We worked hours to prepare this list of the best 49 Historical Fiction books out there.
If your favorite way to learn about history is by immersing yourself in a fictional world shaped by actual events, then you’re on the right page.
For this long list, we specifically chose books covering events or time periods over 45 years before they were written.
MUST-READ HISTORICAL FICTION BOOKS
1. The Color Purple, Alice WalkerBUY ON AMAZON
This classic of American literature is rich with passion, pain, inspiration, and an indomitable love of life. Set in the deep American South between wars.
Its a beautifully imagined and deeply compassionate classic American novel.
The Color Purple is the story of two sisters Celia and Nettie, Celia a young black girl born into poverty and segregation, leads a very hard life. She raped repeatedly,
two of her children are taken away from her, she is separated from her sister Nettie and trapped in her horrible marriage.
Then she meets Shug Avery, singer and magic-maker, a woman who takes charge of her own destiny.
2. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony DoerrBUY ON AMAZON
This Pulitzer Prize-winning story set up in WW-I tells the story of a blind French girl and a German boy’s whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of WWII.
Marie and Laure has fled Paris with the Museum of Natural History’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
Meanwhile Werner, an orphan, has been building and fixing radios used by the Germans to track down the resistance.
Anthony Doerr beautifully intertwines their stories.
3. Shōgun, James ClavellBUY ON AMAZON
An English adventurer, Set in 17th-century Japan
A Japanese warlord, and a beautiful woman in between, alive with conflict, lust, ambition, passion, and power.
Shogun is a saga of a time and place
4. War and Peace, Leo TolstoyBUY ON AMAZON
War and Peace is an in-depth study of the Napoleonic wars’ It describes the effects of war on five Russian aristocrats and their families.
The narrative drifts between scenes and characters, at one glance discussing a Moscow drawing room and in another glance the brutality and chaos of war.
5. Wolf Hall, Hilary MantelBUY ON AMAZON
The first book in a series, Wolf Hall details the life of Tudor a Restless, brilliant, and ambitious statesman- Thomas Cromwell, Cromwell is central to events in Tudor history like Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
6. I, Claudius, Robert GravesBUY ON AMAZON
A fictional autobiography of the fourth Roman Emperor, named I, Claudius
This Autobiography presents Claudius’s disabilities like a stammer and how he is shielded from public life in childhoood. Graves depicts him as a brave and courageous figure.
7. The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa GregoryBUY ON AMAZON
Its a story about a family’s ambition to get the power of the Throne.
Mary Boleyn caught the eye of Henry VIII and falls in love, only to be put aside by her best friend and sister, Anne.
Both girls are pawns in the family’s ambitious plot to catch the king’s interest and therefore the power of the throne.
8. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles DickensBUY ON AMAZON
Two men, an exiled French aristocrat, Charles, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer. Darnay, are in love with Lucie Monette in London.
They are drawn against their will to Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror and La Guillotine.
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9. Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy ChevalierBUY ON AMAZON
Chevalier brings life to a Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer an enigmatic 17th-century artist through the eyes of a young servant girl, Griet.
Vermeer chooses Griet to model for him for his paintings, which is portrayed in intimate detail alongside the prosperous Vermeer household in 1660s.
10. Beautiful Ruins, Jess WalterBUY ON AMAZON
We follow the story from the Italian coast in the 1960s to modern day Scotland and Hollywood. What is amazing about Beautiful Ruins is its focus on the smaller-scale dramas of the people caught in the over-the-top dramas of Hollywood–
In this case, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Minor characters in the novel, their relationship reverberates through the lives of the people around them, even decades after the fact.
Beautiful Ruins is a reminder that everyone has a backstory and is the protagonist of their own life–even after the so-called main characters have left the spotlight.
11. The Book Thief, Markus ZusakBUY ON AMAZON
A young foster girl Liesel Meminger steals books to fund her meager existence near Munich during WWII. Her accordion-playing foster father teaches her to read, and she shares her books with neighbors during bombing raids. Meanwhile she slowly befriends the Jewish man hidden in their basement.
Set in World War II Germany and narrated by Death, The Book Thief brings us Liesel Meminger. A foster girl who is taught to read and about quiet acts of resistance by her accordion-playing foster father, Liesel attempts to make sense of the horrors happening around her while living her day-to-day. When Max, a Jewish man, moves into the basement, Liesel shares her (stolen) books with him as he shares his stories with her.
That the story is narrated by Death hints at its direction, but the tragedy of World War II is never a question. It’s Zusak’s vividly imagined daily lives of Germans in World War II and a dutiful Death lingering in everyone’s shadows at that time that (perhaps ironically) bring this story to life.
12. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCulloughBUY ON AMAZON
Covering three generations from 1915 onwards, The Thorn Birds depicts a family in the Australian sheep country. Meggie Cleary adores but can never have Ralph de Bricassart who rises from parish priest to the Vatican. And de Bricassart’s passion for Meggie will shadow him all the days of his life.
13. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia MarquezBUY ON AMAZON
The Buendia family’s irreconcilable conflict between the desire for solitude and the need for love is chronicled through the guise of magical realism. One Hundred Years of Solitudeexplores these issues and expresses life in Columbia from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s.
14. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel HawthorneBUY ON AMAZON
The Scarlet Letter shows the downfall of three people in 17th-century Massachusetts: young, beautiful Hester Prynne, who bore a child out of wedlock and refuses to reveal the father; her husband, Roger Chillingworth, who returns from the dead and vows revenge; and her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale.
15. The Name of the Rose, Umberto EcoBUY ON AMAZON
In an Italian abbey in 1327, the Franciscan monks are suspected of heresy. Brother William of Baskerville investigates and is suddenly embroiled in seven bizarre deaths. He investigates, gathers evidence, and digs into the mysteries of the abbey where “the most interesting things happen at night.”
16. The Historian, Elizabeth KostovaBUY ON AMAZON
A young woman finds an ancient book and several yellowing letters, all addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.” She is plunged into a labyrinth of secrets leading back to a centuries-long quest to uncover the source of Vlad the Impaler and wipe it out.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of an intimate friendship between two 19th century Chinese women. At age seven, Lily is matched with her laotang–“old same”–Snow Flower, in a match that is meant to create a lifelong bond between the two.
They communicate in a language known only to women through messages written on a fan, breaking through the loneliness of life as a female in China: foot binding, arranged marriage, and motherhood. This is a fascinating look at an aspect of Chinese culture that was new to me, as well as a testament to the power of female friendships.
17. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa SeeBUY ON AMAZON
Set in 19th-century China, two girls are paired in a “laotong,” an emotional match that sprouts a friendship lasting a lifetime. The girls communicate in nu she, an ancient language that Chinese women use in secret, away from men. The story covers traditional Chinese culture from foot-binding to arranged marriages.
18. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann ShafferBUY ON AMAZON
Set in 1946, English writer Juliet Ashton finds her next book subject on the island of Guernsey. She decides to visit the island after corresponding with residents about their experiences during the war. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is born as an alibi when German occupiers catch members breaking curfew.
There aren’t many World War II novels that could be described as “charming,” but The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is just that. Told as a series of letters between an author in post-World War II England and the residents of the island of Guernsey, we learn how books helped them survive the German occupation. An impromptu book club, invented as an excuse for missing curfew, becomes a touchpoint for the various residents of the island.
Charming as it is, the book doesn’t shy from the realities of the war and what it meant for the island to be occupied. Between the epistolary storytelling and the book club at the center of it all, this is truly an ode to power of words.
19. Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex HaleyBUY ON AMAZON
Roots is the story of an African man taken into slavery in 1767 at the age of sixteen and the six generations that came after him. It covers generations of slaves, free men, farmers, blacksmiths, lumber mill workers, lawyers, architects, and more. Roots captures the history of one family as it works its way out of slavery through the indomitability of the human spirit.
20. The Crucible, Arthur MillerBUY ON AMAZON
The Crucible is a classic play set in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts during the witch hunts and trials. A young girl accuses Elizabeth Proctor of being a witch, and self-righteous church leaders and townspeople clamor for her to be brought to trial. Ruthless prosecutors and eager neighbors illustrate the destructive power of socially sanctioned violence.
21. Atonement, Ian McEwanBUY ON AMAZON
In 1934, 13-year-old Briony sees a moment’s flirtation between her older sister and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant. Briony doesn’t understand the adult motives behind the flirtation and accuses Robbie of a crime that changes all their lives. Through WWII and into the 21st century, Atonement follows the crime’s repercussions.
22. The Pillars of the Earth, Ken FolletBUY ON AMAZON
Set in 12th-century feudal England, Tom, a master builder, sets out to build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known. Follet brings to life the vast forests, the walled towns, the castles, and the monasteries, along with daily life during the Middle Ages.
23. Cold Mountain, Charles FrazierBUY ON AMAZON
A soldier sets out on a perilous journey back to his beloved near the end of the Civil War. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, walks away from the ravages of war to head back to his sweetheart, Ada. Ada struggles to revive her family’s farm with the help of a young drift, Ruby. Inman and Ada both confront the enormously transformed world they now inhabit.
24. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre DumasBUY ON AMAZON
Set in France in the 1620s, The Three Musketeers is an epic of chivalry, honor, and courage with a band of romantic heroes, unattainable heroines, kings, queens, cavaliers, and criminals. The Three Musketeers has everything from adventure and espionage to murder, vengeance, and love.
25. City of Women, David R. GillhamBUY ON AMAZON
In 1943, the men of Berlin are all away fighting and it has become a city of women. Though on the surface, most women appear to be models of German behavior, many are involved in their own hidden war against the Nazis.
26. Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur GoldenBUY ON AMAZON
Love is scorned in Memoirs of a Geisha, where women learn that appearances are everything and a girl’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Delving deep into Japanese culture before and during WWII, women are taught to entrance the most powerful men to stay alive.
Memoirs of a Geisha is a fascinating fictional look at the life of one geisha. Chiyo is sold to a geisha house at a young age, enduring difficult training and brutal treatment with the aim of becoming a geisha. The role involves artistry, entertainment, companionship, and is–at the time–essentially prostitution cloaked in an elegant veneer.
The paradox of a geisha’s life is her role of servitude coupled with her power over men. Chiyo–now Sayuri–spends her life devoted to beguiling men and becomes one of the most celebrated geishas in Japan. As World War II changes Japan, the role of the geisha will also be forever changed.
27. The Help, Kathryn StockettBUY ON AMAZON
In 1960s Mississippi white women trust black women to raise their children but deny them respect and basic human courtesy. Three women, however, develop an unlikely friendship that crosses the racial divide and gives them each the strength they need to change their lives.
28. The English Patient, Michael OndaatjeBUY ON AMAZON
During WWII, an injured man in Italy is cared for by Hana, a French-Canadian nurse. The man speaks English but cannot remember who he is or how he was so badly burned. Hana tries to get him to recall his past, and the truth about what they learn changes them forever.
29. Rules of Civility, Amor TowlesBUY ON AMAZON
Rules of Civility is a look at 1930s New York high society through the eyes of Katey Kontent, an independent 20-something who, with her friend Evelyn, finds her way into those hallowed circles by way of a chance meeting with Tinker Grey at a jazz bar.
Circumstances keep Katey on the invite list over the course of a year, as she works as a secretary by day and navigates the world of the wealthy by night.
30. Gone with the Wind, Margaret MitchellBUY ON AMAZON
Set in Georgia during the Civil War, Gone with the Wind follows the fortunes and fate of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled daughter of a rich plantation owner. Scarlett uses every means to claw her way out of poverty and back to wealth which she thinks is the epitome of life.
Gone with the Wind is a book on my reading bucket list that I can’t believe I haven’t read yet! While it (and the film) are certainly problematic, it’s still a book that I want to read for myself. Publishers description:
Gone with the Wind is set in Clayton County, Georgia, and Atlanta during the American Civil War and Reconstruction era. It depicts the struggles of young Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do plantation owner, who must use every means at her disposal to claw her way out of the poverty she finds herself in after Sherman’s March to the Sea.
31. The Red Tent, Anita DiamantBUY ON AMAZON
The Red Tent illuminates the lives of women who are only briefly mentioned in the context of the men around them in the Bible.
Dinah is more than just the daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph and their many brothers. She is a girl who grows up with four mothers, learning the feminine customs and the skills of midwifery in the red tent to which they all retreat each month.
She’s also the one whose life determines the fate of the entire family. This fictional imagining of Dinah grants her the hopes, fears, and–most of all–the agency she is denied in the male-centric stories of the Bible.
32. Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Chris CleaveBUY ON AMAZON
An hour after England enters World War II, socialite Mary North signs up for service and teaches students who were rejected from evacuation to the countryside. This turn brings into her life Zachary, a young black student; Tom, an education administrator; and Alistair, a soldier.
Mary, Tom, and Zachary face the bombings of the Blitz, while the ills of society–race, poverty, addiction–persistently remain. Alistair, meanwhile, faces brutality, starvation, and violence as a soldier in Malta.
Cleave tells a beautiful and surprisingly witty tale of love, loss, and bravery. Also check out my in-depth look at the history and writing of this book in my Story of the Story series.
33. As Bright as Heaven, Susan MeissnerBUY ON AMAZON
On the heels of the devastating loss of their infant son and brother, the Bright family moves to Philadelphia to join an uncle’s funeral home business. The family soon faces another devastation: the Spanish Flu pandemic that literally leaves bodies at their doorstep and an orphaned infant in their care.
The family isn’t immune to the losses wrought by the flu and World War I, and in their grief they grasp for hope and purpose in different ways, keeping secrets to protect themselves and one another. A heartfelt, engrossing look at a historical pandemic, and an especially relevant read during our modern pandemic.
34. The War That Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker BradleyBUY ON AMAZON
Ada’s abusive mother has kept her locked inside her entire life, ashamed of her club foot. When the bombings of World War II start, Ada and her brother sneak away, to be evacuated from London with the other children.
They find themselves in Kent, placed with Susan Smith, a woman who does not want children but sees to both their health and education.
Ada finds solace in a pony, crutches, and freedom she’s never had. But she struggles with the trauma of her past and when the war comes to their doorstep the stakes are raised. I was enthralled by this middle grade book and I loved the sequel just as much.
35. Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de RosnayBUY ON AMAZON
In 1942 Paris, Jewish people are rounded up and sent away–often to their deaths. Sarah, 10 years old, hides her little brother in a cupboard, locking the door and promising to return.
What follows is the story of her desperate journey back to him, alternating with the story of a journalist 60 years later who is investigating the round up.
Sarah is a 10-year-old girl in Paris in 1942 who locks her little brother in a cupboard when the French police round up her Jewish family. Over half a century later, in Paris in 2002, journalist Julia Jarmond is reporting on the 60th anniversary of the round-up and stumbles onto Sarah’s story. She begins tracing Sarah’s ordeal to find out what happened to her, her family, and her little brother.
36. Outlander, Diana GabaldonBUY ON AMAZON
In 1945, English combat nurse Claire Randall walks through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and finds herself in 1743. Separated from her new husband by 200 years and at the mercy of a suspicious clan embroiled in conflict, Claire must use her cunning to survive and make her way back to the 20th century.
Young Highlander Jamie Fraser emerges as a potential ally and protector in an alien time and land. As she and Jamie grow closer, Claire faces decisions about her life–including when and where she wants to live, and who she wants to be with.
This entire series was completely immersive for me–dramatic, a little sexy, and unputdownable. (And the television series is excellent, too!)
In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, steps through an ancient standing stone in the British Isles. She is suddenly sent back in time as a Sassenach (an “outlander”) in Scotland during war and raiding border clans in the year…1743.
37. Life After Life, Kate AtkinsonBUY ON AMAZON
Life After Life takes us through the many versions of Ursula Todd’s life and addresses the question that often accompanies the deaths of the young: what if she had lived?
As Ursula makes different decisions or encounters different situations, she dies–or lives. Through each version of her subsequent life, we get the answers to that very question.
That Ursula’s recurring lives are set during two of the most devastating wars the world has ever seen is particularly poignant, as even today we look back on the lives lost and wonder, what if?
38. Kristine Lavransdatter, Sigrid UndsetBUY ON AMAZON
I’ve been wanting to read this one for ages, because it sounds like just the kind of epic historical fiction I love. Publisher’s description:
39. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins ReidBUY ON AMAZON
When aging movie star Evelyn Hugo recruits Monique Grant, an unknown reporter, to write her biography, Monique can’t fathom why Evelyn would want her. She is quickly drawn into Evelyn’s winding tale, from her rise to stardom, her multiple marriages, and the dramas of her life.
Evelyn is an enigmatic character–fascinating, confident, and powerful. It’s no wonder, since she and her story are based on several of Hollywood’s leading ladies.
40. The Things They Carried, Tim O’BrienBUY ON AMAZON
The Things They Carried is a historical fiction novel set in the Vietnam War. It follows the men of Alpha Company, including the character of Tim O’Brien (based on the author himself).
With lyrical prose and sensitivity, it examines the experience of the war, as well as memory, truth, and fear. If you have any interest in the Vietnam War, this is a must-read.
41. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth WeinBUY ON AMAZON
Code Name Verity is told through a journal written by “Verity,” a female English pilot captured in German-occupied France, and by her friend Maddie in the second half of the book. Verity has been tortured and she is writing for her life, charged by her captors with revealing codes and information about the Allies.
Both to fulfill her obligation and to maintain her sanity, she weaves the tale of a friendship and how she landed in her present situation. Often written with surprising humor, this book often has a light tone throughout that is only one of the misleading elements. If you haven’t read this one, don’t read much more before picking it up–the twists and spy games will be all the more satisfying.
42. The Clan of The Cave Bear, Jean M. AuelBUY ON AMAZON
I’ve been hearing great things about this historical fiction series for years–I have a feeling I might love it as much as the Outlander and The Pillars of the Earth series. Publisher’s description:
Set at the time of the dawn of humans during the Ice Age, a natural disaster leaves young Ayla wandering alone in an unfamiliar and dangerous land until she is found by a woman of the Clan of the Cave Bears. To them, blond, blue-eyed Ayla looks peculiar and ugly. She is one of the Others, those who have moved into their ancient homeland, but she is taken in and most come to accept her. But the brutal and proud youth who is destined to become their next leader sees her differences as a threat. His hatred for Ayla grows and he is determined to get his revenge.
43. The Book of Longings, Sue Monk KiddBUY ON AMAZON
This ambitious and daring novel imagines the life of Ana, the fictional wife of Jesus. Kidd creates a compelling narrative for this woman, casting her at the center of her own story and granting her a feminism and independence that someone like Jesus would have appreciated.
There is no evidence that Jesus ever married, but also none that he didn’t. Kidd’s focus on Ana’s and Jesus’ lives while he was in his 20s–10 years before he began his preaching–brings the life of Jesus the human into sharper focus, and makes a good case for why he would have married
44. Let The Great World Spin, Colum McCannBUY ON AMAZON
Historical fiction set in New York is always fascinating; I’m looking forward to reading this one. Publisher’s description:
In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.
45. Fall of Giants, Ken FollettBUY ON AMAZON
Fall of Giants is the first in another epic historical trilogy from Ken Follett. While the Pillars of the Earth trilogy was set over multiple centuries, Fall of Giants is placed squarely in the 20th century. The story follows five families across the world through World War I, the Russian Revolution, and women’s suffrage. This trilogy felt heavier on the political history than the soapy drama than the Pillars of the Earth (though there’s a bit of that as well!).
While, for me, this historical fiction series didn’t have the same “unputdownable” quality, it’s still another compelling, meticulously researched epic with richly drawn characters who bring the history alive. The books are extremely long but worth the read.
46. Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie FordBUY ON AMAZON
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet takes us between two time periods: 1986, when Henry, a Chinese-American joins others in Seattle as a hotel with belongings from people sent to Japanese internment camps is opened up, and 1942, when he first meets Keiko a young Japanese girl whose family is sent to those camps. The book is both romance and family story, and it also looks at Japanese-Chinese relations in America at the time, the internment of Japanese citizens, and the jazz scene in Seattle.
47. Alias Grace, Margaret AtwoodBUY ON AMAZON
Based on a true case from 1843, the story focuses on Grace Marks, a young woman who at the age of 16, was convicted of the murders of her employer, Mr. Kinnear, and a fellow housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, was also employed in Kinnear’s home. The two were arrested in a hotel after the murders, wearing the victim’s clothes and carrying items stolen from the home. Grace insists she has no memory of the key events.
Now, eight years later, McDermott has been executed. Grace remains in prison and psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan to draw out lost moments of Grace’s memory in the hopes of exonerating her. Read my full review of both the book and Netflix series.
48. Homegoing, Yaa GyasiBUY ON AMAZON
Homegoing is an epic generational novel following the family lines of two half-sisters born in Ghana 300 years ago: one is married off to an English slave trader while the other is sold into slavery. Each chapter follows a new descendant of the women, illustrating how events and injustices of the past reverberate through the lives and struggles of future generations.
An astonishing, emotional novel that deftly answers the question of how the descendants of slaves continue to be oppressed by the institution of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, even 150 years after abolition. One of my best reads of 2017.
49. March, Geraldine BrooksBUY ON AMAZON
This Pulitzer-Prize winning novel brings imagines the life of Little Women father Mr. March, absent for most of that famous novel to serve as a Union chaplain in the Civil War.
The tie to the Little Women provides points of familiarity, but fans hoping for a new perspective on the girls will be disappointed. Instead, the novel provides insight into one man’s experience of the Civil War, life as an abolitionist, and his human fears, failings, and moral quandaries when faced with the violence of war and the horror of slavery.
This was a slow read, at times, but worth it for fans of both Little Women and historical fiction.