I love history books, even thick heavily-footnoted academic histories published by university presses, but few books can make the past come alive as vividly as a good historical novel. Here are some of my favorites:
1. "Justinian," H.N. Turteltaub. Turteltaub is a pseudonym for American science fiction writer Harry Turtledove. Turtledove has a doctorate in Byzantine history, so he knows his stuff. He also knows how to write, and Justinian is one of his better books. It’s about Justinian II and his adventures battling Bulgars, Arabs and his own subjects, rather than the better-known Justinian I, the emperor who built the Hagia Sophia.
2. "I, Claudius," Robert Graves. The story ostensibly written by the Roman emperor is the most obvious choice on my list, but I couldn’t bear to leave it out. Followed by the equally-good "Claudius the God."
3. "Cryptonomicon," Neal Stephenson. Stephenson is known as a science fiction writer, but much of this novel published in 1999 tells the story of the Allied codebreakers in World War II, including famous figures such as Alan Turing. The novel even includes a low-tech cryptographic system developed by security expert Bruce Schneier based on using set of playing cards.
4. "The Dream of Scipio," Iain Pears. The book, set in France, is actually three stories in one: An aristocrat coping with the fall of the Roman Empire, the spread of the Black Death in medieval Europe, and France after the Nazi invasion. All of the characters face tough choices in the face of disaster.
5. "All Things Are Lights," Robert Shea. Shea’s novel about a knight in medieval France is full of arcane facts about the Knights Templars, the Cathars and other odd secret societies. But you might miss some of the details, because you’re too worried about the protagonist, a French knight who stays busy facing constant death and dealing with a complicated love life. Shea’s son has re-released the book under the Creative Commons license. You can download a free ebook version here.
6. "Search the Seven Hills," Barbara Hambly. Barbara Hambly, a versatile and prolific writer, has tackled fantasy, vampire novels, mystery stories and Star Trek novels. In Search the Seven Hills, she takes on Roman history and the early days of the Christians in a book with a fast-moving mystery plot and a secret pope.
7. "The Widow’s Son," Robert Anton Wilson. Before Dan Brown used the main themes of the controversial Holy Blood, Holy Grail for his mega-selling The Da Vinci Code, Wilson used the same source material for his vivid and weird historical novel, which is set in 18th-century Europe. (The “widow’s son” is a term used by Freemasons.) Wilson, a cult writer and friend to figures such as Timothy Leary and Philip K. Dick, repeatedly called “The Widow’s Son” his favorite novel.
8. "Conspiracies of Rome," Richard Blake. The fall of the Roman Empire must have left Europe an exciting if dangerous place to live, if the adventures of the British exile Aelric can be trusted. Blake’s series of novels filled with violence, sex, drug abuse and skullduggery are set in various cities in the ancient Mediterranean and begin with “Conspiracies of Rome,” set in a violent and chaotic Italy.
Feel free to suggest some of your own favorites in the comments.