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However you count the years it was long ago, once upon a time, in a land called Britain, and I was there.
Probably no modern writer of historical adventures has been more influential than Bernard Cornwell. His Napoleonic ‘Sharpe’ novels were made into a popular television series starring Sean Bean, and he’s followed up with more titles set in periods as diverse as the Viking age (the ‘Warrior’ series), the post-Roman period (the ‘Warlord’ books), the American Civil War (the ‘Starbuck Chronicles’) and more.
While you’re awaiting the next tale of splintered shields or clouds of gunsmoke, take the time to look at some other writers like Bernard Cornwell. You’ll be glad you did.
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The one thing everyone who writes should know about characters is this – they are not immortal.
Recommended Book: ‘The Whale Road’ (2007)
Scottish writer Robert Low crafts brutal, violent tales of the Viking age. Unlike most writers who concentrate on the period, Low focuses much of his ‘Oathsworn’ series on the lesser-known Viking expeditions across the Baltic sea, into what is today Russia and down to the Black Sea and the Byzantine Empire. His ‘Kingdom’ series deal with the battles of the Scottish wars of independence.
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The main difficulty was that the Napoleonic era was already overpopulated with heroes.
Recommended Book: ‘Praetorian’ (2011)
Simon Scarrow made his reputation as an author of stories about young recruit Cato and his gruff mentor Macro in the Roman army of the first century A.D.. Cato’s status as a new officer allows Scarrow to educate readers about the Roman army without stopping for long history lectures. Starting with 2000’s ‘Under the Eagle,’ he’s written over a dozen novel starring these characters and then branched out into other periods with his ‘Revolution’ and ‘Gladiator’ series.
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After so many years of ‘fieldwork’ – making long journey on replicas of ancient boats or on horseback to investigate whether there is any reality to the great travel legends – I decided to use that accumulated experience in reverse.
Recommended Book: ‘Buccaneer’ (2008)
Better-known for attempting to recreate famous historical voyages – including sailing from Ireland to Canada in a leather boat – Tim Severin deals with many of the same ideas in his novels. All of his characters, whether in the ‘Viking,’ ‘Saxon’ or ‘Hector Lynch’ series, are explorers, either willingly or unwillingly.
Bernard Cornwell may be the biggest name in historical adventure fiction, but he’s far from the first. If you enjoy Cornwell’s battle scenes and evocation of period detail, you might appreciate some of the earlier writers like Bernard Cornwell.
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My usual way is to fix upon one central idea—a given voyage or campaign or whatever, a vehicle—and then to envisage a mass of potentialities, often loosely related; and among them I roam about in an often opportunist fashion…
Recommended Book: ‘Master and Commander’ (1969)
Patrick O’Brian, who passed away in 2000, completed 20 novels starring Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his companion, surgeon and naturalist Stephen Maturin. O’Brian’s novels combine gripping adventure stories, witty dialogue and a deep knowledge of society and thought in the Regency era. The first three novels in the series – ‘Master and Commander,’ ‘H.M.S. Surprise,’ and ‘The Mauritius Command’ – are the standouts.
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Children accept the world as they find it; I took it for granted that all civilized men hid behind walls, and that the open country belonged to barbarians; but I also took it for granted that barbarians could never get inside the walls.
Recommended Book: ‘Count Bohemond’ (1964)
Alfred Duggan became a novelist late in life; his stories drew on his fixation with medieval history, particularly the history of the Crusades. Fittingly, both his first novel, ‘Knight with Armour,” and his last, “Count Bohemond,” deal with the First Crusade. Duggan’s writing style was dry, spare and rather abstract, but his eye for the fine points of human character was unequalled.
The field of historical fiction is a diverse one, and many novelists have worked in it. If you’re still hungry for more after the authors listed above, you might enjoy books by:
As horrifying as it is, war seems to fascinate us, perhaps because of the opportunities it offers to see humans at their best and their worst. Historical war stories also allow us to imagine life in an era very different from our own – whether for better or for worse. Although you shouldn’t treat fiction like a history book (and authors who do can be very boring), a good historical novel can even be quite educational.
Have I missed out your favourite tale of historical action?
Do you know another author like Bernard Cornwell?
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