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The Best Historical Fiction Books of All Time

Kathy Edens

Kathy Edens

Copywriter, ghostwriter, and content strategy specialist

Published Jan 05, 2022

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 page in case you want to know more. In no particular order, here they are!

Note: All the links below go to Bookshop is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. If you want to find a specific local bookstore to support, find them on the map and they’ll receive the full profit off your order. Otherwise, your order will contribute to an earnings pool that will be evenly distributed among independent bookstores (even those that don’t use Bookshop).

  1. The Books
  2. Editor’s Choice

The Books

1. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

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

The Color Purple Book Cover

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

Shogun Book cCover

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

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's Key

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

Wolf Hall Book Cover

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

I, Claudius Book Cover

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

The Other Boleyn Girl Book Cover

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

A Tale of Two Cities Book cover

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

Girl with a Pearl Earring

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

The Book Thief Book cover

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

The Thorn Birds

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

One Hundred Years of Solitude

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

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

The Name of the Rose

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

The Historian

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

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Book Cover

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

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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: The Saga of an American Family

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

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

Atonement Book Cover

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

The Pillars of the Earth

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

Cold Mountain Book Cover

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

The Three Musketeers

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

City of Women

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

Memoirs of a Geisha Book Cover

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

The Help Book Cover

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

The English Patient Book Cover

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

Gone With the Wind Book Cover

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

The Red Tent Book cover

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 Headmaster's Wager

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

Homegoing Book Cover

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

The Orenda

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

Life After Life Book Cover

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

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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abc of xyz
No Mary Renault? Seriously?
C. J. Sanson is the best 🙂 in my opinion Lesley Scoble
The Moor's Account is Fabulous. It should be on this list.
Daphne du Maurier?
Rosemary Sutcliffe Alfred Duggan? What happened?
1,000 White Women by Jim Fergis.
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.
Bernard Cornwell?!
Anya Seton’s Katherine, and Bernard Cornwell’s, The Last Kingdom.
No Bernard Cromwell. That didn't make sense
Thomas B Costa in wrote several historical novels. Never read a bad one. He was a true histronian
1. Angela's Ashes and not a proper historical fiction but "Clan of the Cave Bear" and anything by Sinclair Lewis.
Surprised you have not made any mention of Sharon Kay Penman’s books. True historical fiction.
Ivan Doig, Isabelle Allende, Anne Patchett
What about People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks?
E.L. Doctorow's 'Ragtime'
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
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.
The Elegant Witch by Robert Neill about the infamous Pendle Witch trials. superbly written
Dorothy Dunnett, the Lymond and Nicollo series.
Year Of Wonder & Sacred Hunger
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
There seriously needs to be Mary Renault on this list!
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!
Thanks. Two additions: The Silk Weaver by Gabrielle Warnock The Night Watchman by Louise Erdich..
Enjoying the comments..So a high point is James Meek's The People's Act of Love...
John Boyne's The Absolutist.
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.
Good catch! We are on it. :)
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
Nothing more satisfying than a well-researched piece of historical fiction, am I right? Love McCullough - will have to check out Heyer!
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."
Thanks for the feedback! These lists are always tough to compile, but we love a good back and forth about them! :)
Leaving out Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy is inexcusable, particularly since GWTW and The Help are on the list. For shame!
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. :)
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, .....
*Mountains. No apostrophe!
Thanks for commenting! :)
the sacred hunger, by barry unsworth
Will have to check it out!
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.
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.
I've heard wonderful things about that one! Thanks for sharing! :)
I knew this was an estrogen fueled list. And no Cornwell? What a snoozer list. Almost fell asleep going through it.
Sorry you find estrogen so boring! ;)
How could you leave out Ursula LeGuin's works in scifi?? Left Hand of Darkness is riveting and memorable!
Can't argue with you there! Love LeGuin!! <3
Any of the fantastic books by James Michener
Love the feedback!
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?
Thanks for the feedback! We'll take a look. :)
WHAT??? Where is Conn Iggulden??
I guess we have some reading to do! :)
Great list shame there's no Flash man
We're glad you enjoyed it! I've not heard of Flash Man - can you give us a bit more info?
My all-time favorite novel is the Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. In my opinion it runs circles around a All the Light We Cannot See. It's orders of magnitude better than The Historian (which I thoroughly enjoyed). PLEASE! If you enjoy historical fiction give it a whirl. I promise you it's well worth it. Read the bone clocks afterwards to blow your mind and make you appreciate this masterpiece even more.
Love this passionate endorsement! We'll have to check it out! :)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is wonderful
A great suggestion! :)
Sally Hemmings by Barbara Chase Ribauld
Thanks for the suggestion! :)
1. Lonesome Dove. 2. Sophie’s Choice. 3. The Saxon Chronicles (The Last Kingdom). 4. God Is An Englishman Trilogy. 5. Shogun.
These are all great! Love a good top five list. :) Thanks for sharing!
Walter Scott??
Love the passion! Please expand on your outrage! (In a respectful manner, that is!) :)
Grapes of Wrath
Yes! Can't argue with this one - love Steinbeck.
The Sunne In Splendour by Sharon Penman. Kindled a love of history for me, and especially about the Wars of the Roses
Yes! A couple of us here at ProWritingAid first came to love history through historical fictions of various sorts. I'll have to personally check this one out! Thanks for the suggestion!
Ben Hur? The Source?
Great additions!!! Thanks for contributing. :)
You can't find "Flash Man" because it's "Flashman"
Well, there you have it! Thanks for pointing that out! :)
One of the best historical novels I’ve ever read was By Gaslight written by Steven Price. Brutal but lyrical, descriptive. It not purple-proses, this is a tremendous work.
What a recommendation! Gotta check it out now!!
This is possibly the most ridiculous list of “bests” I have ever encountered. “Shogun” is ahead of “War and Peace”? Are you joking? “War and Peace” is one of the high water marks in the history of literature and you have it listed in fourth place behind some “best sellers”. You have also included the bloated, overwritten, mediocrity “Pillars of the Earth” and, of all things, “Gone With the Wind”. And “The Thornbirds?”I mean, for god’s sake. I’m probably going to get slaughtered for saying this, but we are getting awfully close to outright crap here. The list is a joke. ‘Nuff said.
Well, I've gotta say it - I LOVE a good strong opinion. I know these lists are hard to make, but I am glad that we have so many that people feel strongly about. I just cannot overstate how much I love this reaction! I think it's valid and wonderful! I'm glad for any passionate feelings regarding literature. Thanks for sharing yours. :)
The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley and The Raj Quartet are historical masterpieces
Thanks for these great suggestions!
Where is Mary Renault? And Marguerite Yourcenar? And Gore Vidal?
Excellent point! Sigh... why do lists have to ever end? ;)
I suspect that there are quiteva few stinkers in here but one is definitely Kostova's The Historian. I enjoyed I, Claudius. Reading Shogun now. Enjoying that too.
I, Claudius is a classic! Ever seen the BBC series based around it? Wild. Highly recommend, especially if you are a Latin/Roman history enthusiast.
Not a great list although I suppose you can't argue with Tolstoy or Graves. Good stuff in the comments. I would add George Mcdonald Fraser's Flashman novels, and Neal Stephenson's Baroque cycle, (which admittedly comes with a disclaimer that time travellers should on no account rely on the books for guidance)
Thanks for the suggestions! :)
Who was Flashman? The bully in Tom Brown's Schooldays, and the inspiration for School Bully in the pythonesque Tomkinson's Schooldays. GMF took the character and ran with it. After expulsion from Rugby the arrant coward and all round bad egg accidentally forges a heroic reputation in the Victorian army, repeatedly finding himself in the heat of the action, eyewitness to all the major disasters of the 19th century British army from Afghanistan to Zululand and miraculously emerging with his skin and reputation intact.
Sir Walter Scott. Rob Roy, Ivanhoe & The Bride of Lammermoor to name but three.
Yes, yes and yes!!
Gates of Fire by Press field, Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff are two fantastic books
Oooo yes! We love Cleopatra - we'll have to check out these titles! Thanks for the suggestions!
And just like that I've a dozen more additions to the list with every article I come across. I gotta go on a vacation to keep up the pace now haha. Although I'm amazed Joseph Woodward didn't make the list, he's an award winning author and rightly deserved I must say. You gotta check out his historical fiction best sellers.
Oh my goodness - we know the feeling!! And thanks for the suggestion - we love those. ;)
Jubilee by noted historian, Margaret Walker, SHOULD be read (paired) with Gone With the Wind. You'll see the relationship more clearly after reading BOTH novels. Jubilee, however, is the most.historically accurate, is unapologetically written better, yet the story grips the reader's interest -- like a soap opera, although more Dickensian.
Thanks for the suggestion! Definitely sounds like something worth checking out. :)
It boggles my mind that the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian is not somewhere near the top of the list.
Hi there! Thanks for your feedback. We're still very big fans of the series too.
"Silence" by Shusaku Endo is a great piece of historical fiction.
I've heard good things about this one, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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