Storytelling at its Best

Last time I was here, I ended my spiel by saying that this week, as a follow-up, I would post a list of the favourite novels in my life, and that they would all be Historical novels, because I love—and I write—Historical fiction. The books that I have loved most deeply and passionately throughout my life have been, to a major, almost exclusive extent, examples of that so-called genre, and even my favourite Shakespearian dramas reflect the central element of good Historical fiction: a great, all-consuming story. And that’s what my personal choice is all about—the story, and the skill of the storyteller narrating it.

What books, then, out of all I’ve read throughout my life, do I still love as passionately as I ever did? Understand, I’m not concerned with so-called literary merit in this instance, nor even with historical accuracy, though that’s extremely important. I’ve simply tried to identify and name twelve books that have been the most memorable for me, personally; the twelve historical novels that I consider to be standout examples of popular storytelling at its best; the top dozen among the relatively few books (and that word “relatively” isn’t there by accident) that have made me think, “God, I wish I’d written that!” The sad corollary, however, considering the time frame involved, is that many of these books are no longer even in print, but that’s purely a matter of changing times and tastes and it detracts in no way from the excellence of the novels. Copies of most of them can still be found ( and purchased for mere pennies) on-line at, which specializes in old and out-of-print books. Here, then, are my selections, in the order they occurred to me:

1. The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas. A story of The Christ and the effect his Crucifixion had on the Romans who carried it out. This book enthralled me from the first time I ever picked it up and even though the Movie they made from it was excellent in its day, it was one of the first instances I ever noticed of the book itself being far, far more exciting and meaty than the Movie that it inspired.

2. Ben Hur, by Lew Wallace. Another story of The Christ and another superb example of consummate storytelling, despite—and maybe even because of—the archaic 19th-Century language in which it was written. The language seemed too ornate at first, I remember even now, but as I sank into the story I quickly adjusted to the style of the language and lost awareness of what I had thought to be its ‘strangeness’.

3. Sword at Sunset, by Rosemary Sutcliffe. The first book that ever made me think of King Arthur as a living, breathing man. I felt greatly honoured to be invited to write a Foreword to the recently re-issued 45th Anniversary edition by Chicago Review Press in 2008.

4. The Iron Mistress, by Paul I. Wellman. The story of Jim Bowie and the knife that bears his name. Flawed and ‘weakened’ by post-feminist, 21st-Century perceptions and political correctness, it still manages to hang together as one of the all-time great adventure stories, culminating at Siege of the Alamo. You just can’t create fiction that good.

5. Dear and Glorious Physician, by Taylor Caldwell. The story of Saint Luke the Evangelist. One of the few wonderful and awe-inspiring books that has ever made me cry, and still does. Amazingly powerful.

6. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, Pere. The quintessential story of swashbuckling comradeship, set in the time of Cardinal Richelieu.

7. The Religion, by Tim Willocks. The astounding story of the Knights of St. John during Sulieman the Magnificent’s siege of Malta in May, 1565.

8. All Quiet On The Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. A story of the First World War, from the German perspective, that gives the modern reader a fascinating, soul-sickening idea of the appalling tragedy of the whole thing.

9. The Viking, by Edison Marshall. The story of Ragnar Lothbrok, the great Viking, this was the first novel ever to transport me back into 9th-Century Medieval Europe and show me that people who lived then faced the same fundamental, life-threatening problems that affect people today.

10. Shogun, by James Clavell. A story of the first Westerners to reach Japan; remarkable in that it convinces you, as you’re reading it, that you’re gaining an understanding of how the Japanese mind works. Of course, that isn’t so, but the experience is amazing and very real.

11. The First Man In Rome, by Colleen McCullough. The enthralling and awe-inspiring story of Gaius Marius, the Greatest Roman of Them All until Julius Caesar came along.

12. The Fourth Horseman, by Randy Lee Eikhoff. A fascinating novel about “Doc” Holiday, the consumptive, enigmatic Dentist who backed Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral.

That’s all for now, but I could do this again, for different genres (Lord! I hate that word,) if anyone shows any interest.