Miller, Madeline. Circe.

NY: Little, Brown, 2018.

I’m pretty demanding when it comes to historical fiction, and I read a lot of it, but I was pretty much blown away by Miller’s first novel, The Song of Achilles. And now she’s done it again. Both books are now in my “Top Ten Historicals” list. This one is somewhat different from the first book, too, in that the protagonist (and most of the other characters, for that matter) isn’t even mortal. She’s Circe (“Hawk”), daughter of Helios, the Titan sun god, and a nymph, and she doesn’t have much power compared to the arrogant Olympians, but she knows how to use what she’s got.

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Miller, Madeline. The Song of Achilles.

NY: Bloomsbury, 2011.

This was Miller’s first historical novel set in the ancient world and it made her noteworthy almost overnight. Her subject is the Western world’s oldest piece of fiction — Homer’s Iliad. The tragic hero of the ten-year war between the Greek states and Troy is Achilles, aristos achaion, the best of the Greeks, and his story is told by Patroclus, exiled son of the bitter King Menoitius.

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MacGregor, Neil. A History of the World in 100 Objects.

NY: Viking, 2010.

My academic field is social history, which means I’m far more interested in the evolution of everyday life than I am in treaties and royal weddings and big battles, and I have a particular interest in what’s called “material history” — the study of things, mostly man-created. There’s something about actually holding a manufactured object — a bayonet, a patent-medicine bottle, a faience bead — and thinking about the person who made it and those who have held it over the centuries — or millennia — before you.

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Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth.

Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1988.

More than fifty years ago, a professor in Greek and Roman History my sophomore year in college introduced me to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I became fascinated by the concept of sociohistorical archetypes. I spent more of my student budget than I should have on Campbell’s four-volume Masks of God, which was still being published then. I try to avoid having academic “heroes,” but Campbell comes close.

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Sawyer, Robert J. End of an Era.

NY: Tor, 1994.

Sawyer is the best-known Canadian author of science fiction — one of the most successful Canadian authors of any kind, actually — but I’ve always found his books rather uneven. Some are absorbing while others (like the “WWW” trilogy) are almost unreadable. This early effort is right in the middle of the pack.

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Taylor, Jodi. A Second Chance.

Abercynon, Wales: Accent Press, 2014.

The “Chronicles of St. Mary’s” series, about time-traveling British historians in the not-too-distant future, has more than a few strange elements, including a bit of mythological fantasy thrown in (Kleio, the Muse of History, is also the Director’s steely-eyed PA). This third episode takes the mix to a whole new and rather complicated level.

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Gaiman Neil. Norse Mythology.

NY: Norton, 2017.

Like Gaiman — like most of the geekier sort of adolescent boys, in fact — I went through a period of reading everything I could find about mythology as a kid, beginning with Edith Hamilton’s classic work on the Greeks and Romans. But, also like Gaiman, I developed a strong preference for the Nordic deities — Odin, the All-Father, who is very wise but can’t be trusted, and Thor, not the sharpest god in Asgard but a good person to have on your side, and especially Loki, who seems the most human of the gods with his talent for making mischief. And there’s Ragnarok, the final battle in which the gods will be destroyed so that the world can start over again.

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Taylor, Jodi. Just One Damned Thing After Another.

Abercynon, Wales: Accent Press, 2013.

I’ve been a science fiction junkie for a long, long time — since early in the first Eisenhower administration, in fact — and time travel has always been one of my most favorite subgenres. There are all sorts of classic tropes involved, and the mood can be dour, cautionary, adventurous, silly, or so complex you have to stop and reread sections to catch just what’s happening. This one, the first of a series, is one of the most complicated, yet carefully thought-out, time travel yarns I’ve read in a long time, and very well written, too.

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Saunders, Nicholas J. Alexander’s Tomb.

NY: Basic Books, 2006.

Subtitled “The Two Thousand Year Obsession to Find the Lost Conqueror,” this is a semi-academic (lots of footnotes, lengthy bibliography) but also very readable account of what we know happened — and what else we think may have happened — to the mummy of Alexander after he died in Babylon at the age of thirty-two. By Macedonian tradition, a deceased king was buried by his successor, so whoever controlled that particular very famous corpse had an excellent claim to taking over his empire. (more…)

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Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

NY: Liveright, 2015.

Until recently, Beard wasn’t that well-known outside the world of academic classicists, her occasional appearances on BBC notwithstanding. Then this engaging and engrossing volume of her thoughts on the Roman republic and the early empire came out after (literally) fifty years in the making, and everyone’s reading it. She may have done more for popular interest in ancient Rome than any writer since Gibbon.

First, she makes it clear that this is not a complete history of the 1,500 years of Rome’s existence in various forms. She’s interested mostly in the city’s establishment and the slow, nearly mythical formation of the Republic from its period of what were essentially warlords and gangsters. And she ends with Caracalla’s extension of citizenship to all free people within the empire in 212 CE, because after that it was an entirely different game with different rules, and not really “Roman” any more.

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