Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and Imperial Russia’s Quest for World Power, by Gregory Afinogenov, Belknap Press, RRP£36.95/RRP$45, 384 pages

From the mid-17th century, the Russian empire outdid other European powers in gathering political, industrial and commercial intelligence about China under the Qing dynasty. It is a little-known chapter of Sino-Russian relations, and Afinogenov, a Georgetown University scholar, tells the story beautifully.

The Jews and the Reformation, by Kenneth Austin, Yale University Press, RRP£30/RRP$45, 288 pages

Austin’s examination of Christian attitudes to Jews during the Reformation throws fascinating new light on the turbulent history of early modern Europe. Bringing Catholics as well as Lutherans and Calvinists into his story, Austin shows that virulent anti-Semitism coexisted with a growing interest in the Hebrew language, stimulated by debates about the Bible’s meaning.

Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe, by Robert Bartlett, Cambridge University Press, RRP£24.99/RRP$34.95, 672 pages

Political stability in medieval Europe depended in the last resort on the births, marriages and deaths of ruling families. Scholarly and a pleasure to read, Bartlett’s new book draws on an impressive range of sources in explaining how unpredictable dynastic politics shaped the history of Latin Christendom and Byzantium from 500 to 1500.

Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire, by Tim Harper, Allen Lane, RRP£35/Belknap Press, RRP$39.95, 864 pages

Harper’s magnificent, sweeping study of Asian revolutionary movements from 1905 to 1927 is packed with sharp insights and entertaining details. The book argues convincingly that this was the period when anti-colonial activists in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam fatally undermined European imperialism in Asia.

The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment, by Michael Hunter, Yale University Press, RRP£25/RRP$40, 288 pages

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, one of the 20th century’s seminal historical texts. Hunter’s book has a similar-sounding title, but develops a different argument in suggesting that it was sceptical humanists and freethinkers, rather than scientists, who did most to discredit traditional magic.

Best Books of the Year 2020

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Wednesday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Thursday: History by Tony Barber
Friday: Critics choice
Saturday: Crime by Barry Forshaw

All Against All: The Long Winter of 1933 and the Origins of the Second World War, by Paul Jankowski, Profile, RRP£25/HarperCollins, RRP$32.50, 480 pages

Jankowski tells the familiar story of the collapse of internationalism in the interwar era from an unusual angle, highlighting two events — the Geneva disarmament talks and London world economic conference of 1933 — that receive less attention in standard histories. It is a rewarding approach, enhanced by Jankowski’s engaging narrative style.

Machiavelli: His Life and Times, by Alexander Lee, Picador, RRP£30/RRP$47.95, 768 pages

Lee’s exhaustive, balanced and immensely readable work, sets a wholly new standard for English-language biographies of Machiavelli. Condemned for centuries as cynical, amoral and even satanic, the Florentine thinker emerges from Lee’s account as one of the Italian Renaissance’s greatest figures.

A People Betrayed: A History of Corruption, Political Incompetence and Social Division in Modern Spain 1874-2018, by Paul Preston, William Collins, RRP£30/Liveright, RRP$35, 416 pages

For decades, Paul Preston has been one of the English-speaking world’s premier historians of modern Spain. His latest book, dealing with the controversial topic of corruption in Spanish politics, public administration and business, is particularly good on the Franco dictatorship and post-Franco democratic era.

Tell us what you think

What are your favourites from this list — and what books have we missed? Tell us in the comments below

Britain’s War: A New World, 1942-1947, by Daniel Todman, Allen Lane, RRP£35/Oxford University Press, RRP$39.95, 976 pages

Todman’s two-volume history of Britain during the second world war, of which this 976-page book is the concluding half, is quite simply the best treatment of the subject yet written. Todman, a scholar at Queen Mary, University of London, pulls together the story’s military, political, economic and social threads in masterly style.

The Fortress: The Siege of Przemyśl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson, Allen Lane, RRP£32/Basic Books, RRP$32, 368 pages

If you read one military history book this year, make it this one. A specialist on the eastern front in the first world war, Watson has magnificently reconstructed one of the war’s least-known but important episodes: the Russian siege of the Austro-Hungarian fortress city of Przemyśl, now in Poland.

Tony Barber is the FT’s European affairs commentator

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you listen

Get alerts on History books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article