Christmas Books Special: History books reviewed

Long roads to freedom
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The Independent Culture

Publishers now fear that the bubble in large-scale popular history has burst. Still, like light from exploded stars, the illumination from past commissions continues to enrich our reading landscape. This year, no narrative historian shone brighter than Simon Schama. His Rough Crossings (BBC, £20) tells the astonishing tale of the American "black loyalists" who rallied to the British flag in the late 18th century as the slave-owners rebelled, and how their fate became entwined with the abolitionist movement. It showcases all Schama's talents as a storyteller, scene-painter and student of character - and his delight in revisionist mischief, with "British Freedom" (the name of a freed slave, as well as a remote ideal) nobler than American "liberty" for once.

In ancient history, the conflicts of Persia and Athens stood for centuries as the ultimate clash-of-civilisations between freedom and tyranny. Tom Holland does his bit for revisionism, too, in the enthralling Persian Fire (Little, Brown, £20). His notably fair and shrewd asessment of the Persian empire's strengths leads into a suspenseful account of the great campaigns of the 5th century BC that ensured the Greeks won the original "battle for the West".

Persian Fire makes good on the promise that Holland displayed in his Roman epic, Rubicon. That period - the fall of the republic, and the forging of its empire in blood and bitterness - forms the narrative centrepiece of Robin Lane Fox's panoramic history of The Classical World: from Homer to Hadrian (Allen Lane, £25). Lane Fox advised Oliver Stone on Alexander, and even galloped in the Macedonian cavalry as an extra. This grand survey, joining Greece and Rome in one vast historical arc, moves at a similar lick: colourful, pacey, if slightly old-fashioned in its focus and format. It will certainly rescue anyone confused by the plot twists of the BBC's Rome.

Even Lane Fox's scope looks narrow compared to the wide-angle views taken by the historical ecologist Jared Diamond. His Collapse (Allen Lane, £25) moves us from Easter Island to Mayan Mexico, China to New Guinea, on a historical and scientific detective trail to determine why some societies withstand crises of energy, population and resources - while others go under. Diamond may travel to the deep past, but his lessons are startlingly up-to-date. Geology, and catastrophe, also joined history in Simon Winchester's A Crack in the Edge of the World (Viking, £16.99): an absorbing narrative of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and, in the year of Katrina, a timely study of America's risky taste for civic culture on the edge of the abyss.

This year, some slightly more modest journeys in to the past yielded rich results. A rich alloy of history, culture and travel continues to supply a template for many inventive works of non-fiction. That mix crystallises beautifully in Joanna Kavenna's journey through the past and present of Nordic lands, from Greenland to Estonia, in search of the legendary "Thule": The Ice Museum (Viking, £16.99).

In Iain Sinclair's hands, it merges into a typically heady brew of offbeat biography and off-the-beaten-track topography in his haunted quest for the poet John Clare and his times, Edge of the Orison (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99). And it helps conjure up the rackety underworld of the interwar Middle East and Central Europe in Tom Reiss's The Orientalist (Chatto & Windus, £16.99): his stranger-than-fiction investigation of a Jewish adventurer who made himself into a cult "Arab" novelist.

Curiosities from the East - both human and artistic - also fill Maya Jasanoff's fscinating Edge of Empire (Fourth Estate, £25). By focusing with such flair on the colourful business of collecting antiquities in 18th- and 19th-century India and Egypt, she finds an exciting new way to understand what empire - British or French - meant to its builders, its collaborators and its victims. Lizzie Collingham's Curry: a biography (Chatto & Windus, £16.99) makes the perfect complement to Jasanoff. This mind-expanding, mouth-watering history of the creation of our favourite imperial nosh out of the encounter between European tastes and Indian traditions even includes a banquet's worth of recipes.

Far less delicious to read, but deeply impressive in its range and force, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday tally the crimes of the ultimate modern emperor - still revered by the new superpower - in Mao: the Untold Story (Cape, £25). Read it and remember that no one in power in China has broken with the butcher's legacy.

A soft imperial twilight seeps through Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul (Faber, £16.99; translated by Maureen Freely). Not merely the great Turkish novelist's childhood memoir, this gorgeously written book works just as well as an informal history of modern Istanbul and its post-Ottoman fate. By a long, winding street, the year's best book on a city.

Turkey's presence on - or absence from - the European scene turns up as a concluding theme of Tony Judt's Postwar (Heinemann, £25). Judt tramps down the highways and byways of Europe since 1945 with diligence and erudition, but it's as ideas-driven history that his doorstopper justifies its weight. He explores not just the what and the when but - above all - the why of the modern continent. For a harrowing but unforgettable report on the chaos and tragedy that brought this Europe to birth, go to Ivan's War: the Red Army 1939-1945 (Faber, £20), Catherine Merridale's magnificent portrait of the Soviet soldiers whose defeat of the Third Reich made the world that our Europe inherited. Many of these shattering events appear as eyewitness despatches by a great Russian novelist in Vassily Grossman's A Writer at War (Harvill, £20).

For an engrossing story from Old Europe in the Enlightenment, torn between the arts of peace and war, James Gaines's account of the encounter between Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick the Great of Prussia - which also works as a double portrait of two opposed geniuses - could hardly be bettered: Evening in the Palace of Reason (HarperPerennial, £8.99).

Back in Britain, the Trafalgar bicentenary has given one founding myth of British history a fresh lease of literary life. Roger Knight's blockbuster biography of the admiral, The Pursuit of Victory (Allen Lane, £30), should rank as flagship in the Nelson fleet. Less dedicated armchair seadogs might prefer a lighter vessel: I would raise a cheer for Adam Nicolson's Men of Honour (HarperCollins, £16.99), his brilliantly dramatic account not only of the battle but of the minds of those who fought it. Other heroes, and many heroines, march, speak and fight through Paul Foot's final testament, The Vote (Viking, £25) - a passionate narrative history of the people who strove against the odds to make a reality out of "British Freedom", from Levellers to Suffragettes and beyond. As dramatic (and sometimes as blood-stained) a contest as Trafalgar, this battle is far from over yet.