Both of our stores have an Epic Fiction section. The books in those sections are generally James Michener, Jean Auel, John Jakes, Herman Wouk, James Alexander Thom, Ken Follett, etc.
I love the historical epic novel. However, I also like the ones that were written before any bookstores had an “Epic Fiction” section. So, here’s a review of some of the most popular historical novels that gave birth to the modern genre. Some of these are shelved in Classics, some in Old Fiction, some in Modern Literature, and one in Romance!
The Waverly Novels.(1814-1831)
Sir Walter Scott invented the idea of a series. He also helped develop the idea of a historical novel. And he did both with the Waverly Novels. The most famous of these is Ivanhoe, long a favorite. This is essentially the Robin Hood story, but from a different perspective. Start with this book, and if you fall in love, then read the rest. (Note: Ivanhoe is sort of a prequel he wrote in the middle of the series. If you actually want to read them in order in which they were written, then the first book is just called Waverly.)
The Leatherstocking Tales (1823-41)
James Fenimore Cooper is best known these days for The Last of the Mohicans, which was the second novel written. Personally, The Deerslayer is my favorite because it is a “tower defense” novel in which a small handful of people have to defend their outpost. You learned in school that Cooper developed the “noble savage” idea, but his characters are more complex than that. Read them in chronological order (which is not the order of publication): The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, The Prairie.
The Betrothed. (1827)
You will sometimes see English translations with the original Italian title of I Promessi sposi, don’t ask me why. Arguably Italy’s most famous novel, and in literary matters perhaps second only to Dante. This book is set in 17th-century Northern Italy when it was ruled by the Spanish. As recently as 2015, the Pope actually suggested this to engaged couples to read before they got married. Seriously, can there be any higher recommendation?
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. (1831)
Everyone knows the basic outline of this story by Victor Hugo, but have you read the book? It’s worth it. A few surprises in here if you’ve only seen one or other of the films. But it is an absolutely monumental classic that should be on your to-read list. (Note: the book is correctly titled Notre-Dame de Paris, but the first English translator slapped on the “Hunchback” and such have we titled it since.)
The Last Days of Pompeii. (1834)
The popularity of this novel seems astounding until you read it. As a used bookstore owner, I see copies of this float around all the time, and because it is a slower seller, I used to have a jaded view of the book. Not anymore. It is a fun novel, with traces of gothic and fantasy writing, and I keep a copy in my own library. Lord Bulwer-Lytton is, unfortunately, known for his purple prose, and is the originator of “It was a dark and stormy night.”
The Count of Monte Cristo. (1844)
Alexandre Dumas was one of the earliest popular novelists to employ ghost writers to help him with his output. Whether or not he wrote every word of Monte Cristo, the book is such a delight to read, that I really don’t care. “Delight” may seem a strange word for this dark tale of revenge, but it is very fun. Now, a purist would shoot me for including this on a “historical fiction” because this is so much more “fiction” than “history.” Same goes for Three Musketeers. So, let’s just say that the settings of these novels are semi-historical.
Quo Vadis. (1895-6)
Henryk Sienkiewicz was a Polish author who would eventually win the Nobel Prize “because of his outstanding merits as an epic writer.” Sienkiewicz read extensively on the Roman Empire before writing this tale of Jesus. The book was wildly popular, and half a century later was still respected enough to be made into the spectacular 1951 film starring Robert Taylor. More recently, the book has been re-edited and abridged to be palatable for today’s wide “Christian Fiction” audience. Although the book certainly would appeal to a Christian Fiction buyer, it is a historical tale that can be enjoyed by anyone.
Kristin Lavransdatter. (1920-2)
This trilogy would win Sigrid Undset the Nobel Prize “principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages.” Partly because of the immediate acclaim, these had an early English translation, a huge revival in the 1940s (during which a historical fiction craze swept America), and has recently been re-translated into English. The books in order are: The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross.
Gone with the Wind. (1936)
Margaret Mitchell hit the jackpot with this one. This helped define a generation, and was the basis for the unforgettable film. The historical fiction “craze” mentioned above can be directly traced to this book, and few books of popular fiction have been as influential.
The Leopard. (1958)
I admit I have not read this, just watched the excellent movie adaptation. However, by some reports Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s work is the best-selling Italian novel in history–although other reports award that to The Betrothed (see #3, above.) Because I know virtually nothing (well, okay, absolutely nothing) about 19th-century Italian history, I think I missed out on some background to the film, but one can assume that the novel spends more time developing the historical setting of the action.