Three Great Authors of Historical Fiction

Margaret Yourcenar, Margaret George

Mary Renault

Though this page has only three great authors of historical fiction books, there are many really terrific authors of historical novels - and this separation is purely organisational - not a scale of worth. And there are more on other pages.

Your taste or preference is the only worthwhile arbiter of what you think are the best books to read - my inclusions are purely subjective - but I hope as the site grows, visitors will contribute and make this more balanced and broader.

Margaret George – Memoirs of Cleopatra

Having written excellent historical fiction books on Henry V111 and Mary, Queen of Scots, Margaret George turned her undoubted skills to a perennial favourite Cleopatra – whose story is told in the first person – ranging from her early childhood to her eventual death – having married Caesar and Mark Antony – to being the last Ptolemaic Pharaoh of Egypt.

George brings the fabulous and mysterious world of ancient Egypt alive – in its death throes before becoming a part of the Roman Empire. Well worth being on a must read list.

In addition to the above, her forays into historical fiction include “Mary Called Magdalene” and “Helen of Troy”. She is currently working on a novel about Elizabeth 1.

Margaret Yourcenar “Memoirs of Hadrian”

Although written over 50 years ago – this is a worthy addition to my list of favourite books. Even though I read the book years ago, I am going to succumb and search the used book sellers for a copy to re-read.

There are heaps of entries on Google – just type in "Memoirs of Hadrian". The author was not only erudite, but highly respected.

The book takes the form of a letter to Hadrian's cousin and eventual successor "Mark" - the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The emperor Hadrian meditates on military triumphs, love of poetry and music, philosophy, and his passion for his lover Antinous, all in a manner not inconsisent with Gustave Flaubert’s "melancholy of the antique world."

A feature film based on Yourcenar's novel is scheduled for production in 2008. The movie, with a possible script by Ron Base, Valerio Massimo Manfredi and Rospo Pallenberg will be directed by John Boorman. Hadrian is expected to be played by Daniel Craig .... some move from 007!.

Mary Renault (1905-1983)

For a writer of historical fiction novels, Mary Renault was a somewhat controversial figure because she wrote forthrightly about homosexual relationships for the first time – and about a revered figure of ancient Greece, Alexander the Great!

Nor was the theme limited to Alexander.

The Last of the Wine (1956) , the story of two young Athenians who study under Socrates and fight against Sparta, had male protagonists, as did all her later works that included homosexual themes.

Her sympathetic treatment of love between men would win Renault a wide gay readership. (For a different spin on Sparta – see Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s – Spartan)

Her subsequent historical novels were all set in ancient Greece , including a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus , and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great.

Although not a classicist by training, she was admired in her day for her scrupulous recreations of the Greek world. Some of the history presented in her fiction (and in her nonfiction work, "The Nature of Alexander) has been called into question: her novels about Theseus rely on the controversial theories of Robert Graves, and her portrait of Alexander has been criticized as uncritical and romanticized.

Renault often defended her interpretation of the available sources in author's notes attached to her books, and even her critics generally credit her with providing a vivid portrait of life in ancient Greece.

Her narrative style combines evocative imagery with a perceptive understanding of personalities and motivations.

What I like about her books, especially the Alexander trilogy is that the ancient world becomes transformed in the crucible of her imagination and made alive for us today as few writers are able to do.

Reading her best selling books is almost like time-travel and one can experience, as if through the senses, what it is like to be someone else, in another place, another culture, another time.

Mary takes us there, and we become her characters, and in so doing we visit Greece and Athens, the source of democracy, in a way which is impossible by any other means.

Perhaps not for everyone if they have a problem with her stance, but to experience possibly the best books on Alexander then go for it.

Trilogy: Alexander the Great
      Fire from Heaven (1969)
      The Persian Boy (1972)
      Funeral Games (1981)

Historical reconstructions of ancient Greece.

      The Charioteer (1955)
      The Last of the Wine (1956)
      The King Must Die (1958)
      The Bull From the Sea (1962)
      Lion in the Gateway (1964)
      The Mask of Apollo (1966)
      The Praise Singer (1978)

In addition to the novels, she has written a biography of Alexander the Great, The Nature of Alexander.

If you can't find these books at a bookstore like Barnes and Noble, Borders Books, Walden Books or Waterstones, then try your local used book sellers - there should be used paperbacks of these historical novels still around.

..... or go to sites where there are books online - they are must read books if you enjoy great writing combined with good narrative storytelling. Whether they are discounted books or new - they are good additions to your must read list for recreational reading for pleasure.

Return to Main Page of Historical Fiction Books

Go to Sharon Kay Penman for Medieval England

Go to Colleen McCullough & Masters of Rome series

Return to top fiction books HOME Page from Three Great Authors, Historical Fiction