Harris, Robert. An Officer and a Spy.

NY: Knopf, 2013.

Harris is very good at thoughtful, carefully researched historical novels, whether they’re set in ancient Rome or in the 20th century. This time, he undertakes to tell the story of Alfred Dreyfus, Alsatian Jew and captain in the French army in the 1890s, who was accused and convicted of treason — spying for the Germans — and who was packed off to Devil’s Island (reopened especially for him) as an object lesson to everyone else.


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.


Black, Benjamin. Christine Falls.

NY: Henry Holt, 2006.

For anyone who doesn’t already know, “Benjamin Black” is the nom de crime of Irish novelist John Banville, and this was his first mystery novel featuring Quirke, a decidedly quirky forensic pathologist in Dublin in the 1950s, when the Church ran absolutely everything. But even though this is a “detective story,” it’s nothing at all like what Michael Connelly or Lawrence Block might write.


Cole, Allan & Chris Bunch. The Wolf Worlds.

NY: Ballantine, 1984.

This is the second volume in the mostly military adventures of Karl Sten in the 40th century, and it’s very well done space opera. The Eternal Emperor controls a vast amount of space and several thousand inhabited planets and that requires not only a huge army but the much smaller Mantis teams for quiet surgical operations.


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Holland, Cecelia. Rakossy.

NY: Atheneum, 1967.

I’ve been a big fan of Holland’s historical novels almost the appearance of her first book, written while she was still a college undergraduate and published shortly after she graduated. This is her second novel, written when she was twenty-one.

The year is 1523 and Janos Rakossy is master of Hart Castle, in the foothills to the east of the wide Hungarian Plain. Just beyond his closely-held territory are the Turks, who are making their way farther into Eastern Europe with each passing year — but this is where they will be stopped if Rakossy and the other Magyar barons have any say in it.


Harrison, Harry. One King’s Way.Enter a post title

NY: Tor, 1995.

This is the middle volume of a historical fiction/almost-fantasy/alternate history trilogy, and it fills that function quite well. The first volume of a trilogy introduces the plot and the characters and the closing volume answers the questions, resolves the problems, and ties everything together. The middle volume has to advance the narrative, to explain to the reader why all this is important, but it’s allowed to close with a cliffhanger. The middle volume is frequently the weakest part of a three-decker, but not this time.


Turtledove, Harry. Departures.

NY: Del Rey, 1993.

I began reading Harry’s short fiction in the pulps in the ‘80s, when he first appeared on the science fiction scene. He had a PhD in Byzantine history, so his alternate history yarns with a similar setting were pretty good. Accurate, anyway.


Harrison, Harry. The Hammer and the Cross.

NY: Tor, 1993.

The late Harry Harrison is best known for his rather tongue-in-cheek science fiction, especially the “Deathworld” and “Stainless Steel Rat” series. But he also had a more straightforward side, as with this first volume in a trilogy set in 9th-century England, and focusing on the invasion of the Viking Great Army, led by the four sons of the murdered Ragnar Lothbrok.


Bell, Walter George. London Rediscoveries and Some Others.

London: John Lane, 1929.

Bell, a newspaperman by trade, was also a noted antiquarian and author of London’s local history in the early part of the 20th century, and I discovered his two previous books some years ago: Unknown London (1919) and More About Unknown London (1921) – both also reviewed art this site. I was completely fascinated by his guided tour of Roman, medieval, and later historical locations in the City, many of which would not survive the Blitz, not to mention the redevelopment boom of the 1950s.


Hickman, Jonathan. Pax Romana.

Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2013.

This is an alternate history story in graphic novel form, and it’s quite inventive. Suppose a couple of physicists fifty years from now discover a method of time travel — actual physical transport back to the past. But these physicists work for the Vatican Observatory, so they keep their work quiet and take it directly to the pope.