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The Best Historical Fiction Books of All Time

Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist
Published Jul 05, 2019

We looked at lists on both sides of the pond to generate a short list of the best 30 Historical Fiction novels out there.

If you’re anything like us, your favorite way to learn about history is by immersing yourself in a fictional world shaped by actual events. For this list, we specifically chose works covering events or time periods over 30 years before they were written.

Once again we have linked them to their goodreads.com page in case you want to know more. In no particular order, here they are!

Contents:
  1. The Books
  2. Editor’s Choice

The Books

1. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

A blind French girl and a German boy’s paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of WWII. Marie-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. Doerr beautifully intertwines their stories.

2. The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Set in the deep American South between wars, Celia, a young black girl born into poverty and segregation, leads a very hard life. She is 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.

3. Shōgun, James Clavell

An English adventurer, a Japanese warlord, and a beautiful woman in between. Shōgun is a saga of a time and place, set in 17th-century Japan, alive with conflict, lust, ambition, passion, and power.

4. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace is an in-depth study of the Napoleonic wars’ effects on five Russian aristocrats and their families. The narrative moves between scenes and characters, at one glance discussing a Moscow drawing room and in another the brutality and chaos of war.

5. Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay

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.

6. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

The first in a series, Wolf Hall details the life of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell. Restless, brilliant, and ambitious, Cromwell is central to events in Tudor history like Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

7. I, Claudius, Robert Graves

A fictional autobiography of the fourth Roman Emperor, I, Claudius presents Claudius’s disabilities like a stammer and how he is shielded from public life in early adulthood. Graves depicts him as a courageous figure.

8. The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory

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.

9. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Two men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, are in love with Lucie Manette in London. They are drawn against their will to Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror and La Guillotine.

10. Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier

Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is an enigmatic 17th-century artist whom Chevalier brings to life through the eyes of a young servant girl, Griet. Vermeer chooses Griet to model for him, which is portrayed in intimate detail alongside the prosperous Vermeer household in 1660s Delft.

11. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

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.

12. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

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 Marquez

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 Solitude explores these issues and expresses life in Columbia from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s.

14. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

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 Eco

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 Kostova

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.

17. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See

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 Shaffer

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.

19. Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley

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 Miller

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 McEwan

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 Follet

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 Frazier

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 Dumas

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. Gillham

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 Golden

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.

27. The Help, Kathryn Stockett

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 Ondaatje

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. Outlander, Diana Gabaldon

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.

30. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

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.

Editor’s Choice

Our list wouldn’t be complete without adding our top 5 editor’s choice books:

1. The Red Tent, Anita Diamant

In the Bible, Dinah is only hinted at briefly as the more familiar parts of the Book of Genesis deal with her father, Jacob, and his dozen sons. Told in Dinah’s voice, The Red Tent details the traditions and conflicts of ancient womanhood.

2. The Headmaster's Wager, Vincent Lam

The boorish head of Saigon's top English academy deftly negotiates the political divides in 1960s Vietnam. When his son finds himself in trouble, however, he must stretch his connections to breaking point to save him.

3. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

An epic, visceral novel that traces 300 years and many generations from the Gold Coasts's booming slave trade to the jazz clubs of 20th-century Harlem.

4. The Orenda, Joseph Boyden

In this brutal, unflinching novel, we navigate the colliding worlds of a warrior from the Huron Nation, a kidnapped Iroquois girl and a French missionary determined to bring the word of God to a people he believes to be godless.

5 Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The non-chronological structure of Life After Life is disorientating at first, but eventually it reveals a depth and magic unlike any other book. With interwoven versions of reality, Ursula lives (and dies) through two world wars but her actions lead her down very different life trajectories. This is a truly unique study of the way small decisions can have far-reaching consequences.

Again, another long post, but it wouldn’t be an Essential Reading List if we left any of these books off! Let us know in the comments below if we missed your favorite historical fiction book.

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Kathy Edens
Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Kathy Edens is a blogger, a ghost writer, and content master who loves writing about anything and everything. Check out her books: The Novel-Writing Training Plan: 17 Steps to Get Your Ideas in Shape for the Marathon of Writing and Creating Legends: How to Craft Characters Readers Adore... or Despise.

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By tadros.s on 30 May 2016, 09:04 AM
No Mary Renault? Seriously?
By lexi14 on 27 February 2018, 09:31 PM
C. J. Sanson is the best 🙂 in my opinion Lesley Scoble
By Lesleyscoble on 28 February 2018, 10:10 AM
The Moor's Account is Fabulous. It should be on this list.
By jcoffman18 on 28 February 2018, 07:59 PM
Daphne du Maurier?
By helenbellamy on 28 February 2018, 10:52 PM
Rosemary Sutcliffe Alfred Duggan? What happened?
By Jim.sieyea on 06 March 2018, 08:16 PM
1,000 White Women by Jim Fergis.
By Bspangel on 12 March 2018, 02:40 AM
An often overlooked historical novelist who was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize--Kenneth Roberts. Northwest Passage and Rabble in Arms are two of the finest American historical novels ever written.
By jvhitt on 22 March 2018, 11:45 PM
Bernard Cornwell?!
By jeremyjl.hill1 on 29 May 2018, 09:54 PM
Anya Seton’s Katherine, and Bernard Cornwell’s, The Last Kingdom.
By sbennettbrady on 12 February 2019, 02:48 AM
No Bernard Cromwell. That didn't make sense
By tony4chef on 29 June 2019, 07:39 PM
Thomas B Costa in wrote several historical novels. Never read a bad one. He was a true histronian
By caskul on 08 July 2019, 04:22 PM
1. Angela's Ashes and not a proper historical fiction but "Clan of the Cave Bear" and anything by Sinclair Lewis.
By mgskng on 12 August 2019, 03:17 PM
Surprised you have not made any mention of Sharon Kay Penman’s books. True historical fiction.
By margot_bc on 30 October 2019, 05:19 AM
Ivan Doig, Isabelle Allende, Anne Patchett
By janetlynnh on 27 January 2020, 06:14 AM
What about People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks?
By superswank on 06 February 2020, 03:54 AM
E.L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime'
By Bob.hoberg1 on 19 February 2020, 12:11 AM
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner; Transcription—Kate Atkinson, Pat Barker’s WWI trilogy. I would put the Stegner and Barker at or near the top
By Susanmwood on 21 February 2020, 06:25 PM
Edward Rutherfurd has written multigenerational novels about Ireland, Russia, New York and London. All are vivid and carefully researched. I find myself wanting to make gifts of his books to descendents from those places.
By jthorne on 23 February 2020, 11:22 PM
The Elegant Witch by Robert Neill about the infamous Pendle Witch trials. superbly written
By celticdragonmist on 25 February 2020, 03:04 AM
Dorothy Dunnett, the Lymond and Nicollo series.
By null on 27 April 2020, 02:27 AM
Year Of Wonder & Sacred Hunger
By Nynancy4 on 28 April 2020, 02:34 AM
Mary Renault's novels of ancient Greece: The Mask of Apollo and The Last of the Wine; also her trilogy about Alexander the Great Gore Vidal's American history series; Burr, 1876, Lincoln
By grodriguez2 on 20 May 2020, 06:08 PM
There seriously needs to be Mary Renault on this list!
By chrysewymer on 22 May 2020, 09:12 PM
I loved the historical fiction list! So many of these books have cause me to have a book hangover (e.g. I can't stop thinking about them long after I am done). Thank you!
By kathleen.braun04 on 12 June 2020, 06:01 PM
Thanks. Two additions: The Silk Weaver by Gabrielle Warnock The Night Watchman by Louise Erdich..
By null on 13 June 2020, 09:57 PM
Enjoying the comments..So a high point is James Meek's The People's Act of Love...
By null on 13 June 2020, 09:58 PM
John Boyne's The Absolutist.
By null on 13 June 2020, 10:00 PM
Great list, thank you! Could you correct the spelling of Colombia for 100 Years of Solitude? Columbia is the University, among other things, but is not the country.
By nekkolino on 14 June 2020, 12:01 AM
Good catch! We are on it. :)
By writersneed2 on 15 June 2020, 06:46 PM
Georgette Heyer's Battle of Waterloo saga merits an entry, as do Colleen McCullougj's seven novels on the Masters of Rome. Both authors did meticulous and detailed research
By june.miller on 14 June 2020, 01:14 PM
Nothing more satisfying than a well-researched piece of historical fiction, am I right? Love McCullough - will have to check out Heyer!
By writersneed2 on 15 June 2020, 06:48 PM
The most glaring omission I can think of is Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe) one of the most important novels of the 20th century regardless of genre. About half of these books were published during the last 25 years. That's a good sign of a bad list, since it suggests that the list-makers are not widely read. Only a handful of these books are not originally written in English. A handful are historical fantasy. About a third are set in the 20th century (I count at least six World War 2 novels, not including the Gabaldon). You include one and only one play, and it's not Shakespeare. If you're looking at the development of historical fiction as a distinct genre, then you have to include more of the mid-20th-century greats: Mary Renault, Mary Stewart, Naomi Mitchison, C.S. Forester, Rosemary Sutcliff, Dorothy Dunnett, (and I'm probably forgetting someone important). And you ought to include Patrick O'Brien. Twenty years ago, this list would have included Possession (A.S. Byatt), rather than Life After Life. It just shows how quickly literary fashion changes. All of this would be less troubling if the list were called something like "our favorite historicals," rather than claiming to be "the best" or "essential."
By jlafler on 28 June 2020, 04:05 PM
Thanks for the feedback! These lists are always tough to compile, but we love a good back and forth about them! :)
By writersneed2 on 01 July 2020, 01:23 PM
Leaving out Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy is inexcusable, particularly since GWTW and The Help are on the list. For shame!
By kent.harley.waite on 01 July 2020, 01:43 AM
So many books to consider! If only every list weren't at some point finite. We'll have to consider your suggestion for future lists! Thanks for the feedback. :)
By writersneed2 on 01 July 2020, 01:37 PM
I agree about Anya Seton’s Katherine. Also Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, The Mountain’s Sing, The Good Earth, Ruth’s Journey ( GWTW’s Mammy’s backstory) The Water Dancer, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Go Tell It on the Mountain, .....
By kathyo45ok on 16 July 2020, 04:33 PM
*Mountains. No apostrophe!
By kathyo45ok on 16 July 2020, 04:34 PM
Thanks for commenting! :)
By writersneed2 on 16 July 2020, 06:55 PM
the sacred hunger, by barry unsworth
By mcloughlinfrank2 on 19 July 2020, 05:58 PM
Will have to check it out!
By writersneed2 on 20 July 2020, 02:34 PM
So many good book on this list, and it makes me eager to read the ones on the list that W haven’t already read. I’m missing An Instance Of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears. Have you read it? It’s one of my favourites.
By jorunn.hernes on 21 July 2020, 06:46 PM
So many good book on this list, and it makes me eager to read the ones on the list that W haven’t already read. I’m missing An Instance Of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears. Have you read it? It’s one of my favourites.
By jorunn.hernes on 21 July 2020, 06:46 PM
I've heard wonderful things about that one! Thanks for sharing! :)
By writersneed2 on 21 July 2020, 06:47 PM
I knew this was an estrogen fueled list. And no Cornwell? What a snoozer list. Almost fell asleep going through it.
By Rockford417 on 19 August 2020, 11:00 PM
Sorry you find estrogen so boring! ;)
By writersneed2 on 20 August 2020, 01:43 AM
How could you leave out Ursula LeGuin's works in scifi?? Left Hand of Darkness is riveting and memorable!
By klaminto on 06 October 2020, 07:17 PM
Can't argue with you there! Love LeGuin!! <3
By amy.cohen on 07 October 2020, 07:28 PM
Any of the fantastic books by James Michener
By madval56 on 08 October 2020, 10:51 AM
Love the feedback!
By amy.cohen on 08 October 2020, 08:50 PM
This is a very good list but first is Colombia not Columbia, a common mistake that shouldn’t exist and second Outlander starts in Scotland why say British Isles?
By dsantanelli1 on 17 October 2020, 02:16 PM
Thanks for the feedback! We'll take a look. :)
By amy.cohen on 19 October 2020, 04:00 PM

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