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8 of the best history fiction books of 2014

BBC History Magazine’s regular fiction reviewer, Nick Rennison, offers a guide to eight of the best history fiction books of the year: eight eras, eight novels – perfect for Christmas presents

Published: December 19, 2014 at 11:00 am
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Ancient Persia

Tim Leach – The King and the Slave (Atlantic)


The name of Croesus, king of ancient Lydia in the sixth century BC, has become a byword for fabulous wealth. In the second of Tim Leach’s novels about the king, fortune has ceased to favour him. He has lost his riches and his freedom, and he is a slave to the Persian emperor, Cambyses. Through Croesus’s eyes readers see the emperor’s descent into madness and tyranny, in a novel that brilliantly recreates an ancient world in all its alien splendour.

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Ancient Rome

Harry Sidebottom – Throne of the Caesars: Iron and Rust (HarperCollins)

A classical historian at Oxford, Sidebottom has already produced one of the most authentic and exciting series of novels set in Ancient Rome with his ‘Warrior of Rome’ series. His new sequence, set in the third century AD, covers one of the bloodiest and most eventful periods in the entire history of the Roman Empire. Beginning in a year in which no less than six men laid claim to the throne of the Caesars, Iron and Rust is a powerful story of war, ambition and political infighting.

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Medieval Europe

Alix Christie – Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Headline)

The central character in Alix Christie’s intelligent and subtle debut novel is Peter Schoeffer, a 15th-century scribe who returns to his native city of Mainz from Paris. His father has met ‘an amazing man’ who turns out to be Johannes Gutenberg. Peter joins Gutenberg’s workshop, and together they embark on an extraordinary enterprise – the creation of the first printed Bible. Christie provides a remarkable portrait of the stubborn, argumentative and egotistical Gutenberg, and of the medieval Europe, which his invention will change forever.

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Tudor England

CJ Sansom – Lamentation (Mantle)

In their particular way, CJ Sansom’s Shardlake novels recreate the world of Henry VIII’s England as memorably as Hilary Mantel’s books about Thomas Cromwell. The sixth of the series follows hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake as he attempts to help Henry’s last queen Catherine Parr, and track down a missing confessional book she has written. Its religious radicalism puts the queen in danger, and his quest sends Shardlake into the dark heart of the Tudor court.

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The English Civil War

Antonia Senior – Treason’s Daughter (Corvus)

In Antonia Senior’s gripping first novel, families are split asunder by the struggle between Charles I and parliament. Teenager Helen Challoner sees her father driven to a terrible death, and her brothers become soldiers on opposite sides in the war. She herself is cast out of her comfortable home and forced to make her own way in an increasingly dangerous world. As her strong-minded young heroine fights back against fate, Senior provides readers with a complex and engaging story.

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19th-century Ottoman Empire

Jason Goodwin – The Baklava Club (Faber)

Jason Goodwin’s historical mysteries set in 19th-century Istanbul follow the adventures of Yashim, a eunuch with connections to the Sultan’s court and an interest in detective work. In the fifth instalment of the series, Yashim is on the trail of a gang of exiled Italians who have bungled the assassination of a Polish prince and are holed up in a hideaway with their intended victim. Like all of Goodwin’s novels, this is an original and enjoyable crime story with a twisting plot and intriguing characters.

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Jazz Age America

Ray Celestin – The Axeman’s Jazz (Mantle)

New Orleans, 1919: a serial killer is on loose. No one knows who might be his next victim, but the so-called Axeman sends a letter to the press, stating that he will spare anyone who is listening to jazz – in the Big Easy, music is important even to murderers. Celestin’s debut novel is a vivid and atmospheric crime story in which a burnt-out ex-cop and two unlikely detectives, one of them a young Louis Armstrong, independently stumble towards the truth about the murders.

Find out more here.

The Second World War

Alex Preston – In Love and War (Faber)

Esmond Lowndes, son of a prominent British fascist, is sent to Florence in the late 1930s to foster links between Mussolini’s government and its sympathisers in the UK. He likes little of what he sees of fascism in action but he grows to love Florence and, when war breaks out, he stays on, eventually joining the resistance movement and fighting alongside socialists and communists. In Preston’s deeply moving story, Lowndes learns the full meaning of love and commitment in the most demanding and difficult of circumstances.


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