sit in front of a fire and read books, which I haven't done for so long. I might read some of these titles and escape into other times for the winter, it's so easy isn't it and such fun. Thanks so much for the list! I'll search on used books on Amazon! Pinning in a new category called 'books'!

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi GoodLady - it was Jean Plaidy for me (not that keen nowadays)! Although, my mother suggested I read The King Must Die by Mary Renault and I do remember reading that and a few of her other books. I rarely enjoy contemporary fiction as much as historical fiction - hope you enjoy a few of these suggestions.

Thanks so much for commenting, always appreciated.

theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 4 years ago from Wales

Hubby is well into Bernard Cornwell - you may have seen a pile of them in a recent photo on another hub! I am slightly ashamed to admit that I spent almost a year reading the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Once I started, I had to finish!

Janis Goad profile image

Janis Goad 4 years ago

I don't know any of the writers in your hub list, Judith, nor in Andy V's list! I guess I don't read muchhistorical fiction. I read Mary Renault, Jean Plaidy and Rosemary Sutcliffe years ago, but haven't read much else since.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi theraggededge - my brother, sister-in-law and myself all like Bernard Cornwell. I've not tried the Outlander series - sounds like it's worth a look then!

Hi Janis - Rosemary Sutcliffe - forgot about her books! So many books I would love to read or reread. In a few weeks time, I may get around to it :)

Thanks to both of you for your comments, always lovely to hear from you.

Janis Goad profile image

Janis Goad 4 years ago

the Outlander Series!! I haven't got started with that yet--she started it as a blog, online years ago and got such a following she found a publisher and they became huge hits. Wouldn't that be an "outcome devoutly to be wished for?"

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Janis - I had no idea that the Outlander books started like that. As you say, "if only"!

Thanks so much for commenting, always appreciated.

johnsonrallen profile image

johnsonrallen 3 years ago from Fort Wayne, IN

I'm a big fan of Bernard Cornwell so it was nice to see him included in this list. A new-ish writer I would include on this list if published today would be R.W. Peake. He has a great series entitled "Marching With Caesar" that is phenomenal.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi johnsonrallen - I've not heard of R W Peake - I shall have to check him out. Thanks for the helpful suggestion!

Homeplace Series profile image

Homeplace Series 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

Working my way through hubs related to historical fiction. Thanks for your many contributions! ;-)

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

The pleasure is mine, Homeplace Series!

DrBill-WmL-Smith profile image

DrBill-WmL-Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

Very useful list for my historical writing research. THANKS! ;-)

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi DrBill - thanks for reading the list, glad it is useful!

BarbaraCasey profile image

BarbaraCasey 2 years ago from St. Petersburg, Florida

I'm with you on the Cornwell books, but hadn't heard about the other two authors. Always looking for new reading material, thanks.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

Glad to have given you a couple of new leads Barbara!

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

I remember seeing the Sharpe TV series (PBS?), and really enjoyed watching those shows. Now that you've reminded me of them, I'll check out the books. Thanks.

Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi Ronald - I enjoyed the Sharpe TV series too. I've read quite a few of Bernard Cornwell's books, most recently the series set in late Anglo-Saxon England - his research is excellent. Thanks for commenting!

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