Here Be No Dragons: 5 Non-Fiction Books to Read in 2018
Having finally acquired a healthy virtual stack of non-fiction tomes I’ve been lusting after for anywhere from a month to a year (thanks, Christmas elves!), I’m excited to share with you some of the books I am most looking forward to reading in 2018.
My current paragons of non-fiction are anything by Erik Larson (he of Devil in the White City and Dead Wake brilliance) and Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat. These books proudly occupy a shining pedestal in my brain and are the non-fiction equivalent of The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Things They Carried, and The Iliad, which, if you know me at all, you know are books the greatness of which of I will gladly die on a hill in defense of.
I read Dead Wake in 2015 and The Boys in the Boat in 2016. All in all, 2016 proved to be a good year; I also read and thoroughly enjoyed Citizens of London and The Indifferent Stars Above, both well-deserving of praise if not quite as exceptional as my paragons. For 2017, I only read two non-fiction titles (In the Heart of the Sea and The Wars of the Roses), and while both were good, I’m eager to discover some new books that really grab me and never let go. Is 2018 the year I unearth a new favorite?
Let’s find out:
- Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution
In September 1776, the vulnerable Continental Army under an unsure George Washington (who had never commanded a large force in battle) evacuates New York after a devastating defeat by the British Army. Three weeks later, near the Canadian border, one of his favorite generals, Benedict Arnold, miraculously succeeds in postponing the British naval advance down Lake Champlain that might have ended the war. Four years later, as the book ends, Washington has vanquished his demons and Arnold has fled to the enemy after a foiled attempt to surrender the American fortress at West Point to the British. After four years of war, America is forced to realize that the real threat to its liberties might not come from without but from within.
Valiant Ambition is a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait of a people in crisis and the war that gave birth to a nation. The focus is on loyalty and personal integrity, evoking a Shakespearean tragedy that unfolds in the key relationship of Washington and Arnold, who is an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. As a country wary of tyrants suddenly must figure out how it should be led, Washington’s unmatched ability to rise above the petty politics of his time enables him to win the war that really matters.
Every now and then, I get on a serious Revolutionary War kick. I’m on one now and Valiant Ambition was an easy choice for my first read of 2018. I’m 14% in and enjoying Philbrick’s methodical laying of the groundwork for what’s shaping up to be a fascinating examination of the war through his chosen lens.
- Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire
Alexander the Great, perhaps the most commanding leader in history, united his empire and his army by the titanic force of his will. His death at the age of thirty-two spelled the end of that unity. The story of Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire is known to many readers, but the dramatic and consequential saga of the empire’s collapse remains virtually untold. It is a tale of loss that begins with the greatest loss of all, the death of the Macedonian king who had held the empire together.
With his demise, it was as if the sun had disappeared from the solar system, as if planets and moons began to spin crazily in new directions, crashing into one another with unimaginable force.
James Romm, brilliant classicist and storyteller, tells the galvanizing saga of the men who followed Alexander and found themselves incapable of preserving his empire. The result was the undoing of a world, formerly united in a single empire, now ripped apart into a nightmare of warring nation-states struggling for domination, the template of our own times.
Any book on Alexander is sure to get more than a passing glance from me. I’ve been fascinated with the Macedonian conqueror for as long as I can remember. This take on a post-Alexander empire should be enormously enriching.
Ulysses S. Grant’s life has typically been misunderstood. All too often he is caricatured as a chronic loser and inept businessman, fond of drinking to excess; or as the triumphant but brutal Union general of the Civil War; or as a credulous and hapless president whose tenure came to symbolize the worst excesses of the Gilded Age. These stereotypes don’t come close to capturing adequately his spirit and the sheer magnitude of his monumental accomplishments. A biographer at the height of his powers, Chernow has produced a portrait of Grant that is a masterpiece, the first to provide a complete understanding of the general and president whose fortunes rose and fell with dizzying speed and frequency.
I haven’t finished Chernow’s Hamilton, but that’s not going to stop me from picking up Grant. I’ve always enjoyed reading about the American Civil War, both fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve got a soft spot for poor, beleaguered Ulysses.
- The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb
It’s 1942 and the Nazis are racing to build an atomic bomb. They have the physicists. They have the will. What they don’t have is enough “heavy water,” an essential ingredient for their nuclear designs. For two years, the Nazis have occupied Norway, and with it the Vemork hydroelectric plant, a massive industrial complex nestled on a precipice of a gorge. Vemork is the world’s sole supplier of heavy water, and under the threat of death, its engineers pushed production into overtime.
For the Allies, Vemork must be destroyed. But how would they reach the castle fortress high in a mountainous valley? The answer became the most dramatic commando raid of the war. The British Special Operations Executive together with a brilliant scientist and eleven refugee Norwegian commandos, who, with little more than parachutes, skis, and Tommy Guns, would destroy Hitler’s nuclear ambitions and help end the reign of the Third Reich.
Based on exhaustive research and never-before-seen diaries and letters of the saboteurs, The Winter Fortress is a compulsively readable narrative about a group of young men who endured soul-crushing setbacks and Gestapo hunts and survived in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on earth to save the world from destruction.
A piece of WWII history I know next to nothing about. If it’s half as thrilling as it sounds, it’ll be a strong contender!
- The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England
The first Plantagenet king inherited a blood-soaked kingdom from the Normans and transformed it into an empire stretched at its peak from Scotland to Jerusalem. In this epic history, Dan Jones vividly resurrects this fierce and seductive royal dynasty and its mythic world.
We meet the captivating Eleanor of Aquitaine, twice queen and the most famous woman in Christendom; her son, Richard the Lionheart, who fought Saladin in the Third Crusade; and King John, a tyrant who was forced to sign Magna Carta, which formed the basis of our own Bill of Rights.
This is the era of chivalry, of Robin Hood and the Knights Templar, the Black Death, the founding of Parliament, the Black Prince, and the Hundred Year’s War. It will appeal as much to readers of Tudor history as to fans of ‘Game of Thrones.
I’m only going to say this once: the Plantagenets are so much cooler than the Tudors. I expect Jones to prove my point.
Honorable Mention: The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation (Ian Mortimer)
Which of these books would you like to read?