My Top Ten Summer Reads: Shardlake, Genghis, Sharpe and more

Sitting on the back of a motorbike taxi the other day, the driver Ceri, who also likes historic novels asked if I had any suggestions for his summer reading. The answers exploded from my gob quicker than I can recount credit card interest rates – so I thought I should note ‘em down…

Don’t worry it’s about escapism not MoneySaving; I’m a lover of historic novels and science fantasy, so all fit those genres. I suspect it’s probably something to do with the fact that to de-stress I like to read about things that in no way resemble my real life.

I like series so I’ve counted each as one book, and put in links for further info – though of course the local library’s a good option.

1. The Shardlake Series – C J Sansom: Set in the time of Henry VIII, the books follow the life of Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer who works for Cromwell and Cramner. They’re a stunning read, real action page turners filled with mystery and intrigue, but what’s brilliant is while the story moves along you find yourself learning all the history you should’ve paid attention to at school. There are four books in the series: Revelation, Dissolution, Sovereign and Dark Fire

2. Genghis Khan Trilogy – Conn Iggulden. Okay so he was a mass murdering dictator, but he truly is the despot’s despot. From Genghis Khan’s humble beginnings as an orphan kicked out of a small tribe, the story of how he built the world’s biggest empire, stretching from China to Austria, is incredible, and Iggulden makes it a swashbuckling boys’ own adventure to boot. His legacy, both genetic and practical still lives across asia. We learn about William the Conqueror, yet at a similar time this man’s impact was many times that – everyone should know, hate, admire, and understand Genghis. Again there are three books in the series: Wolf of the Plains, Lords of the Bow, and Bones of the Hills

3. The Otherworld Series – Kelley Armstrong. Never have the trials and tribulations of a female werewolf seemed so plausible. Forget Twilight and True Blood, this is the real thing. Visceral, powerful and completely believable, the hidden supernatural underworld really kicks off. After werewolves it’s on to vampires, witches, necromancers and more – true escapist joy. There are about ten in the series, including Bitten, Stolen, Haunted, Broken, No Humans Involved, and Living With The Dead

4. The Alexander Trilogy – Valerie Massimo Manfredi. A serious bit of historic fiction here, charting the rise and rise of Alexander the Great; the model for all conquerors that followed. Beautifully vivid and historically accurate, the book portrays an action packed, sexually deviant ancient Greece so similar and yet so different to the our current world it’s like a parallel reality. In fact most of Manfredi’s early books are great – only starting to suffer once he changed his translator. The three books in the trilogy are Child of a Dream, The Sands of Ammon, Ends of the Earth

5. The Sharpe Series – Bernard Cornwell. I took this on earlier in the year; I say ‘took it on’ as reading the whole series (19 I think) in chronological order was a vast but enjoyable undertaking. They’re a huge improvement on the TV series, and show the brutal side of the Napoleonic wars through the eyes of ‘working class man made good’ Sharpe. Yet forget all that, these are real rip-roaring war stories at heart. Check the Bernard Cornwell website for more info.

6. The Black Magician Trilogy – Trudi Canavan. Upon discovering her magical powers, young street urchin Sonea is accepted into the Guild. While a fantasy book, the undertone is about class struggles and international affairs; a wonderful mix. I put this just ahead of Canavan’s High Priestess series, which was good but not quite a match. Better still, I’ve just read the first of a follow up series, only problem being it’s a trilogy and only the first is out so now I need wait to see what happens… The Black Magician Trilogy includes The Magicians’ Guild, The Novice, and The High Lord

7. Matthew Hawkswood Series – James McGee. An early prototype for an MI5 operative, Hawkswood straddles the London underground in the Napoleonic era in search of enemies of the state. It’s a London getting closer to what we know than some of the other books, yet still a distant, dirtier and harder time. The books are all action packed, easy page turning glories. There are seven in the series, including Trigger Men, Crow’s War, Ratcatcher, and Rapscallion

8. Emperor Series – Conn Iggulden: The story of young Gaius, who turns into Julius Caesar and his friend Marcus, who becomes Brutus. It left me wondering who was the best leader prior to the military industrial complex of recent centuries; would Caesar’s legions have been able to fend off Ghenghis’ hordes? All in all it’s another great display of turning history into a compelling personal tale, which allows you to absorb the roman era – a historic period more advanced than any after until perhaps the eighteenth century. Great stuff. The Emperor series comprises The Gates of Rome, The Death of Kings, The Field of Swords and The Gods of War

9. Macro and Cato Series – Simon Scarrow. If you enjoy Caesar’s rome, now take a look from slightly lower down the pecking order with the nine Macro and Cato books. Set in one of the many legions, it depicts the gritty lives of working soldiers, though there’s a good dose of espionage and intrigue thrown in to help the narrative along. The characters and stories are so strong this is a great place to start for those who’ve never read historic novels before. Read the Wiki page for more.

10. The Raven Series – Giles Kristian. Set near the end of the first Millenium in the murky time of Charlemagne, this is the story of a Viking boy who grows up in Britain, only to be retaken by a warship. This is the writer’s debut series, the first is good, but the secon’d the real cracker; it left me gagging to know what’ll happen next (luckily as the author is a friend of Mrs MSE I’ve had a clue or two). Well worth a trip for historic novel fans who haven’t yet trampled through this period. The two currently available are Raven: Blood Eye, and Raven: Sons Of Thunder

And I could go on too with a more than honourable mention too for the Rory Clements series featuring John Shakespeare, William’s supposed detective brother, for those that like a faster moving read. For me it’s not quite as good shardlake, but still well worth a read.

Unexpected knowledge

Having never liked history at school, I suspect due to a teacher who was short on inspiration but had rather long arms for clipping me round the ear, these novels have become a passion.

For instance, I find myself now understanding what the reformation actually meant; before Shardlake I never understood the sheer power and schism over the debate of allowing the masses to read the bible.

I also learned that the reason the British Longbow destroyed the French Crossbow wasn’t that it had better range (the crossbow was much more powerful), but because it could fire multiple arrows in seconds (although Ghengis’s horsemen could do the same while riding). The French couldn’t replicate this as you needed to be shooting from childhood to build the shoulder strength. In fact another book told me even firearms weren’t as good until perhaps the mid-18th century – they were less accurate and more cumbersome (but simple to learn so good for mass soldiering)

If only I’d been taught that way – I may not have lost 15 years thinking this type of history was bunkum.

I’d love your thoughts and perhaps suggestions for reading I’ve missed.

Comment and Discuss

PS added 22 July 2010. Thanks for all the great suggestion in the forum, one of which made me realise I’d missed a book off my list that should’ve been in the top three – Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth (follow up is good too, but not quite as good) – truly fantastic view of 12th century England.