These are my top 5 “Straight” Historical Novels. That means there’s no alternate version of history or any fantasy element to them. I might do a couple more favourite lists to cover alternate history and historical fantasy another time. They do of course feature characters that are fictional in some cases rather than historical.
1. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The classic medieval mystery. Eco does a remarkable job of showing off his knowledge of the period without being boring and creating a clever mystery as well.
2. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
One of my favourite adventure stories, this is told at a rattling pace and features some excellent historical characters such as the Cardinal and the King, as well as memorable fictional ones as well.
3. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Like Eco O’Brian does not shy away from a wealth of detail in his setting, which I think really enhances the story he has to tell.
4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
One of my all time favourite novels. Written about 60 years after the events it describes, it’s perhaps easy to not think of this as historical fiction in some ways – one might imagine that Tolstoy is relating a story that is nearly contemporary. However, the events of 1812 in particular, were symbolically essential to the idea of Russian nationality, and Tolstoy writing on the nature of history and great men is essential reading. But the heart of War and Peace is a very human story.
5. The Last English King by Julian Rathbone
1066 from the viewpoint of the English. This is an excellent interpretation of the events of the Norman invasion.