Do you know what the difference between average fiction and a phenomenal literary masterpiece is?
Fantastic literary books aren’t just a read for a few hours but they contain a deeper message that can make you think for a long time.
These extraordinary works aren’t just entertaining but they also address key themes or essential topics of their time.
While many classic novels are literary masterpieces, there are plenty more recent fiction works that blend story, plot and character development in a way that you won’t be able to put these books down.
From Zusaks’ historical story of “The Book Thief” to Margret Atwood’s masterpiece “The Handmaid’s Tale”, if you love a meaningful story that goes deeper, then explore these 48 amazing literary fiction novels.
Best 48 Literary Books Of All Time
In 1939 Nazi Germany, death was so close that you can almost touch it.
When Liesel Meminger and her brother are taken by their mother to stay with a foster family, tragedy strikes.
Only the discovery of a book can help Liesel through this difficult time, and it won’t be the last book that she is tempted to steal.
- This is a well-written historical novel set in one of the most challenging times of history.
- The plot itself is magical but it is more suitable for young adults.
Themes: historic fiction, Nazi fiction, YA fiction
Published in 1952, John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” has become a religious and philosophical masterpiece that is respected all around the world.
The story follows wealthy Adam Trask who is struggling with his brother and his twin sons. The novel is a modern reflection of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.
“East of Eden” is part of classic literature that should be on everyone’s bookshelf.
- This is a thought-provoking and compelling classical masterpiece that reflects on a truly mythical story.
- In the fashion of true literary genius, Steinbeck’s novel is a long read.
Themes: Eden, bible, biblical, contemporary religion
This beautiful story follows Dinah, the daughter of Jacob who is well known for his role in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.
Dinah gives us a unique perspective of what it means to live in a patriarchal society in ancient times.
She reflects on the struggles and little glimpses of hope that Hebrew life has to offer.
In the Bible, Dinah is a silent character who only observes her father and his tragic story. Anita Diamant gives her a voice to show what Dinah experienced.
- This literary work published in 1997 is an inspiring voice for women.
- As a true literary masterpiece, this book has relatively long chapters.
Themes: religious fiction, Genesis, Jewish
Even if you don’t like Thomas Hardy’s poetry, “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” is one of the best English literature books in the world.
A young woman from a poor family seeks her fate when she discovers that she might be related to the d’Urbervilles family.
But Tess isn’t welcomed with open arms. When her estranged cousin destroys her reputation, she has to return to her old life but this is easier said than done.
The ghosts of the past always haunt us. Tess’ past hasn’t been forgotten, especially not by those who loved her most.
- This literary magnum opus from 1891 blends past and present beautifully well with deep, thinking characters.
- As a historical piece written over a hundred years ago, the writing style is more unusual.
Themes: historic fiction, female heroine, woman literature
A widow is forced to take in two tailors and a student who try to escape from caste violence in India in the mid-1970s.
But so many different characters living under one roof is challenging.
Mistry’s masterpiece explores the larger political landscape of India and how it affects individuals and their lives.
Beautiful and bleak, this epic novel blends despair and hope to create a character picture that is all too familiar to us, all too human.
- This insightful book has incredibly well-developed characters. It’s a work you won’t be able to put down.
- There is a lot of violence, torture and cruelty in this tragic novel.
Themes: India, caste system, politics, genocide
It is the early 1920s and Count Alexander Rostov is put under house arrest by the Bolsheviks. As an uncontrollable aristocrat, he is simply too dangerous to walk the streets of Moscow.
But Rostov can’t stay in his comfortable lodgings at a grand hotel, instead, he is forced to move to an old servant’s room right under the roof.
High up above the roofs of Moscow, Rostov watches Russia’s bloody history unfold and he can’t do anything about it but contemplate the purpose of the human species.
- This spectacular literary novel is an epic piece of literature that’s worth savoring word for word.
- The story of “A Gentleman in Moscow” is very pleasant but it is relatively complex.
Themes: Russia, Soviet fiction, Red Army
When it comes to an inheritance, nobody wants to lose out, including all the characters in Charles Dickens’ saga “Bleak House”.
In typical Dickensian style, Esther Summerson, John Jarndyce and the other characters in this fantastic book are all intertwined in an unexpected way.
Part of the classics, this fiction novel is a stark reminder of why it is so important to love and be loved in life before we depart from this world.
- Published in 1853, this Charles Dickens magnum opus is a timeless classic.
- The complexity of the characters and the extent of the story means that this is a book that you can literally get lost in.
Themes: Dickensian, greed, compassion
The Forsyte Saga is made up of three individual novels that Galsworthy published between 1906 and 1921.
The Forsyte family is a large upper-middle-class clan who is fully aware of their new fortunes.
This trilogy follows the story of the whole family and their rise to wealth and power at the end of the 18th Century.
Wealthy Galsworthy allowed a lot of his own experiences with money and financial opportunities to flow into his masterpiece trilogy.
But this is not just an epic family saga that gives us a glimpse into the movements of cash but it is also an amusing insight into England’s class system of the 18th and 19th Century.
- Galsworthy’s absolutely endless saga involves plenty of different characters who strive for more money and the false hope that it can make them happy.
- With the complexity of this epic book, it can be difficult to follow all the individuals speaking.
Themes: greed, financial fiction, Great War
The Le Cirque de Rêves is a colorful circus that only opens its doors at night but there is a new love blossoming behind the walls of this magical place.
Marco and Celia are magicians who compete for the favors of the crowds but their fates are always bound together when they are on stage.
Mysterious and seductive, their deep love binds them in a way that soon becomes dangerous.
- Despite its magical name, “The Night Circus” is not a fantasy novel but it goes much deeper than your traditional fiction.
- While Morgenstern’s world is well-structured, her characters feel a little flat and confusing sometimes.
Themes: circus, love, romance novel, mystery novel
“Frankenstein” is undoubtedly one of the most famous books of all time. Everyone knows the creation story of a hideous monster that desired to be human.
But it isn’t enough to have the appearance of a man. Being human means so much more than a body.
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece reminds us that no matter how much you try to integrate as an individual, society can still reject you on its own merits. And rejection can lead to anger, rage and revenge.
Shelley’s amazing masterpiece was so controversial at the time of publication, that she chose to tone down some of the violent elements in 1831.
- Originally known as “The Modern Prometheus”, Mary Shelley’s science fiction novel shocked and surprised people during her lifetime and a hundred years later.
- Although this is a must-have classic, Shelley’s writing style is different from contemporary fiction.
Themes: science fiction book, monster, social rules
Dorethea Brooke is a beautiful young woman who seeks to shower the world with good deeds. Innocence and purity personified, Ms. Brooke is a pious and devout woman.
But when she becomes convinced that Edward Casuabon is the right match for her, Dorothea ends up in an unhappy marriage.
“Middlemarch” is a wonderful insight into social conventions, hope and despair that lay so closely together.
While there is little chance for Dorothea, Tertius Lydgate might just have the answer to her prayers.
- This epic literary classic from George Eliot is one of the best character descriptions of a woman of her time.
- The length of the book can make the description of peasant lives very tedious at times.
Themes: English society, romance, marriage
After the mother of Gus Silva is murdered, he forms a close bond with the young Hallie Costa. Their relationship lasts a lifetime.
With plenty of ups and downs, Patry Francis explores the twists and turns of human bonds and how we can live through good and evil.
But it isn’t all lost. There is always hope for the future, especially when you have your soulmate right by your side.
- If you are looking for a true love story, then “The Orphans of Race Point” definitely keeps you hooked.
- The ending is a little bit disappointing.
Themes: love, romantic fiction, Portuguese American
Set among the anarchy of the great expansion of America towards the West, there are relentless tides of blood and death.
When a teenage boy crosses the Mexico-Texas border, he quickly finds himself between the rival clans of Indians and Americans.
- As part of the most essential works of American fiction “Blood Meridian” explores the deep savagery and individual fates of individuals who lived during the time when America grew.
- There is a lot of brutality, blood and violence in this book.
Themes: historical, philosophical, native Americans, wild west, cowboys
“The Alchemist” is one of the bestselling allegorical novels of our time.
It tells the story of a young shepherd from Andalusia who goes out to find a treasure in the Egyptian desert.
But his journey is much harder than he had expected and the characters he meets on the way just seem to confuse him more.
Eventually, he realizes that the treasure he has been looking for all this time wasn’t far at all.
While this is a much shorter literary work than many other epic novels on our list, Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece is simple yet deep in meaning.
- This book is extremely easy to read and follow but it still has a message that leaves you pondering the meaning of life.
- “The Alchemist” is very simple in its writing style.
Themes: philosophy, personal journey, self help, quick read
Nathan Price is a preacher who plans to civilize the locals of the Belgian Congo.
After he moved his whole family, including wife and daughters, to the wilderness, he realizes that they are not prepared for the realities of post-colonial Africa.
There isn’t just much to learn about the continent’s different cultures but also rituals and traditions. The whole experience transforms everyone in the family forever.
- If you are looking for an epic adventure novel, then “The Poisonwood Bible” is a must-read.
- Barbara Kingsolver has a fantastic writing style but simple things are often described in an overly complex way.
Themes: Belgian Congo, African continent, African fiction, corruption, politics, colonialism
Cora is a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. She finds life especially hard because she is an outcast among her fellow slaves until the arrival of Caesar.
The new arrival from Virginia opens up the doors to new opportunities for Cora. He tells her of the underground railroad which could be their escape to freedom.
But the path to their new life is covered in blood. Cora and Caesar embark on a wild run away from the clutches of plantation life to the free lands of the North.
- This is a truly stunning novel about a classic topic: slavery.
- While “The Underground Railroad” received a lot of book prizes, it doesn’t have the great substance of some other slavery fiction novels.
Themes: alternative history, slavery, slave trail, black Americans
In a remote Polish village, a woman investigates the mysterious murders of animals and men. Obsessed with William Blake and astronomy, she is set to find the culprits for these crimes.
While Tokarczuk is well known for her bestselling novel “Flights”, this epic suspense thriller in Polish fashion is no less enticing for readers.
- Tokarczuk is well-known for her references to essential topics, such as the disappearance of vital communities and nature.
- In her usual style, Tokarczuk isn’t always easy to read but her characters are resolved in the end.
Themes: animal rights, polish fiction, folk mystery, hunting
Roy and Celestial are newlyweds who appear to be the typical American couple. She is a rising star in the art world, while he climbs the career ladder as an Executive.
When Roy is wrongly imprisoned, the couple’s life changes and their marriage quickly crumbles.
This popular novel portraying a seemingly-perfect marriage is a firm staple of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club Recommendations.
- “An American Marriage” is a truly addictive read that is difficult to put down once you start.
- Although this fiction book is a good representation of an “average” American couple, some scenes are a little too melodramatic.
Themes: race, privilege, wealth, marriage
When the first shooting stars appear in the night sky, nobody knows what will happen just a few hours later.
But when a huge artificial cylinder drops onto an abandoned patch near London, curious locals are drawn to the object, just to discover that they are beset by Martians. Is mankind ready to fight back and survive this alien onslaught?
What makes H. G. Wells’ masterpiece so epic is that it was written in a semi-documentary style at a time when technology was still in its infancy.
- Not just an epic movie but “War of the Worlds” will always be an epic science fiction classic.
- With so many sci-fi novels around, this book can feel old-fashioned sometimes.
Themes: sci-fi literature, aliens, monsters, alien invasion
In 1818 Maryland, Frederick Douglass was born as a slave. All throughout his childhood, he was handed down to several enslavers, from field to city and different plantations.
Douglass experienced an immense amount of cruelty but he also saw how his fellow slaves treated each other.
When he escapes the life of slavery, Douglass swore to himself to change society and he pledged the rest of his life to the abolition of slavery.
His memoir was part of his life-long quest to show American society that there are different ways to live together in a civilized manner.
During his lifetime, Douglass rewrote several parts of his life, so while much of his work is a true representation of the time, there are also fictional elements in this narrative.
- This is not your standard slavery literature but Douglass takes you deep down into the pits of American history.
- While it isn’t light as a topic, the book itself is a bit too short.
Themes: anti-slavery movement, slavery, authentic history
Sligo is riddled with famine and violence when a young Irish man escapes misery and seeks a new life in Missouri.
When he meets another emigrant, he is entangled in a lifelong bond that leads him West.
He joins a fierce army that lays waste to Indian settlements and lands.
- This is a beautifully intense novel exploring gender, race and the ever-present desire for survival.
- If you are not a Western fan, then this book can be a too-long read.
Themes: Civil War, Indian wars, Western
While Neil Gaiman is best known for his Sandman comics, he has also written a great number of other amazing books, including “Caroline”.
Young Caroline walks through a mysterious door that lands her in a better version of her own home but nothing is quite as Caroline knows it.
She has another mother and father who don’t want Caroline to grow up. She has to use all her courage to escape the clutches of her controlling parents and return to the life she knew.
Perfect for young readers between 8 and 12, “Caroline” has the same sense of spooky horror as you get from the Sandman books.
- Neil Gaiman is a fantastic writer and “Caroline” is definitely a true reading tonic after a stressful day.
- Although the story is wonderful, the fantasy setting feels too childish.
Themes: children’s novel, young adult, young horror, fantasy novel
Rachel grows up in a tight-knit community among Jewish refugees but she wants more than this settled life. She wants adventure and exploration.
When Rachel is married to a widower with three children, her world seems to get even smaller but fate turns for this young woman when her husband dies.
Soon after, his nephew Frederick arrives from France to sort out the estate. He is dashing, handsome and everything that Rachel had always wanted before her marriage.
- While the plot sounds chick-lit at a first glance, there is so much more depth and meaning to this book than is obvious at first.
- The main characters feel distant and not quite believable.
Themes: Jewish, historical fiction, romance, love story
Stiegg Larsson is a prolific writer and his epic series “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” didn’t just make him famous among film fans but also in literary circles.
Lisbeth Salander is a young hacker who gets involved with radical journalist Mikael Blomkvist when they are looking to solve a range of mysterious murders connected to Sweden’s most wealthy families.
Larsson wrote an entire “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” saga which also includes “The Girl who played with Fire”, “The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest”, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”, “The Girl who takes an Eye for an Eye”, “The Girl who lived twice” and “The Girl in the Eagle’s Talons”.
- Gripping and suspenseful, this book is well-written with plenty of twists and turns throughout the story.
- While the plot itself is fantastic, the characters lack depth.
Themes: Sweden, Swedish fiction, suspense fiction, Scandi noir
Harry Potter is one of the best-known fictional characters around the world. His magical adventures have inspired generations to read and dream.
“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is the fourth book in the J.K. Rowling Harry Potter series. With its large number of pages, this book is a turning point in the wizard’s story.
The entire Harry Potter saga also includes “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”.
- Harry Potter’s magic draws children and adults into his wonderful world.
- While you will encounter some magic, there are a few too many realistic moments in this Happy Potter novel.
Themes: magic fiction, fantasy book, YA fiction
Sheba is a middle-aged teacher at a comprehensive school in London. When she starts an affair with one of her young students, her life turns upside down.
But what makes “Notes on a Scandal” isn’t just the beautiful descriptions of Sheba’s life between loneliness and class but that the narrative is told through the eyes of obsessive Barbara, a fellow teacher.
- This fantastic book contains some amazing storytelling.
- While the story explores Sheba’s loneliness, there could be a little more depth to the plot.
Themes: affair, school, teacher, high school
A gay man’s life is overshadowed by abuse but deep friendship and love save him from the brink of despair.
While this may sound like a story we heard many times before, the way Hanya Yanagihara tells it is absolutely outstanding.
- “A Little Life” is such a heartwarming and emotional story that tears are almost guaranteed.
- Some elements of the book feel repetitive.
Themes: abuse, gay, melodrama, tragedy
Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” was turned into a film and a popular TV series but nothing compares to the original book.
A woman disappears and although it seems fairly obvious who did it, nothing is quite as it appears.
- This impactful thriller combines charming flair with greater character depth.
- The ending is very unexpected.
Themes: toxic marriage, social insecurity, economic decline, psychological thriller
Danny Torrance is a special five-year-old boy who sees the dark forces around his father Jack Torrance when the whole family moves into the Overlook Hotel during the winter.
Dark and abandoned, the hotel lies among the snowy mountains but not everyone can handle so much loneliness.
Jack Torrance has a history of alcoholism and mental health problems, so as time passes with the winter storms coming in, he falls back into old habits that quickly take a sinister turn.
In addition to the amazing film “The Shining”, King also wrote a sequel to this book, known as “Doctor Sleep”.
- “The Shining” is undoubtedly the novel that made Stephen King famous beyond country borders.
- The book is definitely different from the film.
Themes: violence, mania, children, bestseller, king at his best
Arthur Dent believes that this Thursday is just like any other Thursday until his house gets completely obliterated.
Planet Earth is next to make way for a hyperspace express route. After Arthur’s best friend announces that he is an alien, it all gets a lot worse.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” follows Arthur’s adventures and his unusual travel companions around the Galaxy.
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” saga also includes “Restaurant at the End of the Universe”, “Life, the Universe and Everything”, “So long, and Thanks for all the Fish”, “Mostly Harmless” and “And another Thing…”
- This book is such a fun and light-hearted adventure story that you don’t want to put it down.
- The end is a very obvious cliffhanger that makes you want to read the sequels.
Themes: adventure, universe, space, interstellar travel, science fiction, funny
Jack Gladney is a chairman and creator of Hitler studies at his local college, when a chemical spill from a nearby train turns his life upside down.
After long consideration, he is forced to flee his home and his normal life with his family to face his greatest fear: death.
- This provocative social satire is great fun to read but it also has a deeply poignant message.
- While the beginning starts off great, some passages of the book are a little bit lengthy.
Themes: consumerism, media saturation, modern fiction, dystopian
With its amazing success in recent years, it is hard to believe that “The Great Gatsby” only sold a few thousand copies in the first year after it was published.
Gatsby lives a luxurious life in his huge Long Island mansion. While he hosts lavish parties with hundreds of people, nobody really knows how he made his fortune.
Although Gatsby enjoys his lifestyle, he only has eyes for Daisy Buchanan but his deep love for her soon ends in tragedy.
The precise, cynical portrait of the classic American Dream is what makes this book stand out from so many others.
- The film adaptation is a lot more glamorous than the book.
Themes: classic literature, wealth, money, American Jazz Age, tragedy, love affair
“Wuthering Heights” is one of the greatest romantic novels of the 19th Century. It follows the story of Cathy and Heathcliff who have a deeply entwined bond.
But despite their connection, Cathay chooses to marry a suitor with wealth and a large estate.
Heathcliff struggles with Cathy’s decision and he is ready for revenge.
With the beautiful setting of the Yorkshire Moors, this dark novel has all the complex characters and a finale that makes you want to read more.
- The character development in “Wuthering Heights” is absolutely superb.
- The story is incredibly dark and suspenseful, so this isn’t really a light read.
Themes: romance, tragedy, love and hate, gothic story
Cloud Atlas is not just a collection of short stories but each story is neatly interwoven with the other to create an artistic whole.
Starting with the journal of an explorer in the mid-19th Century, the plot continues with a Belgian composer and investigative journalist.
Traveling through space and time, David Mitchell’s narrative is unusual in so many ways.
- Entertaining and insightful, this novel is an absolute must-read for everyone.
- The story jumps around a lot in space and time, so it can be confusing to follow.
Themes: science fiction novel, sci-fi book, short story collections
Nick Guest is a young man in his early twenties when he moves into the attic room of the rich Feddens.
Not knowing anything about money or politics, Nick soon becomes entangled in Feddens’ world.
But he knows he can never belong to the world of the rich and famous. He has to follow his own path to fulfill his passions and desires.
- Beautifully poetic and sensitive, Hollinghurst just has a writing style that is so engaging and unique.
- Although the satirical elements of the book are great fun, there doesn’t appear to be enough depth to the characters.
Themes: Booker Prize winner, bestselling novel, political novel, upper class, Margaret Thatcher, satire, comedy
Patrick Bateman is a high-flying businessman in New York City who has a refined taste for wine and equally high-flying friends who share the luxury with him.
But something is stirring in Bateman that doesn’t fit into a neatly cut suit. His hedonistic passions soon get out of control and his pristine, white apartment turns into a murder scene.
If you want to find out more about Patrick Bateman’s backstory, then take a look at Bret Easton Ellis’ other novels, especially “Less than Zero”.
- This haunting book is Ellis’ third novel where he follows a variety of characters who emerged out of the American 1980s high society.
- The story gets extremely disturbing sometimes, so be prepared for some violence.
Themes: Murderous, 1980s, psychological thriller, bloody, misogyny,
The action-packed story of Dune follows Paul Atreides who is an amazingly talented young man who needs to travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe.
With the future of his people at stake, Paul has to fight evil forces with minimal means. But with just the bare minimum, we often unfold our greatest potential.
Dune is considered one of the best sci-fi novels of all time.
Frank Herbert’s masterpiece was the forerunner to many other classic sci-fi adventures, such as Star Wars and Neuromancer.
- This isn’t just a well-written story but it was also a masterpiece that laid the foundation for many other science fiction epics.
- Some of the writing may feel like typical science fiction cliche to modern readers.
Themes: epic sci-fi, bestselling science fiction novel, movie book
“Pride and Prejudice” is probably one of the best-known books in the world. It shaped much of our understanding of 19th Century society.
Mr. Darcy is a stark aristocrat, while Elizabeth Bennet is a headstrong young lady, so they both have to take their time to face prejudice and their own pride before they allow the love between them to grow.
- This is Jane Austen’s most popular novel with plenty of life lessons and laughs.
- As an English classic, this isn’t a typical romantic love story.
Themes: must-read classic, true love, 1813 original
Over the course of history, we have seen so many fantastic books. Many of these masterpieces have become stories that are deeply ingrained in our memory.
But not only classics, such as “War and Peace” or “Middlemarch”, shine a light on society, also contemporary literature picks up subjects that we should all think about.
From the disappearance of small communities to the climate crisis, true literary fiction explores the boundaries of what is possible and what mankind could achieve in the future.
Dive into our list of sweeping literary books and discover new horizons.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Most Read Fiction Book?
Published in 1997, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J. K. Rowling is the most read fiction book of all time.
What Is The Biggest Literary Masterpiece?
The biggest literary masterpiece of all time is “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy. While this phenomenal book isn’t an easy read, it blends a large number of themes, such as religion, aesthetics, philosophy and economics.