Selected Reads

30 of The Best Historical Fiction Books

History can tell us a lot about the world we live in today—from events that shaped our nation’s past to lessons we have learned over time. Historical fiction captures these stories and preserves them for generations to come. From historical dramas filled with thrilling adventures and deep intrigue to subtle romances set against grand backdrops of well-known locales, there are so many incredible reads out there that it can be hard to pick just one! So if you’re looking for some unforgettable books about history, check out this list of the best historical fiction books out there.

What is historical fiction?

Historical fiction is a genre of fiction that is set in the past and typically draws on real events, characters,  and places to tell a story. It often examines themes and issues from the time period that may still be relevant today. Historical fiction can range from light-hearted stories to serious examinations of difficult aspects of a culture or a civilization’s history.

I curated this list of best historical fiction based on a number of authoritative sources in the field (see bottom of the post). I hope you find it helpful.

1. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (1869)

War and Peace

“War and Peace broadly focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men.”

2. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)

A Tale of Two Cities

“A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a historical novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The novel tells the story of the French Doctor Manette, his 18-year-long imprisonment in the Bastille in Paris and his release to live in London with his daughter Lucie, whom he had never met. The story is set against the conditions that led up to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.”

3. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)

Gone with the Wind

“The story of ‘Gone With the Wind’ is set in Clayton County and Atlanta, both in Georgia, 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 poverty following Sherman’s destructive ‘March to the Sea’. “

4. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (1958)

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart is “a classic narrative about Africa’s cataclysmic encounter with Europe as it establishes a colonial presence on the continent. Told through the fictional experiences of Okonkwo, a wealthy and fearless Igbo warrior of Umuofia in the late 1800s, Things Fall Apart explores one man’s futile resistance to the devaluing of his Igbo traditions by British political andreligious forces and his despair as his community capitulates to the powerful new order.”

5.The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

The Scarlet Letter,

“Set in Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony during the years 1642 to 1649, the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne, who conceives a daughter through an affair and then struggles to create a new life of repentance and dignity. Containing a number of religious and historic allusions, the book explores themes of legalism, sin, and guilt.”

6. The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale

“France, 1939 – In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France … but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent.

When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.”

7. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander

“Outlander introduces an exhilarating world of heroism and breathtaking thrills as one woman is torn between past and present, passion and love. In 1945, former combat nurse Claire Randall returns from World War II and joins her husband for a second honeymoon. Their blissful reunion is shattered when she touches a boulder in an ancient stone ruin and is instantly transported to 1743 Scotland, a place torn by war and raiding border clans.”

8. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (2014)

All the Light We Cannot See

“Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel….”

9. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett 

The Pillars of the Earth

“The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, a devout and resourceful monk driven to build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has known . . . of Tom, the mason who becomes his architect—a man divided in his soul . . . of the beautiful, elusive Lady Aliena, haunted by a secret shame . . . and of a struggle between good and evil that will turn church against state and brother against brother.”

10. The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller 

Memoirs of a Geisha

“A tale of gods, kings, immortal fame, and the human heart, The Song of Achilles is a dazzling literary feat that brilliantly reimagines Homer’s enduring masterwork, The Iliad. An action-packed adventure, an epic love story, a marvelously conceived and executed page-turner, Miller’s monumental debut novel has already earned resounding acclaim from some of contemporary fiction’s brightest lights—and fans of Mary Renault, Bernard Cornwell, Steven Pressfield, and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series will delight in this unforgettable journey back to ancient Greece in the Age of Heroes.”

11. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee 

To Kill a Mockingbird

“A tale of gods, kings, immortal fame, and the human heart, The Song of Achilles is a dazzling literary feat that brilliantly reimagines Homer’s enduring masterwork, The Iliad. An action-packed adventure, an epic love story, a marvelously conceived and executed page-turner, Miller’s monumental debut novel has already earned resounding acclaim from some of contemporary fiction’s brightest lights—and fans of Mary Renault, Bernard Cornwell, Steven Pressfield, and Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series will delight in this unforgettable journey back to ancient Greece in the Age of Heroes.”

12. Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood (1996)

Alias Grace

“It’s 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?”

13. Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier (1999)

Girl with a Pearl Earring

“Tracy Chevalier transports readers to a bygone time and place in this richly-imagined portrait of the young woman who inspired one of Vermeer’s most celebrated paintings. History and fiction merge seamlessly in this luminous novel about artistic vision and sensual awakening. Girl with a Pearl Earring tells the story of sixteen-year-old Griet, whose life is transformed by her brief encounter with genius . . . even as she herself is immortalized in canvas and oil.”

14. The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

“In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for over two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.”

15. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (2016)

The Underground Railroad

“Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood—where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him….”

16. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants

“Jacob Janowski’s luck had run out–orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell.

There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.”

17. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi 

Homegoing

“Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.”

18. Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett 

Fall of Giants

“A thirteen-year-old Welsh boy enters a man’s world in the mining pits. . . . An American law student rejected in love finds a surprising new career in Woodrow Wilson’s White House. . . . A housekeeper for the aristocratic Fitzherberts takes a fateful step above her station, while Lady Maud Fitzherbert herself crosses deep into forbidden territory when she falls in love with a German spy. . . . And two orphaned Russian brothers embark on radically different paths when their plan to emigrate to America falls afoul of war, conscription, and revolution.”

19. The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982)

The Color Purple

“The Color Purple broke the silence around domestic and sexual abuse, narrating the lives of women through their pain and struggle, companionship and growth, resilience and bravery. Deeply compassionate and beautifully imagined, Alice Walker’s epic carries readers on a spirit-affirming journey towards redemption and love.”

20. The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje (1992)

The English Patient

“The nurse Hana, exhausted by death, obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself.

And at the center of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions—and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning.”

21. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini 

The Kite Runner

“The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, caught in the tragic sweep of history, The Kite Runner transports readers to Afghanistan at a tense and crucial moment of change and destruction. A powerful story of friendship, it is also about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.”

22. The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell (2004)

The Last Kingdom

“This is the exciting – yet little known – story of the making of England in the ninth and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms.

The story is seen through the eyes of Uhtred, a dispossessed nobleman, who is captured as a child by the Danes and then raised by them so that, by the time the Northmen begin their assault on Wessex, Alfred’s kingdom and the last territory in English hands, Uhtred almost thinks of himself as a Dane”

23.  The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

 The Eagle of the Ninth

“The Ninth Legion marched into the mists of northern Britain – and they were never seen again. Four thousand men disappeared and their eagle standard was lost. It’s a mystery that’s never been solved, until now . . . Marcus has to find out what happened to his father, who led the legion. So he sets out into the unknown, on a quest so dangerous that nobody expects him to return”

24. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas (1844)

The Three Musketeers

“The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. The Three Musketeers tells the story of the early adventures of the young Gascon gentleman, D’Artagnan and his three friends from the regiment of the King’s Musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Under the watchful eye of their patron M. de Treville, the four defend the honour of the regiment against the guards of Cardinal Richelieu, and the honour of the queen against the machinations of the Cardinal himself as the power struggles of seventeenth century France are vividly played out in the background.”

25. A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles (2016)

A Gentleman in Moscow

“In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.”

26. Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys (2011)

Between Shades of Gray

“Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life — until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing.”

27. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)

Wolf Hall

“England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?”

28. Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden (1997)

Memoir of a Geisha

“Speaking to us with the wisdom of age and in a voice at once haunting and startlingly immediate, Nitta Sayuri tells the story of her life as a geisha. It begins in a poor fishing village in 1929, when, as a nine-year-old girl with unusual blue-gray eyes, she is taken from her home and sold into slavery to a renowned geisha house.

We witness her transformation as she learns the rigorous arts of the geisha: dance and music; wearing kimono, elaborate makeup, and hair; pouring sake to reveal just a touch of inner wrist; competing with a jealous rival for men’s solicitude and the money that goes with it.”

29. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak 

The Book Thief

“Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, who’s always taken orders quietly, but lately she’s unable to hold her bitterness back. Her friend Minny has never held her tongue but now must somehow keep secrets about her employer that leave her speechless. White socialite Skeeter just graduated college. She’s full of ambition, but without a husband, she’s considered a failure.”

30. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett 

The help

“It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still. Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.”

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