Escape into some of the best written adventures.
What follows is a list of recommended literature that spans several centuries. All of the works—be they ancient or modern—recount great adventures. They are organised chronologically so that one may appreciate the era in which they were created. This is particularly important in the case of the lost world genre stories, which were written during the height of European imperialism. Within some of them, the reader will come across racist and sexist attitudes that correlate with common ways of thinking from that time. Those attitudes are morally and socially incorrect, and Escape & Adventure in no way supports or condones them. We are all inherently equal as humans and should be seen and treated as such. Despite the inclusion of such themes, which shouldn’t be overlooked, it would be a shame to disregard the works completely, as they are some of the best adventure stories ever put into print.
Many of the titles on this list are vastly different from one another in terms of age, content, and tone, but hopefully the readers of this website will be able to find at least one or two that help satisfy their wanderlust—even if only temporarily.
The Odyssey (8th century)
Generally considered to have been composed sometime in the eighth century B.C.E., Homer’s epic is one of the greatest works of Western literature and a true adventure story. Set after his participation in the Trojan War, it details the trials and tribulations of wily Odysseus’ ten-year journey to return to his beloved wife and son in Ithaca, who are under threat from despicable suitors. It is a story of adversity, temptation, perseverance, righteousness, and revenge and takes the hero on a wild island-hopping tour of the Mediterranean. Odysseus’ voyage includes encounters with legendary heroes of the fall of Troy, ancient Greek mythological creatures, and even the gods themselves. The Odyssey is not only an adventure story with an ancient historical setting, it is a work of ancient history itself. Despite that, it has been translated, condensed, and simplified to make it more easily accessible to modern readers and can be found in almost any bookstore. If you want to trace the roots of escapism through adventure stories back to their literary prototypes, there is no better place to start.
The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor (17th century)
The voyages of Sinbad or Sindbad the Sailor, together with ‘Sindbad the Sailor and Sindbad the Porter’, make up a frame story cycle featured in The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Arabian, Persian, and Indian folk tales. The Sinbad tales probably formed an independent work originally but were found to be included as part of The Thousand and One Nights in the late 1600s. Set in the eighth or ninth century C.E., each short story refers to one of Sinbad’s miraculous seven voyages. They generally follow the same pattern and begin with a restless Sinbad filled with wanderlust and a longing for world travel setting sail from Basra. He inevitably ends up shipwrecked somewhere, and it is from that point that the contents of the tales really diverge. Collectively they feature mysterious exotic islands, strange customs, giant animals, supernatural creatures, a wide range of other dangers, and amazing treasure. Whether through cunning or good fortune the hero always finds his way home to Baghdad, usually having amassed a great wealth of riches. Several parallels with The Odyssey are recognisable in the tales and it is likely that Homer’s epic had a degree of influence on the later stories.
King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
Written in 1885, Sir H. Rider Haggard’s novel is generally accredited with being the first entry of the lost world genre of literature. It tells the story of three foreign adventurers (Allan Quartermain, Sir Henry Curtis, and Captain John Good) and an enigmatic African (Umbopa) who embark on an expedition to find out the fate of Sir Henry’s brother, who was last known to be venturing into an unknown region of Africa to search for the legendary mines of biblical King Solomon. Their quest takes them across an arid desert and over a mysterious mountain range to the hidden country known as Kukuanaland. During their adventure they face various challenges including hazardous privations, a deadly duel with an elephant, an encounter with a dangerous king and his wicked decrepit sorceress, and a full-scale battle between two armies. The story contains several death-defying escapes and other exciting moments but also includes great humour and wonderful characters. Following on its heels many more lost world genre novels were published but a strong case may be made that King Solomon’s Mines is the best of the bunch.
Heart of Darkness (1899)
Joseph Conrad’s turn-of-the-century novella has received more literary analysis than most other works of fiction combined. It follows the story of narrator Charles Marlow as he recounts a journey to the Congo Free State to satisfy his long-standing curiosity and investigate a river that runs through an otherwise dark area shown on maps of the African interior. The work is more of an introspective psychological horror story than a conventional classic adventure and through it Conrad explores the human mental condition as much as he does the supposed geographical heart of Africa. The focal point of Marlow’s tale becomes a man stationed at a distant trading post named Kurtz who, despite the respected and accomplished reputation he initially appears to have had, has descended into madness and savagery during his lengthy time in the interior. As we trace Marlow’s arduous and deeply unsettling journey into the unknown on foot and by steamboat, we are presented with examples of the frustrations of travel and rigours of existence in the country. He comes face-to-face with shocking disease, local aggression, the barbarity of the colonising Europeans, and death. While not a particularly light experience to read, it is a very thought-provoking piece of literature that forces one to confront the darkness in the hearts of men that emerges under certain conditions.
The Lost World (1912)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World describes an expedition to the Amazon basin to verify the outrageous claim of the existence of a remote jungle plateau still inhabited by dinosaurs. Featuring some great personalities, such as the tempestuous Professor Challenger and heroic icon Lord John Roxton, the adventure takes the main protagonists and their guides through hell and high water in order to confirm or debunk the existence of the creatures. After locating and surmounting the almost unreachable plateau the adventurers must deal with all manner of prehistoric terrors, ranging from carnivorous dinosaurs to a community of ape-like men. It is believed that the story was inspired by the South American expeditions of real-life explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett (of The Lost City of Z fame) who was a contemporary and acquaintance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite its title this was not the first work of fiction to belong to the lost world literary genre. It is however one its finest examples and it could be argued that the location of the original Jurassic park is to be found in Maple White Land, among the pages of this great early twentieth century adventure.
Lost Horizon (1933)
Lost Horizon by James Hilton is the novel that introduced the mystical land of Shangri-La. Possibly based on Shambhala or the beyuls of Tibetan Buddhist belief, Shangri-La is a hidden utopia located somewhere in the Kunlun Mountains and dominated by the giant peak Karakal. Set in the early 1930s the narrative details the hijacking of a plane from India containing four people, including the main protagonist British Consul Hugh ‘Glory’ Conway, and their subsequent arrival at a mysterious lamasery and beautiful idyllic valley. Lost Horizon is a reflective and spiritual piece of work. Throughout its pages Hilton reveals the deep inner thoughts of Conway and his appreciation for a culture that attaches great importance to preserving generations of humanity’s most wonderful achievements in the arts, music, and literature. Shangri-La is populated by a society that does everything in moderation and ages so slowly that some of its members live to be over 200 years old. The abundance of time available to them and their focus on a contemplative lifestyle contrasts with the outside world’s rush to militarize and progress at all costs which, it is implied, is detrimental to everything held dear in Shangri-La. Lost Horizon is a fascinating piece of literature that still feels curiously apt today in our technology evolution-obsessed age.
The Sheltering Sky (1949)
The Sheltering Sky is a hypnotic and disturbing account of the travels of three Americans in the post-war towns and deserts of North Africa. Paul Bowles presents the gradual downward spiral of a marriage, friendship, morals, and health in a piece of literature that serves as a troubling example of the possible negative consequences of taking several steps too far over the threshold of unfamiliarity in a foreign land and culture. The descriptions of exotic travel, delivered through the author’s mesmerizing prose, are anchored by the skillful way he reveals the inner thoughts and personality nuances of the novel’s main characters. The story is a frightening exposition of the gulf between the romantic desire for travel and its occasional harsh reality. It may act as a dissuasive tonic to any traveller or adventure seeker who recognises the siren-like call of an opaque and undefined temptation to venture far away from their own path of cultural security. Peering into the dark corners of serious illness, slow death, incarceration, and mental breakdown, The Sheltering Sky forces the human psyche to descend to a claustrophobic level of discomfort. Despite its bleakness, and it never allowing its protagonists or the reader true unbounded freedom, it is a masterpiece of existentialist adventure travel literature.
Inca Gold (1994)
No list of great adventure fiction would be complete without at least one of Clive Cussler’s novels. Although there are a few of his other books such as Treasure and Atlantis Found that would not be out of place here, it is Inca Gold that perhaps best encapsulates Grandmaster of Adventure Cussler’s ability to combine the mysterious history of past civilizations with a fast-paced escapist roller-coaster ride. Featuring the capable and heroic Dirk Pitt the story takes us on the search for a great Incan treasure hoard. As with most of Cussler’s adventures Inca Gold starts with a historical prologue. This involves one of Francis Drake’s treasure-loaded ships being washed miles inland by a massive tsunami. After fast-forwarding a few centuries, we find the irrepressible and indestructible Pitt and his National Underwater and Marine Agency colleagues caught up in a treasure hunt with an evil family and their criminal organisation. One just can’t help but root for the hero as he overcomes adversity after adversity by the skin of his teeth. Inca Gold is an addictive page-turner that is difficult to put down and provides a satisfying dose of literary escapism and adventure.
The Beach (1997)
The Beach by Alex Garland hit bookstore shelves in 1997 in perfect synchronization with the growth of the backpacking phenomenon, which had been rapidly gaining popularity throughout the decade. It also fuelled its continued expansion. It was so popular among travellers that one was almost certain to find somebody engrossed in its riveting story of idealism and escape during any turn-of-the-millennium trip to Southeast Asia. Set in Thailand, the story centres on a young English backpacker, named Richard, and his acquisition of a mysterious map purporting to point the way to a secret island paradise where a small community of like-minded souls live in harmonic bliss in an immaculate lagoon hideaway. It is a gripping piece of literature that describes the difficult journey to locate the island and the subsequent harrowing fall from grace of the beach utopia that exists therein. Alex Garland’s love of travel and intimate knowledge of backpacker culture imbues the novel with a realism that older adventure yarns cannot compete with. Despite being more than two decades old, The Beach still feels relevant in the current zeitgeist and offers a believable and hard-hitting adventure for the modern age.
It is difficult to find an author who writes faster-paced novels than Matthew Reilly. Reading one of his stories feels akin to scanning a script for a Hollywood blockbuster action film and Temple, published in 1999, is no exception. The book is somewhat unconventional because it presents two connected stories set hundreds of years apart. The first focuses on rebellious Spanish monk Alberto Santiago during the era of the conquistadors. The second concentrates on the adventures of expert linguist William Race and is set in the present. Both narratives revolve around an Incan idol: Santiago’s journey to protect it from his countrymen, and Race’s efforts to keep it out of the hands of a host of villains with evil machinations. At first glance Temple might seem like just another story about a treasure hunt, but it soon becomes apparent that Matthew Reilly does things differently than most other authors. With his urgent pacing and frenetic style, he is able to create successive sequences of breathless drama. The suspense-filled, edge-of-the-seat action includes encounters with man-eating caimans, giant mythical jungle cats, and a variety of highly trained military specialists hell-bent on achieving their goals. It is an exciting and entertaining read from cover to cover.
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