Some might argue that the adventure novel has been undermined by the modern age: since you can fly just about anywhere for a relatively reasonable price, or experience on the internet for free, the allure of a story that takes you to far-away places and unfamiliar cultures for the sake of adventure has been lost. In reality, the spirit lives on—if only because so many fantastic adventure stories have already been written. The 50 novels listed here are the sort of old-school romps designed to inspire you to dig out your hiking gear, quit your job, and go seeking your fortune before it’s too late.
Ivanhoe, by Walter Scott
It all starts here. One of the first true examples of a “historical novel” in Western literature, Ivanhoe is set in the 12th century and focuses on one of the few Saxon noble families still intact after the Norman Conquest. Wilfred of Ivanhoe supports King Richard and is disinherited for his trouble, joining the king on the crusades. The story includes jousts, kidnappings, and plain old-fashioned adventure, and was thrillingly unlike anything that came before it.
The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
You can’t really discuss adventure stories without bringing Dumas into the conversation. His novels are still the gold standard when it comes to stories centered on a sense of esprit de corps and the origin of the idea people with a particular set of skills should not be mistreated. The story begins with aspiring Musketeer d’Artagnan offending legendary Musketeers Porthos, Athos, and Aramis and preparing—to their astonishment—to duel each of them in turn; when the illegal duel is interrupted by arresting soldiers, the four fight together and win the day—and that’s just the introductory chapter.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
Sea monsters and the first steampunk submarine: it doesn’t get more adventurous than that. Verne’s classic work of adventure and sci-fi isn’t exactly scientifically rigorous—at one point Captain Nemo exits his submarine and strolls about on the floor of the ocean without difficulty—but its spirit of discovery, as Nemo and companions travel to various incredible places (including the lost city of Atlantis), is unparalleled.
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Every kid (and everyone who has ever been a kid) should read Treasure Island at least once, just as every kid should spend at least one summer pretending to be a pirate hunting for secret treasure. At some point in every life, people dream of adventure finding them and forcing them into the world—just like the Old Buccaneer comes to Jim Hawkins, setting the boy on a path to (what else?) adventure.
King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard
Written in a time when Africa seemed infinite and largely unexplored, at least from a Western point of view, Haggard’s classic adventure novel created a template still followed today—the Indiana Jones films owe a huge debt to Haggard, for example. Adventurer Allan Quatermain agrees to search for a man who went missing while seeking the titular mines in exchange for a share of any treasure found, and encounters hidden kingdoms and terrible dangers—the latter being more or less a requirement of the genre.
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling’s story of an orphaned Irish boy who grows up more or less as a native in British India has influenced generations of storytellers. Kim learns the “Great Game” of espionage and secret politics in the heat of India before being identified as English and sent back to England where he’s schooled and trained in spycraft. No one combines religious and philosophical concepts with a tense spy story like Kipling did.
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
Buck is a dog, kidnapped from his home and forced into slavery as a sled dog. As Buck slowly loses his “civilization” (that is, his domestication) and becomes wild and feral, he has a series of adventures that are heartbreaking in their constant cruelty, but his final fate as a member of a wild pack of wolves isn’t a tragedy. London’s powerful story is iconic for a reason, of course, and is required reading for anyone wondering who they would be if stripped of the modern conveniences.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy
So much of the DNA of this book remains threaded throughout modern fiction it’s become almost invisible. Sir Percy Blakeney is a cultured, ostensibly weak English nobleman during The Terror, a time in revolutionary France when the government allowed and encouraged mob violence against the aristocrats of the ancien régime. Hiding behind a mask, Blakeney becomes the Scarlet Pimpernel, using his fighting skills and quick wit to rescue his fellow nobles—with style.
Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Burroughs’ adventure in the jungle remains one of the most famous and most-adapted (and imitated) stories ever written. Who hasn’t imagined what it might be like to step outside of civilization and become as one with nature as possible? Tarzan, orphaned in the jungle of Africa and literally raised by Apes, rises to become king of the beasts while learning about his English heritage—a story brimming with blood, violence, and the thrilling idea that a hidden world awaits.
Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini
Based very closely on actual historic events, this story of a physician sentenced to slavery in the Caribbean of the 17th century only to escape and become one of the most successful pirates of the time is a classic celebration of man’s ability to make his own fate, no matter the obstacles. While Sabatini certainly took the story further than reality, much of the bones of the novel actually happened to various people, giving it an air of verisimilitude.
The Mark of Zorro, by Johnston McCulley
McCulley’s Mexican nobleman who dons a mask and a dashing persona to fight injustice and tyranny has had a profound influence on fiction since his first appearance in the early 20th century. As Don Diego de la Vega, the character feigns disinterest in swordplay, romance, or adventure, but this is all in service of protecting his secret identity. This sort of dual life has become a staple of many adventure stories, of course, but few have been done with such style and panache.
Beau Geste, by Percival Christopher Wren
Set in the years before World War I, Wren’s novel depicts life in the French Foreign Legion fairly accurately. The Geste brothers, led by eldest Michael (known by his nickname Beau), enlist in the Foreign Legion as a way of following their old-fashioned ideals of “doing the right thing,” and this act is the ultimate beau geste of the story—a fine act that leads to nothing. Desert battles, cruel commanders, and plenty of adventure follow, however, so maybe it’s not all for nothing.
Lost Horizon, by James Hilton
The origin of the term “Shangri-La,” this story of a hidden monastery in the mountains of Tibet where the aging process slows and a lifetime of study and contemplation offers hope to a world ruined by war is still a gripping tale nearly a century later. That there was a time when it wasn’t that hard to imagine secret, hidden kingdoms in the world is thrilling enough, but the story is compelling, detailing the terrors of warfare at a time when it seemed the world might just end at any moment.
Conan the Conqueror, by Robert E. Howard
The only novel-length Conan story Howard published, this was originally titled The Hour of the Dragon and begins with a middle-aged Conan defeated on the battlefield and imprisoned in a dungeon filled with monstrous threats. His defeat secured via dark magic, Conan must seek unlikely allies and fight (and fight, and fight) his way back to his people in order to reclaim his throne. It’s good old-fashioned gory adventure and well worth reading.
The Long Ships, by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson
Set in the late Viking age in the 10th century, this surprisingly complex story can be read as a rollicking adventure following Viking Röde Orm Tostesson from his abduction and enslavement, his return home and his participation in attacks on England, at the time a fractured country in turmoil. As the story progresses, Christianity asserts itself, supplanting the traditional pagan religions of the Vikings, coloring and influencing everything that happens. If you like the TV show Vikings and wish there was more Viking-related entertainment, this book is for you.
The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monsarrat
Set during World War II, Monsarrat manages somehow to capture a thoroughly realistic view of the monotony and boredom of military service while spinning an exciting story of inexperienced sailors serving in the North Atlantic over the seven years of the war. The bond between the men and the tension of war on the sea offer plenty of nail-biting and emotional beats in this classic novel that remains the gold standard for stories of modern-day naval exploits.
Lieutenant Hornblower, by C.S. Forester
Forester’s classic Napoleonic-Era adventure is the first of eleven novels that follow the socially awkward, musically inept, but heroic and strategically brilliant Horatio Hornblower. Beginning with Hornblower as a freshly-minted officer and ending with an aged Baron Hornblower appointed Admiral of the Fleet, each novel details classic adventures where Hornblower must think on his feet, risk his life, and always protect the men under his command.
The Guns of Navarone, by Alistair Maclean
The Nazis have built a nearly-impregnable fortress on the Greek island of Navaronne, and it’s preventing the rescue of more than a thousand British troops. A team of ultra-competent, experienced soldiers must come together and find a way to destroy the guns so the rescue can be attempted. This no-nonsense plot is based on actual events, and established a template for the team of experts working together in grim determination, with plenty of danger, violence, and surprise betrayals for any fan of adventure stories.
The Warriors, by Sol Yurick
You might not think of this trailblazing 1965 novel (the inspiration for the famous 1979 film) as an adventure story, but that’s exactly what it is. The Coney Island Warriors are a street gang who find themselves stranded in enemy territory one night after a chaotic meeting of New York Gangs. Yurick brilliantly offers the idea of unfamiliar neighborhoods as alien planets the gang must fight their way through. If all you know is the movie, read the book—it’s deeper, less silly, and much more interesting.
Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian
Another absolute classic set during the Napoleonic Wars, O’Brian follows the careers of Captain Jack Aubrey and physician-slash-spy Stephen Maturin as they battle the French in progressively larger ships of the line. O’Brian’s detailed and accurate depiction of the misery of life in the British navy at the time is fascinating, and the battle sequences are some of the best ever committed to the page.
Congo, by Michael Crichton
Although described as science fiction, Crichton himself name-checked King Solomon’s Mines as inspiration for this story. A lost city in the jungle of Africa, a legendary diamond mine, and a heretofore unknown breed of gorilla resulting from ancient experiments all come together to challenge a team seeking to claim a fortune that has already killed a lot of people.
Sahara, by Clive Cussler
Cussler is probably the king of the modern adventure novel, and Sahara remains his best effort. Combining Abraham Lincoln and a Civil War-era ironside ship, the crash and disappearance of an Amelia Earhart-like pilot in 1933, a secret gold mine and a terrifying pollutant that threatens the entire world’s ecosystem, Cussler doesn’t let you have even a moment to breathe, but you won’t notice because it’s all so much fun.
Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are cultural icons—which means they’re often treated as cultural furniture, always there but not terribly interesting. This book, the original compilation and rewriting of the existing stories, will remind you that at their heart these are adventure stories—there are kingdoms to be carved out of the ground with your swords, there are dangers in the shadows, and there is a Holy Grail out there to be claimed.
The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles
An adventure novel or a dark tale of psychological breakdown and ennui? Why not both—Bowles’ 1949 novel remains confounding, but exciting in a dangerous, corrosive way. A drifting New York couple flee the modern world and head into the desert of Northern Africa, along with a friend. They hope that casting aside their lives they’ll find each other again—but what they find is madness, disease, death, and sexual assault. It’s good sometimes to remember that not all adventures end well.
Sharpe’s Tiger, by Bernard Cornwell
Cornwell’s Sharpe novels explore the land war against Napoleon from the point of view of Richard Sharpe, the low-born soldier who slowly rises through the ranks of the British Army. This sort of rise wasn’t impossible at the time—but it was pretty unlikely, and only Sharpe’s wit and skill with violence makes it possible. Set in British India, this novel is first in the chronology and includes pitched battles, torture, and espionage in equal measure, taking place during a time when all a man needed was determination and bravery to get ahead.
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
Based on Roberts’ own experiences as a criminal, escaped convict, and foreigner living in the slums of Mumbai (then known as Bombay), Shantaram is the story of a city, the rich mixture of cultures and ethnicities living there, and the moral journey of a single man. Above everything else, it has the classic structure of the adventure novel as Lindsay Ford travels to an unfamiliar place, loses everything, and learns to survive and flourish in a variety of scenarios most of us wouldn’t dream of coming near.
The Walking Drum, by Louis L’Amour
L’Amour is best known for his Westerns, but this is a departure, telling a story set in the 12th century. Mathurin Kerbouchard sets off to seek news of his lost father, is captured by slavers, leads a rebellion and takes the slave ship, sells his kidnappers into slavery instead—and that’s all in the first sections of the story! Kerbouchard’s journey takes him all over the known world at the time, and provides ample evidence that L’Amour should have stepped out of his comfort zone more often.
The Beach, by Alex Garland
One reason classic adventure stories have dried up in the modern world is the sense that there are no more mysteries out there, but Garland solves this problem by keeping things small-scale: an American backpacker is given a map to a hidden beach in Thailand, so well secluded tourists have never found it. Making his way there with some like-minded souls, he discovers a thriving community of backpackers living a simple, communal life in a spot unknown to most of the world. From that premise Garland explores a universal truth: the biggest threats to any society come from within.
Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser
Taking a minor character from Tom Brown’s School Days, Fraser imagines a coward, a scoundrel, and a debauched bully, then places him at almost every major historical event of the 19th century over the course of several novels. At their core, however, the stories of Harry Flashman’s exploits are adventures, as Harry travels the world and relies on his wits and his ability to foist consequences onto others to survive while fighting, seducing, and gambling his way through life.
Swiss Family Robinson, by Johann David Wyss
Wyss’ intended his story of a shipwrecked family surviving on a remote island to be a textbook of sorts, offering lessons on subjects ranging from morality to science, often containing plenty of practical survival advice. The family lives for a decade on the island, learning much and becoming comfortable in their new existence, and the ultimate lesson is that adventure isn’t always something that you seek out—sometimes it comes to you, unbidden.
Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling
Speaking of adventure finding you, Kipling’s 1897 novel is the story of a spoiled rich American teenager named Harvey who is washed overboard in a storm and rescued by a fishing boat. The crew doesn’t believe his stories of wealth, but the Captain takes him on as a crew member. Harvey slowly accepts his fate and becomes a valuable member of the crew until they finally put into port and he contacts his parents. Celebrated as a testimonial to the American spirit, the book remains thrilling to anyone who has ever sat in a boring lecture or meeting and wished fate would intervene with a dose of adventure.
Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson
On the downside of unbidden adventure, this is the story of David Balfour. After the death of his parents, he visits his miserly, paranoid uncle at the family estate known as the House of Shaws. Learning that he might be the rightful heir, David confronts his uncle—who tricks him onto a ship, where he is knocked unconscious and taken to sea. To say that “adventure ensues” in this classic novel is an understatement.
The Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne
Five men escape from a Confederate prison during the Civil War in a hot air balloon, and crash onto an uncharted island. They survive through a combination of their skill, intelligence, and mysterious assistance from some entity on the island they initially can’t identify. A sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the mystery of the island is directly linked to that earlier novel, which just makes it all the more awesome.
Assegai, by Wilbur Smith
Smith’s one of the most prolific and productive modern novelists, and Assegai links directly to several other of his novels. Set in the early 19th century, it tells the story of young Leon Courtney who joins the army in the midst of an early-life crisis. He is eventually recruited as a spy, apprenticed to a master hunter in Africa as a cover, and slowly evolves into an effective and enthusiastic agent as World War I slowly revs up around him.
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
Dumas’ classic revenge story is also the ultimate adventure story, centered on a man who is wrongly imprisoned, escapes, makes a fortune, and seeks to get back at his enemies. All of this is set against the backdrop of one of the most politically and militarily unsettled periods of European history—a moment when it seemed literally anything might happen, lending the story an urgency that still pops off the page today.
The Sea Wolf, by Jack London
Another story of a civilized, complacent man—Humphrey van Weyden—caught in a shipwreck, London’s great achievement here is the antagonist Wolf Larsen. Self-taught, imposingly strong, and bitterly intelligent, Wolf sees no value in existence beyond survival and sensory pleasure. Seeing in Humphrey the chance at a conversational partner, he makes Humphrey part of the crew. Humphrey has to learn to be savage and aggressive in order to survive—but it is Wolf who dominates the story, and rightfully so.
The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers
What if you suspected an unfriendly nation were up to no good on a remote island, and you couldn’t get your government to pay attention? You’d grab a friend and hop on your small sailboat to investigate on your own. That’s the premise of this proto-spy novel, which sees a minor official named Carruthers recruited by his friend Davies to puzzle out just what the Germans are up to shortly before World War I breaks out.
Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard
Ballard’s tale of a boy taken prisoner by the Japanese after the fall of Shanghai in World War II is a story of survival and the complexity of war. After becoming separated from his parents in the chaos, Jamie Graham survives in feral fashion scrounging for food, and eventually surrenders to the Japanese for the relative safety of a prison camp. Jim admires his captors, somewhat—but his adventure leads him into some very dark places.
The Tigers of Mompracem, by Emilio Salgari
Sandokan was once the most famous fictional pirate in literature, and this novel finds him at the heights of his career—feared and legendary, leading a band of rebels against two empires. A Malay prince whose family was killed and throne stolen by the British, Sandokan defends a group of smaller kingdoms against the British and the Dutch. Hearing of a woman of matchless beauty living nearby, however, Sandokan finds his priorities shifting—and the call of adventure is irresistible.
Night Flight, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
You might not think a story centered on delivering the mail could possibly be fraught with adventure—which is why you must read this book. Celebrating the idea that some things are bigger than individual needs, the story of some of the first commercial pilots and the airmail they deliver overnight in order to keep lines of communication open, and the sacrifice they must all contemplate in the service of a noble goal.
Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne
Verne’s famous classic has an irresistible premise: wealthy but eccentric Phineas Fogg of London makes a bet that he can travel around the world in 80 days; considering this is set in 1872, that’s quite a challenge. The ensuing adventure is essentially a 19th century The Amazing Race, literally taking the reader on a madcap dash across the entire globe, while simultaneously being a commentary on the advancing pace of technology, and the changing world it was inspiring.
The White Company, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Although not as well known today as his Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle himself preferred this adventure set during the Hundred Years War in the 14th century. Focused on the titular company of freelance archers, the story involves the three main characters—archer Aylward, squire (and later knight) Alleyne, and John of Hordle as they find love, taste victory and defeat, and interact with the lordly and powerful. It’s as old-school as an adventure novel can get, elevated by Doyle’s deft grasp of pacing, plot, and deep research into the historical period.
Mutiny on the Bounty, by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
A straightforward fictionalization of the famous mutiny that occurred in 1789, in which Lieutenant William Bligh faced a rebellious crew and was set adrift in a small boat with the only loyal crew members. Told from the point of view of a non-mutineer, Midshipman Roger Byam, who remains with the Bounty because there isn’t any more room on the boats Bligh and the others are forced onto, the story has everything: near-death experiences, tropical paradises, and eventual prosecution.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by B. Traven
There’s nothing more Adventure Novel than three down-on-their-luck Americans prospecting for gold in the unsettled mountains of Mexico shortly after the revolution there. Curtin, Dobbs, and Howard meet in Tampico and figure their luck can’t get any worse. Led by the older and competent Howard, the men in fact discover gold. Greed, paranoia, and the lawless Mexican wilderness all conspire to bring misfortune on their heads before they can profit from their find.
Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne
Verne once again offers one of the all-time classic adventure stories, taking the reader under the surface of the earth as Professor Otto Lidenbrock leads an expedition into a volcano in Iceland, descending deep underground where they find a whole other world lit by electrically-charged gas and filled with monsters. All three almost die several times before they finally emerge from a volcano in Italy—but imminent death is a key feature of most adventure fiction.
A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
Set during World War I and based on Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver in Italy during the fighting, A Farewell to Arms is usually thought of as “literature,” but it’s really an adventure novel. Frederic Henry is an American serving in the Italian Army as a paramedic; when he meets nurse Catherine Barkley he initially wants nothing more than a diversion, but slowly falls in love. Their relationship is troubled by war, injuries, court martials, and death itself—all told in Hemingway’s bold, signature style.
Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini
A young lawyer nimbly shifts sides, learns new skills, and plays whatever role he needs to in order to survive the chaos of the French Revolution. Sabatini understood one of the key ingredients to the classic adventure story: adaptability. Adventure novels always assume a world based on chaos, and offer protagonists who can navigate those choppy waters to a happy ending. Moreau, Sabatini’s main character, slowly develops a sense of idealism as he makes his way through a changing world.
Johnny Tremain, by Esther Hoskins Forbes
Adventures are hard to come by when society is stable and peaceful—which makes the American Revolution a perfect backdrop for it. Johnny starts off as a hard-working apprentice in Boston, and slowly grows politically an emotionally, eventually taking part in the Boston Tea Party and becoming a spy for the Sons of Liberty—and preparing to take up arms against the tyranny of the British.
The Eiger Sanction, by Trevanian
Dr. Jonathan Hemlock is an art collector and mountaineer with a secret side-job as an assassin who takes contracts targeting other assassins who have killed American agents. To kill his latest target, he must join a group of mountain climbers tackling one of the most dangerous climbs in the world, figure out which one of the men is the subject of the sanction—and survive.
The Odyssey, by Homer
It’s not strictly speaking a novel, of course, but you can’t discuss adventure literature without name-checking one of the oldest and most-celebrated adventure stories. Ten years after the Trojan War and the events of The Iliad, Odysseus still hasn’t found his way home. When some of the gods relent and try to help, he finally has his chance—but of course must go through a new series of adventures beforehand. This is where adventure starts, and every other work on this list owes a debt to this ancient poem.