50 Best Historical Fiction Books of All Time
Travel back in time for mystery, romance, drama, and more with these historical fiction masterpieces. No time machine required!
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Historical flights of fancy
Who needs a time machine when you can pick up one of these incredible works of historical fiction? These novels will whisk you away to a completely different time and place, enveloping you in their realities and making you feel like you’re right there with the main characters. Not only are these books easy on the imagination and thoroughly entertaining, but they’re also often chock-full of relevant facts and figures about both the past and present. A genre that is both enjoyable and intellectual? We’ll take it. And bonus! Some of these books were written by the best female authors around.
From thought-provoking dramas and enthralling mysteries to dizzying romances and wild flights of fancy, this list offers something for every reader—and every mood. Warning: Once you start reading, you might not be able to pull yourself away. To round out your reading list, you’ll also want to take a look at these 100 books everyone should read in their lifetime.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
This novel, set in 18th-century Ghana, follows the story of two half sisters who’ve never met. One marries an Englishman and lives a luxurious life in the Cape Coast Castle, and the other is caught in a slave raid and ends up being sold into slavery from that very same castle. The book focuses on the theme of legacy as it follows eight generations of the half sisters’ descendants. But don’t just take our word on how moving and important Yaa Gyasi’s seminal work is: Homegoing was named one of Oprah’s Best Books of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book, and it also won the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award. By the way, these are the books you need to read to call yourself a book lover.
My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk mixes historical fiction, mystery, and art to create My Name Is Red, a novel set in 16th-century Istanbul. In this story, the Ottoman sultan has commissioned several talented artists to secretly contribute to a book celebrating his reign, and when one artist goes missing, the rest are accused of being involved in his murder. This IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner is both entertaining and informative. Looking to combine your love of literature and travel? Check out the 12 best cities in the world for book lovers.
War Trash by Ha Jin
This compelling novel explores the often overlooked experience of Chinese soldiers held in U.S. POW camps during the Korean War. It follows clerical officer Yu Yuan as he is taken prisoner by the United States and acts as an intermediary between his fellow prisoners and the American guards. The New York Times Book Review called it “nearly perfect,” so we’re sold! Here are more international fiction books that will help you feel connected with the world.
Property by Valerie Martin
Valerie Martin’s Property explores the horrors of slavery from the perspective of a slave owner. Manon Gaudet is the mistress of a Louisiana sugar plantation in 1828, where she chafes under the orders of her husband and becomes obsessed with her slave Sarah, who also has a bitter relationship with Manon’s husband. Toni Morrison called the novel a “fresh, unsentimental look at what slave-owning does to (and for) one’s interior life.” After reading this, take a look at these 15 essential books for understanding race relations in America.
The View From Castle Rock by Alice Munro
Do you love reading historical fiction but can’t find the time to dedicate to an entire novel? If this sounds like you, then Alice Munro’s collection of short stories in The View From Castle Rock is sure to become a personal favorite. The stories are a mix of historical and autobiographical fiction and are often fictionalized accounts of Munro’s life and family history. And if this isn’t enough to convince you to give this book a try, maybe Munro’s Nobel Prize in Literature will do the trick. Here are more of the best short books you’ll ever read.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow completely redefined historical fiction with Ragtime, which mixes both very real and very fictional characters into the landscape of early 20th-century New York. This winner of the National Book Critics Circle Awards, which was also selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best books of all time, is sure to engage your intellect while thoroughly entertaining you. Can you guess the most borrowed books in the history of the New York Public Library?
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
Ernest J. Gaines’ classic novel follows the story of Grant Wiggins, who returns to Jim Crow–era Louisiana to visit Jefferson, a man wrongly convicted of a crime who ends up on death row. Wiggins’ discussions with Jefferson—which cover a wide range of topics including race, discrimination, dignity, justice, and the human condition—make the book worthy of its critical acclaim. The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was described by the Chicago Tribune as “a book that will be read, discussed and taught beyond the rest of our lives.” For more illumination on this topic, watch these 12 documentaries about race.
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
While you may know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her 2013 novel Americanah or her 2014 non-fiction piece We Should All Be Feminists, her earlier historical fiction work Half of a Yellow Sun is just as evocative and engaging. A recipient of the Women’s Prize for Fiction “Winner of Winners” award, this novel is set during the Biafran War of the 1960s as Biafra attempts to create an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria.
Thebes at War by Naguid Mahfouz
Hailed as “the single most important writer in modern Arabic literature” by Newsday, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz recreates ancient Egypt’s triumphant defeat of Asiatic foreigners in northern Egypt in his novel Thebes at War. This book is filled not just with facts but also exciting action scenes, intense victories, and excruciating defeats to make for a thrilling and page-turning read. While your mind is on Africa, these are the most popular travel destinations on the continent.
Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann
Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann considered this retelling of the biblical story of Joseph as his magnum opus. Mann expounds on the story told in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, during which Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers yet eventually comes to prominence in Egypt. Joseph and His Brothers transports readers to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine as it follows the rise and fall of Joseph through four different parts. Check out these 24 surprising facts you never knew about the Bible.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Best Book of the Year Title by the New York Times Book Review and Wall Street Journal, and countless other awards, there’s no doubt that Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is an exciting and provocative read. The book follows the story of Cora and Caesar, two slaves who run away from their Georgia plantation using a not-quite-historically-accurate version of the underground railroad. As it changes between time period, location, and character perspective, The Underground Railroad takes readers on a wild ride. While this book is strictly adults-only, check out these 13 books to read to your kids about race.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
There’s a reason that Anthony Doerr’s World War II novel All The Light We Cannot See spent more than two and a half years on the New York Times Best Sellers List (in addition to winning a Pulitzer and being a finalist for the National Book Award, to boot). The story, which centers around the connection between a blind French girl and German boy and their journey through occupied France during World War II, is the perfect combination of fanciful and thrilling.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel’s reimagining of England in the 1520s and the lives of King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell is so creative and enthralling, it’s no surprise that Wolf Hall won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The themes of power, jealousy, religion, and lust are sure to make this a page-turner for any avid Tudor fan. Do you consider yourself a royals connoisseur? Test yourself and see if you know these 18 craziest conspiracy theories about the royal family.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
This historical epic by master of suspense Ken Follett centers around the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England, during the 12th century. The novel covers many real-life events, such as the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Thomas Becket, but focuses primarily on the Anarchy, the civil war that took place in England and Normandy between 1135 and 1153. FYI, this book was adapted into an eight-part miniseries, like these other popular movies that were first books.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
Talk about a historical novel with a twist. Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred tells the time-traveling story of Dana, a modern Black woman who is pulled from her home in California into the antebellum South, where she is a slave on the plantation of her ancestors. This book combines drama, suspense, and important lessons on the history of racism and discrimination in our country. Interested in learning more? Check out these 12 podcasts about race you need to hear.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
While Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is set during World War II, it’s not your typical war story. Instead, Hannah reimagines this volatile time from a female perspective, telling the story of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, as they separately navigate German-occupied France. Vianne gets her home requisitioned by a German captain and must make impossible choices in order to keep herself and her daughter alive. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Isabelle falls in love with Gaetan, who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France. But what happens when he betrays her? A deeply moving tale about the resilience of women, this novel has something for everyone.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
No book explains the power and importance of storytelling better than The Book Thief. Markus Zusak crafts a story set in Nazi Germany that follows Liesel Meminger, a girl who steals books to then share with her foster father, her neighbors, and the Jewish man hidden in her basement. Translated into 63 languages with more than 16 million copies sold, there’s no mystery as to why this story of perseverance, humanity, and literature became an international bestseller. The Book Thief also earned a spot on our list of 100 children’s books everyone should read in their lifetime.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander really has it all: history, romance, time travel. What more could you want from a historical epic? The novel follows Claire Randall, a former British combat nurse in 1945, who gets pulled into the world of war-torn Scotland in the 18th century. In addition to ensuring her survival, Claire must make a difficult choice between two very different men. This historical fantasy masterpiece was a #1 New York Times bestseller and the basis of a Starz original series adaptation.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
The Red Tent takes us back to biblical times, as Anita Diamant reinvents the biblical story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob who is just briefly hinted at in the Book of Genesis. This look at the world of ancient motherhood is not only passionate but also essential in offering a new view on biblical women’s lives. Speaking of biblical women, these are 9 things you didn’t know about the first mother, Eve.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
This novel, originally published in 1934, is written in the form of an autobiography from the perspective of the Roman emperor Claudius. The book spans a large breath of time, recounting the early years of the Roman Empire from Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC up to Caligula’s assassination in 41 AD. If you’re absolutely hooked after this first novel, we’ve got some good news for you: Graves continued the saga in the sequel Claudius the God, which covers the remaining period of the historic figure’s life.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Margaret Mitchell’s classic historical novel on our list. This Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of romance, survival, and the human spirit hardly needs any introduction. However, Gone with the Wind‘s depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era in the American South isn’t entirely accurate and is highly White-washed, which is why it’s also on this list of 13 beloved books that didn’t age well.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
While Margaret Atwood may have become a household name from her dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale, her 1996 historical novel Alias Grace should not be overlooked. Set in 1843 and based on the real life of Grace Marks, this book follows Grace after she is convicted of murdering her employer, housekeeper, and mistress. The issue? Grace claims she has no memory of that day. This historical thriller won the Canadian Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Don’t miss these other mysteries and thrillers you won’t be able to put down.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
There’s a reason why Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha was nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read. Both entertaining and extremely heartfelt, this novel follows the life of fictional geisha Nitta Sayuri and her story after being sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house in Kyoto, Japan; it’s set before, during, and after World War II. After you’re done reading, make sure to check out the 2005 film based on the novel, which won three Academy Awards.
The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory
Phillipa Gregory recreates the sex, scandal, and ambition of the Tudor court in The Other Boleyn Girl. The novel creates a fictionalized account of the life of Mary Boleyn, the sister of Anne. Very little is actually known about Mary, but in this novel, when she first arrives at the court of King Henry VIII, she catches the eye of the king and falls madly in love. What follows is a story of deceit, love, treachery, and competition. What the book lacks in historical accuracy it more than makes up for in absolute imagination. Read up on these real-life royal scandals throughout history that shocked the world.
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
This novel is for history and art lovers alike. Girl With a Pearl Earring was inspired by the 17th-century Johannes Vermeer painting of the same name. In this fantastical rendering, Chevalier invents the story of the relationship between the painter, the model, and the painting itself. The universal story of restraint, love, and womanhood makes it easy to see how it instantly became a #1 New York Times bestseller. Are you a self-proclaimed art critic? If so, check out these 10 secret messages hidden in world-famous paintings.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Another Pulitzer Prize-winning classic that deserves its rightful spot on our list, Toni Morrison’s Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave living in post-Civil War Ohio along with her daughter, her mother-in-law, and the spirit of her unnamed child who calls herself Beloved. This masterfully poetic work conjures the pain and brutality of slavery in such a way that all modern audiences can see the institution’s continuing effect on all of our lives.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This National Book Award finalist by Korean American author Min Jin Lee tells the story of four generations of a poor immigrant Korean family as they attempt to make a life for themselves in 20th-century Japan. The historical epic is perfect for anyone interested in character-driven novels about family, stereotypes, and the power to overcome. Looking for more recommendations? These are the 41 highest-rated books on Goodreads.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Amor Towles’ 2016 novel, set in Moscow during the Stalin era, tells the story of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who is sentenced to house arrest in a grand hotel by the Bolshevik tribunal. While Russian history unfolds outside his very hotel window, Rostov embarks on his own journey of emotional discovery from within the confines of the hotel walls. This elegant and finely constructed novel is sure to pull you away from the current realities of the world and take you to an era of both violence and refinement.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
In its simplest form, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a love story that follows the perilous journey of wounded soldier Inman as he returns from the Civil War to his sweetheart, Ada. However, like with most historical novels, there is more to this book than meets the eye. Cold Mountain addresses not just romance but also man’s relationship with nature, solitude, and perhaps most importantly, himself. Based on local history and stories from Frazier’s great-great-grandfather, this book is historically accurate without losing its emotional warmth. FYI, these are the top 10 books everyone lies about reading.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
While you’ve most likely have heard of the 1996 film version of The English Patient, which racked up an astounding nine Academy awards, the book itself by Michael Ondaatje is also highly decorated. Winner of the Booker Prize, the Governor General’s Award, and the Golden Man Booker, this 1992 novel tells the story of four unlikely characters brought together during the Italian Campaign of World War II. Secrets, romance, and mystery abound. Speaking of movies based on books, these are 12 books you really should read before you watch their movies.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
This circus spectacular tells the story of Jacob Jankowksi, a 90-plus-year-old living in a nursing home, as he recalls his early years of being part of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth during the Great Depression. Cue an eclectic cast of characters in the traveling circus, including Marlena, a stunning equestrian star; August, an animal trainer and Marlena’s husband; and Rosie, an absolutely untrainable elephant. The bond created between both the human and animal characters in the circus is so tangible that it will be nearly impossible for you to put this book down once you start reading.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
At its core, Atonement is a story about a mistake and its aftermath. The novel centers around young Briony Tallis and the effects of an accusation she makes against Robbie Turner, the Tallis family’s housekeeper and a close friend of Cecilia, Briony’s older sister. Atonement is divided into three parts and a postscript, spanning 1935 England, World War II-era England and France, and present-day England. The 2007 movie adaptation features Keira Knightly, James McAvoy, and a young Saoirse Ronan as Briony. Here are another 50 books to read before you’re 50.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
This New York Times bestseller is the perfect mix of history and romance. It focuses on Tom Sherbourne, a returning World War I soldier, his wife Isabel, and the heartbreak and difficulty that comes along with Isabel’s inability to get pregnant. When a boat washes up on their deserted shores containing a dead man and a living baby, it seems like a gift from God…but is it? This novel was adapted into a 2016 film starring Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Help centers on the lives of Aibileen and Minny, two Black maids, and Skeeter, a White recent graduate who is deemed a social failure, as they separately and jointly navigate the tense social sphere of Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. When these three unlikely companions team up to write a tell-all tale about what it’s truly like to work as a Black maid in the Jim Crow South, things change forever. The Help became an instant classic, and despite controversy over the portrayal of the characters in relation to the author herself, it is still a book from which much can be learned. Speaking of controversy, these are the books that were banned the decade you were born.
Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin retells the story of the Trojan War and the founding of Rome from a staunchly feminist perspective. Lavinia, King Latinus’ daughter, is the woman that Aeneas is destined to marry in Virgil’s epic The Aeneid. Yet in the original epic, Lavinia doesn’t have a single line despite being a major part of Aeneas’ destiny. Le Guin changes that in Lavinia, giving voice to the female character who went without one for so long.
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
From the New York Times best-selling author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings comes a creative story about the imagined marriage of Jesus Christ. Ana is an ambitious and forward-thinking woman hailing from a wealthy family with ties to the ruler of Galilee. When she meets broad-minded 18-year-old Jesus, her life changes forever—and so does his. If you’re interested in biblical history, check out these 12 common phrases you never knew were from the Bible.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
This novel, set in England in 1666, has some very surprising ties to our current realities. The story follows the spread of a plague from London to an isolated village. Anna Frith, a handmaid, becomes an unlikely healer and heroine in this story of perseverance and the human spirit. What happens when a year of horrors becomes one’s year of wonders? Year of Wonders was chosen as both a New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
This New York Times bestseller chronicles the love affair between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, and is told from the latter’s perspective. After a whirlwind courtship and engagement in Chicago, the two set sail for Paris in the 1920s. However, as the Jazz Age heats up and Ernest pours himself into his work, their relationship goes through its ups and downs. A tale of love, betrayal, and romance, The Paris Wife is as fresh and relevant as ever.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver invents the story of the Prices, a missionary family who relocate from the U.S. state of Georgia to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo in 1959. However, when they arrive, they realize that the village is not what they were expecting. Set against the tumultuous historical backdrop of the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, and the CIA coup to install his replacement, The Poisonwood Bible tells the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hopeful tale of three generations living in postcolonial Africa.
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
This 19th-century classic revisits England in the Middle Ages. In his epic, Scott delves into the conflicts between the Crown and the Barons, the Norman overlords and the conquered Saxons, and Richard the Lionheart and his brother Prince John. Ivanhoe, and Scott himself, is credited with increasing interest in chivalric romance as a literary category. If you’re in a Middle Ages state of mind after reading Ivanhoe, take a look at the 30 most gorgeous medieval castles in the world.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
History and future dystopia meet in Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle. This historically grounded, futuristic retelling of the world 15 years after World War II describes what it would have looked like if the Axis powers—specifically, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany—had won the war. This alternate history won the Hugo Award for Best Novel and was later adapted into a television series.
The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki
Allison Pataki illustrates the love affair between Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, former Duchess of Bavaria Elisabeth “Sisi,” in The Accidental Empress. The novel follows Sisi’s attempt to win over the love of her people, her husband, and the entire world. A New York Times bestseller, the Romantic Times referred to this book as “intricately plotted…engrossing and incredibly real.” These are 10 of the strongest female characters of all time.
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross
This novel, based on the medieval legend of Pope Joan, brings the Middle Ages to life in their full color and glory. The book tells the story of Joan, a brilliant young woman who rebels against the strict patriarchy of the Dark Ages by disguising herself as her late brother and working her way up the monastery ranks as one “Brother John Anglicus.” Joan—disguised as John—eventually makes her way to Rome, where she becomes entangled in a web of passion, power, and politics.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
This experimental novel begins with a historical fact: the tragic death of Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son who fell ill and died at just 11 years of age. From there, however, Saunders takes readers on an imaginative and spiritual journey as Willie’s soul is placed in the “bardo,” which in the Tibetan tradition is the intermediate place between life and rebirth. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Lincoln in the Bardo was met with critical acclaim from scores of national outlets. And as if you needed another reason to try out this novel, the audiobook features a star-studded cast of narrators including Nick Offerman, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, and more. Lincoln in the Bardo is just one of the 30 best audiobooks to listen to right now.
The Tutor by Andrea Chapin
Calling all Shakespeare lovers! Andrea Chapin imagines a relationship between schoolmaster William Shakespeare and his student, 31-year-old widow Katharine de L’Isle. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of England in the late 16th century and Queen Elizabeth’s brutal persecution of English Catholics, The Tutor brings Shakespeare romantically to life in a way that many literary texts of the past haven’t been able to capture.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
If you’re looking to get thoroughly lost in your next book, then we have just the thing for you. Marion Zimmer Bradley reinvigorates the tales of Camelot by retelling the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “Marion Zimmer Bradley has brilliantly and innovatively turned the myth inside out…add[ing] a whole new dimension to our mythic history.” Next, take a look at 15 unforgettable female friendships in literature.
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman mixes history with romance in The Marriage of Opposites, a retelling of the story of the woman who gave birth to Camille Pissarro, the Father of Impressionism. Rachel is a rebellious young woman growing up in a Jewish refugee community on St. Thomas in the early 1800s. After being married off to an old widower who experiences a sudden death, Rachel meets Frédérick, her late husband’s much younger nephew. The rest, as they say, is history—or, perhaps better yet, historical fiction. If you love books that make your heart race, you won’t want to miss these 60 best romance novels of all time.
March by Geraldine Brooks
In this work of both historical and literary fiction, Geraldine Brooks retells Louisa May Alcott’s famous Little Women from the perspective of the absent father March and his experience aiding the Union during the Civil War. His experiences change his marriage, his relationship with his children, and himself. But is this change for the better or worse? Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel cemented Brooks’ status as a veteran of the genre. Do you love state trivia? Check out the most iconic book set in your state—and every other.
The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer
Founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale and French novelist Gustave Flaubert cross paths in this fun reimagining of the two historical icons’ separate journeys up the Nile River. No real record indicates that Nightingale and Flaubert ever crossed paths, but Enid Shomer imagines “what if?” in The Twelves Rooms of the Nile. Set against the backdrop of mid-19th-century Egypt, this novel is both beautiful and poignant.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Orange Prize, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londoners and their experiences through the air raids, blackouts, and sexual exploits of World War II-era England. The unique narration of the novel—it is told backward, beginning in 1947 and ending in 1941, from a third-person perspective—is a testament to Sarah Waters’ literary prowess. Ready for a genre change? Next, check out the 25 scariest books of all time.
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