Answer by Matthew Spencer:
My personal favorite is The Leopard, the only novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. The book tells the story of Prince Fabrizio, a Sicilian nobleman who struggles to adapt to a changing society during the Risorgimento, or the period of Italian unification which took place during the mid-19th century. Prince Fabrizio is an intelligent, open minded man who sees plainly how the aristocracy is slowly losing ground in the new political order. He faces difficult decisions on how to continue the family name and its ancient privileges despite the surrounding society, which is doing its best to thwart those efforts.
Not to give too much away, but things don’t turn out as planned. Those looking for happy endings and virtue rewarded will, in all likelihood, not enjoy the ending of the book. Nevertheless, I think the novel has a vital message: enduring, both on a personal and cultural level, means changing with the times, even though there’s no guarantee of any reward for the effort. This message was something deeply felt by the author, who saw his own aristocratic family dwindle to extinction and his ancestral home destroyed during the Second World War. He wrote the novel while dying of cancer, with the knowledge that he had largely squandered his life. If there’s any lesson in all of this, it’s seize the moment.
Other contenders for best historical novel:
I Claudius by Robert Graves
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy