With the sheer amount of nerdish options out there today—board gaming, podcasts, video games, movies, comics, etc.—it’s easy to forget that literature offers some of the oldest, biggest, and deepest resources for nerds in the world.
I perused my shelves to come up with some suggestions that might be off the beaten path for dedicated fantasy/science fiction readers but are well worth the time. These reading suggestions are all basically classified as historical fiction, and add color to the past in ways many textbooks cannot.
Dive in and let me know if there are any I missed!
7 Historical Novels for Nerds
Masters of Rome, by Colleen McCullough
This is technically cheating, but Colleen McCullough’s seven books on the gradual decay of the Roman Republic are too masterful (and too much fun) to pick just one. While much more famous for her novel The Thorn Birds, McCullough spent over a decade meticulously researching and recreating Rome from the years 110—27 BCE.
All of the legends of Roman history appear, often in multiple books: Marius, Sulla, Pompey the Great, Cicero, Cato, Julius Caesar, Augustus, and many, many more. To add to the general nerdery, each of the books is filled with illustrations, maps, and glossaries, all drawn or written by McCullough herself.
If you’ve ever wondered what life in ancient Rome was like, how Romans fought, how ancient governments worked, or how Rome “fell” from a republic to an empire, Masters of Rome is worth a read.
You can pick up The First Man In Rome, the first novel in the series, from Amazon.
The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell is one of the most prolific historical fiction writers today, but don’t mistake his quantity of output for a sacrifice in quality. The Winter King is the first in a trilogy of novels based on the legends of King Arthur, and it is a deep retelling of the beginning of Arthur’s rise to kingship in the depths of the post-Roman Dark Ages.
The most fascinating character in the Arthur cycle is Merlin, the half-human wizard who trains the young Arthur in the ways of ruling, and The Winter King is no exception to this rule. Merlin is a wizard under siege—the Gods of old are disappearing under the rising tide of the new religion of the Christ, and Merlin himself has disappeared. His reappearance coincides with his discovery of the strong and impressionable Arthur. Merlin proceeds to use Arthur as a multipurpose tool to drive Christianity from Britain and find immensely powerful artifacts left by the Gods.
The Winter King can be found at Amazon.
Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton is better known for his science and technology fiction, but Eaters Of The Dead is one of his best early works. Our protagonist, the famous real-life explorer Ahmad ibn Fadlan, is forced into joining a group of tenth century Vikings on a quest. The farther north Ibn Fadlan and his Viking companions go, the greater chance they stand of coming into contact with ferocious “monsters of the mist” that might be leftover denizens of an earlier age of Earth’s history.
Crichton wrote the novel as a historical document and takes this conceit to the limit—the book is replete with footnotes and appendices, and hints at other famous landmarks of Scandinavian Europe. An added bonus is that it’s short enough to be read over a weekend.
Eaters of the Dead is sold through Amazon.
Baudolino, by Umberto Eco
Baudolino tells the story of the eponymous title character, a man who encounters most of the major player of the European High Middle Ages, from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to Pope Alexander III. As young Baudolino and his friends get caught up in the plots of kings, emperors, and crusades, they experience many adventures—wild nights at the medieval University of Paris, delicate political diplomacy in northern Italy, and the mysterious death of Frederick during the Third Crusade.
Umberto Eco, justly celebrated for his wildly inventive fiction, delves deeply into the legends and myths of medieval Europe to populate Baudolino with fantastical characters and locations: the elusive kingdom of Prester John (and Prester John himself), the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, the Old Man of the Mountain, satyrs, unicorns, skiapods (creatures with one gigantic foot), Blemmyes (men with no heads), and more.
Baudolino can be found at Amazon.
The Far Pavilions, by M. M. Kaye
M. M. Kaye’s historical epic takes place almost entirely in the British Raj (Great Britain’s territory in South Asia that today comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar) during the Victorian Age, the height of the Pax Britannica that resulted in the Union Jack flying over 10 million square miles and fully 25% of the planet’s population.
The Far Pavilions is a whirlwind of color, action, love, adventure, and culture with which few books can compete. It reads like a more realistic and nuanced version of Rudyard Kipling’s best works, with the added benefit of being removed from Kipling’s sometimes appalling jingoism and casual racism.
Set against the backdrop of a period and place often ignored in the United States, the novel tells the story of Ash, an orphaned British boy raised in the dangerous court of Gulkote Palace and forced to choose between the culture of his adopted homeland of India or the family legacy waiting for him in England.
You can pick up The Far Pavilions at Amazon.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove recounts the efforts of two aging Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, to drive a herd of cattle from the Mexico border to the new territory of Montana in 1876. Gus and Call are one of literature’s greatest duos: Gus’s loquaciousness combined with Call’s stony silences makes for moments of hilarity and surprising emotion weight. As hard men past their prime, Gus and Call undertake the epic and dangerous journey more to prove they can still do it than for any other reason.
McMurtry’s gift for dialogue and fascinating character studies is on full display, with loyal sidekicks like Pea Eye Parker and Dishwater Boggett, the flashy but foolish Jake Spoon, brave and conflicted Clara Allen, and the evil half-Comanche criminal Blue Duck. The period details stuffed into the conversations, weapons, and lives of the characters add to the appeal of this classic Western novel.
You can grab Lonesome Dove at Amazon.
To The Last Man, by Jeff Shaara
Jeff Shaara is the son of the great Civil War novelist Michael Shaara (of The Killer Angels fame), and he has continued the family tradition of well-written historical fiction. To The Last Man tells the story of the opening months of the United States’ entry into the Great War, better known nowadays as World War I.
The novel focuses on the great John Pershing (The only active duty officer in American history to hold the position of General of the Armies) as he assumes command in Europe, American doughboys getting their first glimpses of trench warfare, and the exploits of earlier fighter pilots like the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen and the ace Raoul Lufbery. To The Last Man is a treat for those interested in the gritty details of early air combat and Great War-era fighting.
It can be purchased at Amazon.