Our favourite books featuring Napoleon

As Ridley Scott's historical epic hits the big screen, we take a look at Napoleon on the page.

Ridley Scott's Napoleon biopic, starring Joaquin Phoenix, has just opened in cinemas. But the French military commander is no stranger to film – nor to books. Here are some of our favourite fiction reads that feature Napoleon.

The Armour of Light

by Ken Follett

Revolution is in the air. It's 1792 and while a tyrannical government is determined to make England a mighty commercial empire, in France, Napoleon Bonaparte begins his rise to power, and with dissent rife, France’s neighbours are on high alert. Meanwhile, Kingsbridge, a once-tranquil town, stands on the brink. Industrial innovation sweeps the land, shattering the lives of workers and tearing families apart. In the face of encroaching tyranny, a small but resolute group from Kingsbridge emerges. Their intertwined stories encapsulate a generation's struggle for enlightenment, as they rally against oppression and fight passionately for a future free from the shackles of an oppressive regime. The Armour of Light is the latest instalment in Ken Follett's Kingsbridge series.  

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Ken Follett's Kingsbridge books in order

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Les Misérables

by Victor Hugo

Famously adapted into a musical, as well as films and TV series, the story of Les Misérables takes place against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and the years that follow. Escaped convict Jean Valjean attempts to rebuild his life as an honest man, and takes in an abandoned orphan, Cosette, to raise as his own. But police officer Javert's ruthless pursuit means Valjean can never escape his past. Meanwhile, as Cosette grows up, young idealist Marius catches a glimpse of her and falls desperately in love, and the fates of all the characters become intertwined with the violent turmoil of the 1832 June Rebellion.

Vanity Fair

by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Battle of Waterloo and the effect of Napoleon's escape from Elba on the British stockmarket are both important plot points in Thackeray's biting satire of upper-class Regency England. However, it's the women left behind by both events who are centre stage of this novel. Brilliant anti-heroine Becky Sharp will do anything to climb to society’s loftiest heights and couldn’t be more different from her rich, sweet-natured schoolmate, Amelia Sedley. Their parallel lives are marked by love, lust, marriage, fortune and loss, in all their different guises, as they navigate the corrupt circus of early nineteenth-century life. 

War and Peace

by Leo Tolstoy

Book cover for War and Peace

Probably the most famous novel directly about the Napoleonic Wars, Tolstoy's 800-page classic uses interlocking narratives and characters to explore the effect of the French invasion of Russia, and features Napoleon himself as a character. There are grand themes, intimate portraits and an epic sweep of nineteenth-century Russia. Don't be put off by its length – it's a masterpiece. 

Animal Farm

by George Orwell

Orwell's satirical takedown of Stalinist Russia, in which the farm animals overthrow the farmer in the name of equality, only to decide that 'some animals are more equal than others', is a bit of a sneaky addition here. It's a brilliant, clever portrayal of lies, corruption and dangerous populism that we would recommend at any opportunity – its inclusion in this list justified by the involvement of a scheming pig called Napoleon.

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas

A classic tale of revenge, set during France's post-Napoleonic boom. Eduoard Dantes is betrayed and imprisoned in the sinister Chateau d'If. Years later, the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo appears in Paris, hugely rich. As he happens across those who betrayed Dantes, they, one by one, see their lives falls apart. . .

Although she doesn't reference specific dates or events in her novels, Jane Austen lived and wrote during the period of the Napoleonic Wars and war features as a backdrop to several of her novels. Officers of the local militia form a significant role in the plot of Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Price's brother is training in the Royal Navy in Mansfield Park and Captain Wentworth has recently returned from war in Persuasion

Sharpe's Tiger

by Bernard Cornwell

Book cover for Sharpe's Tiger

This is the first of Bernard Cornwell's long-running Sharpe series (later turned into a TV show starring Sean Bean), which charts the progress of British solider Richard Sharpe during the Napoleonic Wars. 

The Passion

by Jeanette Winterson

Book cover for The Passion

Henri is a soldier who has just become Napoleon's personal chef. As the two butcher their way across Europe, glory falls to ruin, love turns to hate and Henri decides to desert. Together with a young woman called Villanelle, he flees to Venice to meet his destiny in the city of chance and disguises.