50 Best Historical Fiction Books To Add To Your Bookshelf

Historical fiction provides us with a connection to the people and events of the past. It’s almost like time travel, only without the impossible science. By reading historical fiction, we can learn more about the world and the enduring links shared by humanity.

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50 Best Historical Fiction Books To Add To Your Bookshelf

Historical fiction can also just be a really good read. It’s a genre that encompasses many types of writing styles and plots, and that can leave you feeling every emotion on the spectrum.

If you decide to start reading historical fiction, you’re sure to find books that suit your preferences. But this diversity also comes with its downsides. Where do you get started with historical fiction?

Do you want a lyrical journey into the world of Ancient Greece? A magical retelling of life in 19th Century America? Or a devastatingly real look at life in the near past?

Take a look at this guide to 50 of the best historical fiction books, to start your journey through time.

50 Of The Best Historical Fiction Books

The Red Tent By Anita Diamant

The Red Tent

Setting: Ancient Israel

A brief reference to the violence she suffered is the only indication of Dinah we’re given in the Bible. Her story is almost a footnote between the larger narratives of the Book of Genesis.

In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant gives Dinah a voice and a life. A compelling exploration of ancient motherhood, The Red Tent considers what it was like to be a woman in the early days of history.

Pros

  • An unusual setting for historical fiction.
  • The female characters are richly layered.

Cons

  • The book starts slowly.

The Silence Of The Girls By Pat Barker

The Silence of The Girls

Setting: Ancient Greece

Queen Briseis has been kidnapped from her home by enemy forces and offered as a bride to the feared soldier, Achilles. She now finds herself a pawn in a game of war that is fast coming to an end.

As the Fall of Troy looms on the horizon, The Silence of the Girls charts the adventure of the Iliad from a different perspective.

Pros

  • Pat Barker has created an intensely realistic portrayal of life during a war.
  • The inner world of Briseis feels authentic, as she reacts to the events surrounding her.

Cons

  • The modern idioms stick out awkwardly in the historical setting.

Lavinia By Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia

Setting: Ancient Italy

In Virgil’s Aeneid, Lavinia is nothing but a silent character, a witness to events who finds her life controlled by those around her.

But here she’s given a voice and an awareness of her role in the narrative, as the Trojan War moves through the wilds of ancient Italy.

Ursula K. Le Guin is better known for her science fiction stories set far in the future, but Lavinia shows she’s just as adept at writing about the past.

Pros

  • Lavinia is an intelligent narrator who provides readers with a knowledgeable view of an ancient world.
  • The writing style is beautiful.

Cons

  • The passages of conversation between Lavinia and the poet Virgil won’t appeal to all readers.

The King Must Die By Mary Renault

The King Must Die: A Novel

Setting: Ancient Greece

Theseus is a king of myths, the one who was able to slay the monstrous Minotaur of Crete. But he was also a man, and in Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, we follow the human side of Theseus as he fulfills his destiny.

Charting the life of Theseus from a young child with deep insecurities to a gallant hero of Ancient Greece, The King Must Die is a page-turner of historical adventure.

Pros

  • The story of Theseus is fleshed out with emotion and pain.
  • Renault paints the life of Ancient Greece in vivid colors.

Cons

  • The narrative sometimes feels disjointed.

The Book Of Longings By Sue Monk Kidd

The Book of Longings: A Novel

Setting: 1st Century Galilee

The daughter of a wealthy family, Ana finds herself rebelling against society’s expectations. Ana loves to read and learn and hates that she’s expected to marry an elderly widow.

Everything changes when she meets Jesus. He shifts her entire worldview and the two fall in love. Against a background of discrimination and difficulties, Ana must find a place for herself in this rapidly changing world.

Pros

  • A familiar story told from an entirely new angle.
  • Closely researched and sensitively told, both religious and non-religious readers can enjoy the tale.

Cons

  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the plot points are obvious.

I, Claudius By Robert Graves

I, Claudius From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Born 10 B.C. Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 (Vintage International)

Setting: Ancient Rome

I, Claudius is one of the early defining works of historical literature, written as a fictional autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius.

I, Claudius depicts Claudius as a shrewd mastermind who used his time out of the spotlight to develop himself as a worthy Roman Emperor.

The novel follows the period leading up to the assassination of Caligula, and the life of Claudius continues in the sequel, Claudius the God.

Pros

  • The narrative is both enjoyable and educational, thanks to the detailed insight.
  • An “autobiography”, the reader is immediately captivated.

Cons

  • You might want to keep a list of the characters, to prevent confusion.

The Dovekeepers By Alice Hoffman

The Dovekeepers: A Novel

Setting: Ancient Rome

A tragedy is coming to the people of Masada, a hilltop settlement in the Judean desert. For months, the Jewish settlers of Masada have held off the invading Roman fortress, but the fight is starting to turn.

The Dovekeepers tells the story of four Jewish women from the Roman Empire. Each has a reason for seeking Masada, and each hides secrets from their past. But during the days of the siege, their lives begin to interact.

Pros

  • The four women are carefully constructed, with distinctive personalities.
  • The tragedy at Masada is an engaging and heartbreaking setting.

Cons

  • Told in four separate parts, the various names and settings can get confusing.

The Emperor’s Babe By Bernadine Evaristo

The Emperor's Babe

Setting: Ancient Rome

It’s the 2nd Century in Londinium, and the city is alive with a mixture of cultures from across the Roman Empire. Enjoying the party scene is Zuleika, the bride of a Roman businessman and the It girl about town.

Zuleika knows all the best people and all the best places, so of course, it isn’t long before she attracts the attention of the Roman Emperor…

Pros

  • Historical fiction is rarely as funny as The Emperor’s Babe.
  • A combination of humor and heartbreak that will activate all your emotions.

Cons

  • The Emperor’s Babe is written as verse, which can make it hard to read.

The Pillars Of The Earth By Ken Follett

The Pillars of The Earth (The Kingsbridge Novels Series)

Setting: 12th Century England

After the death of Henry I, England is left without an heir. Civil war rages and law and order start to break down. Against a backdrop of the immense turmoil of Anarchy, one monk attempts to build a cathedral.

The Pillars of the Earth is an ambitious work, chronicling the lives of earls, archdeacons, princes, and masons. Pairing passages of vivid description with heart-racing action scenes, this is historical fiction that grabs you from the start.

Pros

  • The vast narrative paints an immersive picture of medieval Britain.
  • The descriptive prose makes it easy to imagine each detail.

Cons

  • This is a very long book, and it’s only the start of the series!

Ivanhoe By Walter Scott

Ivanhoe (Penguin Classics)

Setting: 12th Century Britain

Walter Scott is often credited with being the founder of the historical fiction genre as we know it today. Perhaps his greatest work is Ivanhoe, a historical epic that helped reignite Britain’s love for the Middle Ages.

Scheming King John is fighting for his place on the throne, while his noble brother King Richard is presumed captive in Austria.

Ivanhoe, a supporter of Richard, finds himself tangled up in the desperate power struggle. Meanwhile, he must battle for the hand of Lady Rowena.

Pros

  • The epic tournaments and emphasis on chivalry make Ivanhoe a classic of historical fiction.
  • A narrative that truly deserves the description “epic”.

Cons

  • You might want to start with the abridged version, before tackling the original.

The Name Of The Rose By Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose

Setting: 14th Century Italy

As the Catholic Church engages in a long battle with itself, Brother William of Baskerville is called to a Benedictine monastery to attend a disputation. The monastery seems unusual, but not dangerous.

Until a series of unusual deaths forces William to turn detective. With a plot that twists and turns as much as the labyrinth that is the monastery library, The Name Of The Rose is a cunning tale of deceit and deception.

Pros

  • The narrative is layered with moral quandaries, historical discussions, and intriguing murders.
  • A dreamlike prose adds to the mystery at the heart of the book.

Cons

  • Eco has a distinctive style, and it isn’t always easygoing.

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame By Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Setting: 15th Century France

It’s 1482, and the entrancing street dancer Esmeralda has captured the heart of many Parisian men. Including Quasimodo, a town outcast who lives in the Notre Dame cathedral.

The cathedral of Notre Dame is a stunning display of French Gothic architecture, but when Victor Hugo wrote his classic novel, it was falling into disrepair.

This tale, charting the life of hunchback Quasimodo and his love for Esmeralda, helped revive interest in the cathedral, bringing it back to the splendor we know.

Pros

  • Hugo is a descriptive writer who breathes life into the historical setting.
  • Every character is complex and layered.

Cons

  • If you know the animation, the book might come as a surprise.

Romola By George Eliot

Romola (Penguin Classics)

Setting: 15th Century Italy

The reign of the Medici family is over. Into their place steps Savonarola, a religious leader with an iron grip on society.

This marks the beginning of a turbulent time in Florentine history, the background against which Romola must navigate love, betrayal, and her role as a woman.

Pros

  • Romola is an intriguing heroine with a clear voice.
  • The conflict of the setting creates an exciting contrast with Romola’s personal battles.

Cons

  • Originally serialized, this is a long book.

Wolf Hall By Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall: A Novel

Setting: 16th Century England

Twenty years Henry VIII has been married to Catherine of Aragon, but she’s yet to produce a male heir. The Catholic Church refuses an annulment, and the King refuses to back down.

For Thomas Cromwell, the potential disaster presents an opportunity. He seeks a place beside the King, but Henry’s temper is impossible to predict. 

Pros

  • You think you know the story, but Wolf Hall presents an entirely new viewpoint.
  • Famous historical characters take on life in this retelling.

Cons

  • You might find yourself referring to the family tree frequently.

My Name Is Red By Orhan Pamuk

My Name Is Red: A Novel

Setting: 16th Century Istanbul

The Sultan has requested that the most talented artists in the land illuminate a book depicting the triumphs of his reign. But there’s a catch — he wants the work done in the European style, which is banned by the elite.

When one of the artists goes missing, it leads to panic. Was he taken because of his dangerous art style? And how can his illustrations help unravel the potential crime?

Pros

  • Balances plot with introspective observation.
  • A testament to the power of art.

Cons

  • The plot is less compelling than the setting.

The Burning Chambers By Kate Mosse

The Burning Chambers (The Burning Chambers, 1)

Setting: 16th Century France

Minou Jalbert is happy working at her father’s bookshop when two events occur that change her life forever. First, the arrival of a mysterious letter.

Second, an encounter with Piet Reydon, a Huguenot convert who needs Minou’s help to stay alive. Now Minou must enter a world filled with betrayal, conspiracy, and maybe even love.

Pros

  • The fast pace keeps you engaged from start to finish.
  • The background tensions enhance the main narrative.

Cons

  • The narrative beats are a little predictable.

Girl With A Pearl Earring By Tracy Chevalier

Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel

Setting: 17th Century Holland

Inspired by Vermeer’s classic and mysterious portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story of Griet, a young girl who finds herself working as a maid after her father suffers a terrible accident.

But she isn’t working in any home. Instead, she finds herself in the orbit of Johannes Vermeer. As Griet becomes fascinated by the house, Vermeer becomes fascinated by Griet.

Pros

  • As captivating as the stare of the girl in the painting.
  • The strict societal structures of the day are well conveyed.

Cons

  • The narrative is meditative.

The Mercies By Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Mercies

Setting: 17th Century Norway

The village of Vardø suffers a tragedy when all of the men are washed out to sea. To survive, the women left behind have to break their strict social boundaries, banding together to hunt, fish, and live.

But their community comes under threat when Absalom Cornet and his wife Ursa are sent to the village, and Absalom enacts his own iron rule.

Pros

  • The central battles are chilling in their believability.
  • The relationships between the women are nuanced.

Cons

  • A slow start.

Year Of Wonders By Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague

Setting: 17th Century England

It’s 1666 in England, and a plague is spreading. It started in the cities and towns, but it’s slowly creeping into every section of the land.

When it hits the isolated village Anna Frith calls home, the villagers must make a deadly choice. The Year of Wonders is an inspiring story of survival and courage in the face of disaster.

Pros

  • A thoughtful look at how disaster changes people.
  • Brooks creates a wonderful sense of place.

Cons

  • The tone and language are uneven in places.

The Miniaturist By Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist: A Novel

Setting: 17th Century Amsterdam

The opulently decorated dollhouses of the Amsterdam gentry reflect a society divided by strict social classes. This is the world that Nella Oortman finds herself entering, as she begins life with her new husband, merchant trader Johannes Brandt.

As a wedding gift, Oortman presents his bride with a doll-sized replica of their own house. But soon the miniature home appears to be warning her of dangers behind her door.

Pros

  • The mystery of the dollhouse is captivating.
  • The dangers of such a strict society are sensitively conveyed.

Cons

  • One of the main plot lines fizzles out.

The Book Of Night Women By Marlon James

The Book of Night Women

Setting: 18th Century Jamaica

Lilith was born a slave on a plantation in Jamaica at the end of the 18th century. For the other slave women, Lilith’s birth represents a change to come.

There’s a power in her that they think will lead their brewing revolt. But when Lilith comes of age, she starts to question her role in the risky plans.

Pros

  • The raw writing conveys a sense of place, time, and people.
  • The female leads are strong.

Cons

  • This is an emotionally difficult read.

War And Peace By Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace (Penguin Clothbound Classics)

Setting: 19th Century Russia

War is coming, and the lives of five Russian families will be forever changed by its dreadful effects. 

War and Peace is regarded as one of the greatest works of fiction ever, a book that balances the mundane with the epic to create an illuminating picture of how war affects every aspect of life.

Pros

  • Switching from details of the everyday to the horrors of war creates a palpable reality.
  • You’ll be thinking about War and Peace long after you’ve put the book down.

Cons

  • It’s an incredibly long read.

Alias Grace By Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace: A Novel

Setting: 1840s Canada

Grace Marks has been accused of murdering three people. She’s set to serve life in prison, even as she insists she has no memory of the events. Dr. Simon Jordan is studying the new field of psychiatry.

He believes he can get to the bottom of the case. Through a series of interviews, will he be able to uncover the mystery of Grace Marks?

Pros

  • Atwood is a captivating writer.
  • The story trips you up and keeps you guessing.

Cons

  • The unusual writing style might take time to get used to.

One Hundred Years Of Solitude By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)

Setting: 1820 to 1920 Colombia

The Buendia family lives in Macondo, a town that was founded by their father after a dream led him to its discovery. Over seven generations, the town of Moncado rises and falls, rises and falls, turning with the lives of the Buendia family.

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garcia Marquez expertly blends the contrasting genres of historical fiction and magical realism.

Pros

  • A deeply introspective work that encourages you to think about the entire meaning of life.
  • Combining magical realism and historical literature is bold, but it works.

Cons

  • The strange writing style isn’t for all readers.

The Marriage Of Opposites By Alice Hoffman

The Marriage of Opposites

Setting: 1800s St. Thomas

Rachel is a difficult girl in a small community. Her life never feels like her own, especially once she’s married to an old widower in an attempt to rescue her father’s failing business.

But when her husband dies, Rachel has a chance to claim life for herself. The scandal that follows has a profound effect on Rachel, her family, and the community.

Pros

  • The romance is expertly woven into the historical setting.
  • A light read, perfect for the beach.

Cons

  • It’s quite long for such an easygoing book.

Fingersmith By Sarah Waters

Fingersmith

Setting: Victorian Britain

Taken in by Mrs. Sucksby as an orphan, Sue has been raised to be a finger smith — a pickpocket. Into her life of petty crime arrives the Gentleman, and he has an intriguing proposition.

If Sue can help him win the hand of wealthy Maud Lilly, they can split the woman’s inheritance. Sue takes the position, but life with Maud isn’t quite what she expected.

Pros

  • A modern take on a Dickens novel.
  • You get quickly swept away by the narrative.

Cons

  • The story occasionally veers into melodrama.

Snow Flower And The Secret Fan By Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel

Setting: 19th Century China

The women of 19th Century China live their lives almost alone, apart from the connection they share with their “old sames”. Old sames communicate using “nu shu”, coded writing that allows them to talk secretly.

Snow Flower and Lily have been old sames since age 7, and we follow them through the ups and downs of lonely and difficult lives. Until a misunderstanding threatens their special bond.

Pros

  • The sorrow and joy of Snow Flower and Lily is deeply moving.
  • The lyrical writing style adds beauty to a sad book.

Cons

  • Don’t read if you’re looking for happy endings.

Beloved By Toni Morrison

Beloved: Pulitzer Prize Winner

Setting: 19th Century America

Born a slave but now free, Sethe lives in Ohio with her daughter Denver and what she believes is the ghost of her baby, known only as Beloved.

The two live under the spell of the ghost, until former slave Pauly D arrives, and drives the ghost away. Soon after, a woman appears on the doorstep of Sethe’s home. She claims her name is Beloved…

Pros

  • A haunting look at how the effects of tragedy echo through the years.
  • An unflinching look at a difficult period.

Cons

  • The sparse writing style can take some time to get into.

The Children’s Book By A. S. Byatt

The Children's Book (Vintage International)

Setting: 1895 – WWI England

Olivia and Humphry Wellwood live with their children in a community of artists and free thinkers. Encouraging their children to explore their inner passions, on the surface, the family appears to be a joyful group of creatives.

But Olivia and Humphry harbor dark secrets, and their negligent parenting leads their children into struggles and heartbreak. Meanwhile, dark clouds are gathering over Europe.

Pros

  • Every character is fleshed out and unique.
  • The cheerful promise of the Wellwood sucks you in, before slowly falling away.

Cons

  • Some storylines will grip you more than others. 

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold By C Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills Is Gold: A Novel

Setting: 1840s America

California offers the promise of gold, but the reality isn’t so glimmering. Especially for Chinese immigrants, who find themselves ostracized in an already dangerous community.

When both Ba and Ma die, leaving Lucy and Sam as orphans, they decide it’s time to leave the mining town.

Lucy and Sam hope that by providing their father with a proper burial, they can break the curse they feel hangs over them. But the dangerous desert has other plans.

Pros

  • The lush prose adds beauty to a bleak setting.
  • The Chinese symbolism in a typical American place brings intimacy to the epic story.

Cons

  • Some parts of the narrative stretch believability.

Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing

Setting: 1800s -1900s Ghana to America

Two baby girls are born in different villages in Ghana. They share a mother, but they don’t know it, and they’re both destined to live very different lives. One marries an Englishman and enjoys comforts at the Cape Coast Castle.

The other is captured and enslaved in that very same home. Homegoing follows the intertwining lives of the sisters and their descendants, and how the legacy of slavery affects those who have followed.

Pros

  • Generations of voices transform the book into a rich tapestry.
  • The scope of the story is astounding.

Cons

  • The shifting narrative makes it hard to connect with the characters.

The Water Dancer By Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water Dancer: A Novel

Setting: 199th Century America

Born into slavery, Hiram Walker’s mother was taken from him at a young age. His memories of her were taken as well, but in turn, Hiram gains a strange new power.

When that same power saves his life, Hiram starts on a journey to escape from slavery and find the family he’s left behind.

Pros

  • The story of The Water Dancer sparks the imagination.
  • A poetic writing style builds the magic into the narrative.

Cons

  • The middle part of the novel lags.

Lincoln In The Bardo By George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel

Setting: 19th Century America

The Civil War is in its early days, and the young son of Abraham Lincoln is ill. When Willie Lincoln passes away, he’s buried in a Georgetown cemetery, and mourned by the nation.

But Willie is not yet fully gone. Instead, he’s occupying a world between reality and death, where ghosts talk, and spirits complain. Trapped in this in-between, known as the Bardo, a fight begins for the soul of Willie Lincoln.

Pros

  • An imaginative way to explore a historical setting.
  • Flashes of humor brighten a grim narrative.

Cons

  • The experimental style will be off-putting for many readers.

Things Fall Apart By Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart

Setting: 19th Century Nigeria

Okonkwo is a powerful Igbo warrior until the arrival of the Europeans shakes the structure of the land. With British colonizers building their own systems of power, Okonkwo finds not just his social standing threatened, but his entire way of life.

Exploring how the establishment of the Europeans devastated the social structure of pre-colonial Africa, Things Fall Apart is a classic of historical fiction.

Pros

  • The Igbo setting offers an insight into an often overlooked way of life.
  • An unsentimental tone carries the story.

Cons

  • There isn’t exactly much of a plot.

The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad (Pulitzer Prize Winner) (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel

Setting: 19th Century America

Cora is enslaved on a cotton plantation in Georgia, desperately alone after her mother escaped. The African community treats her as an outcast and with womanhood approaching, Cora knows soon she’ll be in even more danger.

When Ceaser, a new slave, arrives, Cora grabs her chance to escape. What follows is the long, painful, and dangerous road to freedom.

Pros

  • The novel recreates the pain and terror of life in the antebellum era.
  • The tension never lets up as you journey through the country.

Cons

  • The underground reality is presented as fact, not metaphor, which adds an unexpected touch of fantasy.

Cold Mountain By Charles Frazier

Cold Mountain: 20th Anniversary Edition

Setting: 19th Century America

Inman is a confederate soldier fighting in a war he doesn’t believe in. When the opportunity arises, he deserts the army, determined to trek home to Cold Mountain where his love Ada is living.

The journey is fraught with danger, especially as soldiers hunt down deserters. Meanwhile, Ada struggles to survive on her Cold Mountain farm after the death of her father.

Pros

  • The alternating stories of Ada and Inman weave a tale of love and danger.
  • The vivid descriptions bring the bleak setting to life.

Cons

  • Well researched, some of the terminologies are confusing.

Pachinko By Min Jin Lee

Pachinko

Setting: 20th Century Korea

As a teenager, Sunja falls in love with a stranger in her seashore village. The two create a close bond, and Sunja finds herself pregnant. But the wealthy stranger is married, so Suja refuses his offer of payment.

Instead, she marries a gentle minister visiting from Japan. This decision ripples through the ages, and Pachinko majestically charts how Sunja’s decision affects four generations of the family.

Pros

  • An immersive tale of choice, destiny, and random acts of history.
  • The prose is beautifully written and adds intimacy to the sprawling story.

Cons

  • It’s a long book that can be hard to keep track of.

A Gentleman In Moscow By Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel

Setting: 20th Century Russia

Count Alexander Rostov has always lived a life of luxury. But when the Bolsheviks take charge of Moscow, he finds himself on trial, forced to defend his riches.

Determined to be a drain on society, Rostov is sentenced to imprisonment in a hotel. Life in the hotel seems tough at first, away from the comforts he’s accustomed to. But soon, Rostov starts to appreciate his limited lifestyle.

Pros

  • Despite the grim setting, the novel is funny and uplifting.
  • The Count is a charming companion.

Cons

  • The story is slow in places.

The Pull Of The Stars By Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars: A Novel

Setting: 20th Century Ireland

Outside the hospital, war is tearing Ireland apart. But locked inside a quarantined maternity ward, Nurse Julia Power and her patients are facing a different kind of trouble. A strange new flu is circulating, and several expecting mothers have become afflicted.

Life on the ward is tough, and the arrival of two new helpers adds new tensions to the small group. But in the darkness, can these women find hope?

Pros

  • A story of survival that stirs the soul.
  • The days in the hospital are intense and the details grip the reader.

Cons

  • The descriptions of hardships are brutal at times.

The Buddha In The Attic By Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic (Pen/Faulkner Award - Fiction)

Setting: 20th Century America

A boat from Japan arrives in San Francisco, bringing with it a group of Japanese women destined to become wives.

From here, we follow the lives of these women as they adapt to life in their new homes, raise children, and try to prepare for the looming threat of war.

Pros

  • The powerful descriptions help even the smallest details of the plot come to life.
  • Told through the eyes of many women, culture is represented as a universal experience that nevertheless changes and mutates.

Cons

  • There is no traditional plot.

The Circus Train By Amita Parikh

The Circus Train

Setting: 20th Century Europe

The World of Wonders is an enchanting traveling circus that explores Europe via a luxury train. Lena Papadopoulos is the daughter of the World of Wonders star illusionist, but wheelchair-bound, she’s yet to find her place in the company.

Lena dreams of science, but as war spreads across Europe, everyone finds their lives disrupted. If Lena wants to regain the comfort of her youth, she’ll need to start believing in magic.

Pros

  • The magic of the circus is beautifully contrasted with the realities of war.
  • The scope of the story is impressive.

Cons

  • The ambitious plot is packed full.

All The Light We Cannot See By Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel

Setting: 20th Century Germany and France

Marie-Laure lives with her father, and despite her blindness, she gets by with touch and memory. When war breaks out, the two are forced to move to the coastal town of Saint-Malo.

Werner is a German orphan with a skill for technology. Working for the German army, he travels across Europe tracking enemy signals. As Werner draws closer to Saint-Malo, the two narratives are destined to intertwine.

Pros

  • Morally complex, it causes you to question your beliefs.
  • The world of Marie-Laure is intensely described and engagingly real.

Cons

  • The moving narrative can be difficult to track.

The English Patient By Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient: Man Booker Prize Winner

Setting: 20th Century Italy

A man lies burned in a hospital bed in Italy. No one knows who he is or where he came from. Instead, they know him simply as “the English patient”.

In the tumultuous last weeks of World War II, the English Patient is at the center of a swirling storm of hope, fear, and betrayal. His slow recovery seems like a hint of rescue, but things are not quite as they seem.

Pros

  • An introspective look at what identity is and how it is constantly in flux.
  • The prose is elegant, even in a painful setting.

Cons

  • Leaping from perspective to perspective, it can be difficult to follow who is speaking.

Atonement By Ian McEwan

Atonement: A Novel

Setting: 20th Century England

Briony has a powerful imagination and a habit of letting it run wild. On one hot summer’s day, it just might get her into trouble.

When Briony witnesses something she doesn’t quite understand, a mixture of imagination and naivety leads to a terrible accusation.

The effects of Briony’s statement reverberate throughout the years, as the peaceful days of summer give way to war.

Pros

  • The tensions are palpable thanks to McEwan’s poetic writing.
  • It’s impossible not to get wrapped up in the characters.

Cons

  • There are no happy endings to be found.

The Book Thief By Mark Zusak

The Book Thief

Setting: 20th Century Germany

A foster child living in Nazi Germany, Louise Meminger falls in love with the power of books. She steals them whenever she can, especially the books the Nazi guards are trying to destroy.

It isn’t the only secret she keeps from the Nazis. In the basement of her house hides her Jewish neighbor. However, in a novel narrated by Death, the risk of discovery is always lurking at the edges.

Pros

  • A completely new take on a well-worn time period.
  • The lack of sentimentality keeps the story engaging.

Cons

  • Written for younger readers.

Number The Stars By Lois Lowry

Number the Stars: A Newbery Award Winner

Setting: 20th Century Denmark

The presence of the war is inescapable in Denmark. Even 10-year-old Annemarie can sense that something bad is happening. But for all of Annemarie’s struggles, it’s nothing compared to what her Jewish friend Ellen is going through.

Ellen’s life is in danger, but is there anything Annemarie can do to help? Written for children, Number the Stars is poignant and affecting.

Pros

  • A tricky subject is tackled delicately for young readers.
  • The child’s perspective makes a bleak story easier to handle.

Cons

  • The story is universal, but the writing is aimed at children.

The Night Watchman By Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman: Pulitzer Prize Winning Fiction

Setting: 20th Century America

A new “emancipation” bill is making its way through Congress. The bill threatens disaster for the Native American people, as it sets out to destroy their rights and identity.

For members of the reservation community, life is hard enough already. In fighting for his way of life, and for his right to life itself, Chippewa Council member Thomas Wazhashk finds himself embroiled in the fray.

Pros

  • Partly based on a true story, it gives a voice to those who are often unheard.
  • The mix of spiritual and mundane adds a fresh touch.

Cons

  • Uneven pacing.

The Four Winds By Kristin Hannah

The Four Winds: A Novel

Setting: 20th Century America

It’s 1934, and the boom times of the Jazz Age have faded into memory. Elsa thought she’d found her place in the world, but now her marriage is strained, her family is hungry, and her farm is cracked and dying.

She faces a heartbreaking choice. Stay on the farm and hope life will get better, or uproot her entire life for the promise of California?

Pros

  • The book gives a human face to the struggles of the Dust Bowl era.
  • It’s not a comfortable read, but that discomfort gives it power.

Cons

  • A bleak read.

The Mountains Sing By Que Mai Phan Nguyen

The Mountains Sing

Setting: 20th Century Vietnam

When the Communist government instigated Land Reform in north Vietnam, Tran Dieu Lan was forced to leave her home with her six children.

Decades later, her granddaughter Huong is coming of age in Ha Noi, as the terror of the Vietnam war grips the nation. While Huong battles with her place in society, her family heads to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Pros

  • The prose has a poetic feel that lifts the novel into Vietnamese tradition.
  • The vast scope and differing perspectives help create a rounded picture of a country suffering through a hugely turbulent time.

Cons

  • The moving perspective can create a disjointed effect.

My Brilliant Friend By Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend: A Novel (Neapolitan Novels, 1)

Setting: 20th Century Italy 

It’s the 1950s in Naples, and Elena is the smartest girl in her class. Until Lila comes along. Lila is angry and argumentative, but she’s also razor-sharp and devastatingly clever. The two become firm friends as well as rivals.

But Naples is still feeling the effects of the war, and old rivalries have a habit of rearing their heads. The girls must find their own way of getting by.

Pros

  • The lead girls are complex characters.
  • Tensions simmer throughout the background.

Cons

  • Originally published in Italian, the novel offers little background to the historical events.

Buyer’s Guide For Historical Fiction Books

Historical fiction is an expansive genre, and a difficult one to get started in. Not sure if historical fiction is right for you? Try these tips to find the perfect book.

Choose A Time Period

Many of us choose historical fiction to learn more about a period of time.

It could be what life was like for those living in ancient civilizations far removed from ours, or events of the past century that still seem to touch our lives (and everything in between).

When choosing historical fiction, one of the best ways to start looking is by period.

Choose A Perspective

Just one year in time can offer a whole new experience depending on where you are in the world. The 19th Century was different for people living in America, Britain, China…

When choosing a historical fiction novel, think about the setting and perspective you want to discover.

Choose A Style

Historical fiction is a genre of two halves. On the one hand, historical fiction can be a light read that offers us an exciting connection with our ancestors.

On the other hand, there’s no escaping that historical fiction often deals with the darkest periods for humanity.

When choosing historical fiction, consider what style of story you want to read. Are you looking for hope? Humor? Or do you want reality with no holds barred? 

Final Thoughts

Historical fiction is a sweeping genre that covers everything from the first days of humanity to events that almost feel recent. For many readers, the joy of historical fiction is in gaining an insight into the past.

Good historical fiction lifts off the page. You just need to close your eyes to discover the sights, sounds and smells of a time long past. There’s a world of good historical fiction out there, just waiting to be discovered.

Whether you want to dive right back to the times of the Bible with a book such as The Red Tent, or if you’d rather take a look at more recent history and how it still plays a role in our lives with a book such as My Brilliant Friend.

Historical fiction is also a genre with a lot of different voices. It can be humorous, in a book like The Emperor’s Babe. Uplifting and hopeful, like A Gentleman in Moscow.

Startlingly real, like Beloved, and even strangely magical, as seen in One Hundred Years Of Solitude. I hope you can get swept away into the world of the past with the help of this guide to the best historical fiction!

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Historical Fiction?

Historical fiction is generally recognized as books set at least 60 years before their time of writing, but this isn’t a set definition.

For many, historical fiction is any book set in a time that isn’t contemporary to the writer!

Where Do I Start With Historical Fiction?

Historical fiction is a massive genre, encompassing many types of work. Consider the setting and time period you’d like to read about, and then look for books that explore your interest.

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Noah Burton