There’s a reason we’re drawn to the past. History is inescapable. Decisions are made on the back of past events, and lives are affected by the stories of those that came before us. Historical fiction books resonate with modern readers because they give us the chance to immerse ourselves in another time. Each of the books on this list tells the stories of different characters, from the plains of Ancient Greece to the trenches of WWII.
Historical fiction books set in Ancient Greece
Part history, part legend, the Trojan War often defines antiquity. Natalie Haynes’s powerful historical novel gives new life to the story of two ancient cultures at war. She takes a tale of heroes and kings and explores the experiences of the women caught up in these terrifying events. From slave women to queens, and even a goddess or two, Natalie Haynes’ retelling puts female voices front and centre. Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2020 and chosen as one of
The Guardian's 'Best Books of 2019', if you're looking for your next historical fiction read, A Thousand Ships is not to be missed. Read Natalie Haynes on her top five ancient Greek women on film. Historical fiction books set in Ancient Rome
The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo
Booker Prize 2019 winner Bernadine Evaristo’s back catalogue is expansive, and this historical novel is a must-read for fans. In
The Emperor’s Babe, visit 2nd century Londinium and follow Zuleika, a Nubian woman in a Roman world just trying to survive. She knows the city, with its slave girls and drag queens, villas and slums, and she knows how to stay one step ahead. Until, that is, she attracts the attention of the Roman Emperor, the most powerful man on Earth . . . Historical fiction books set in medieval England
It is the end of the Dark Ages and England is facing attack from both the Welsh and the Vikings. This is a harsh world, full of chaos and bloodshed, and the King has only a fragile grip on his country.
As the Middle Ages dawn, three very different characters will face a ruthless bishop who is desperate to increase his wealth and power. A young boatbuilder dreams of a better life for him and the woman he loves. A Norman noblewoman follows her husband across the sea to a shocking new world. A capable monk dreams of turning his humble abbey into a centre of learning admired across Europe.
This epic tale of ambition and rivalry is the prequel to Ken Follett's international bestseller
The Pillars of the Earth, and the fourth book in his historical fiction series.
Discover all of
Ken Follett's Kingsbridge novels in order.
Welcome to medieval England, where a civil war ravages the country and a monk is on a mission. Ken’s
The Pillars of the Earth follows Philip, a devoted monk, who joins forces with Tom, a talented builder, to undertake the most ambitious project either has ever set themselves to. In a world in turmoil, however, their journey will not be a smooth one.
The first book in Ken Follett's series,
The Kingsbridge Novels, this historical saga is one to get lost in. Historical fiction books set in the 16th century
Set in 16th century Europe
This impactful blend of history and literary fiction tells the story of a brutal episode from the past when, in the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation took on the privileged and the powerful. Eric Vuillard’s portrait of one man, Thomas Müntzer, casts light on a time in which Europe was in flux. This is literary historical fiction at its finest.
Set in Tudor England
Tombland is the seventh novel in C. J. Sansom's historical fiction Shardlake series. Set in a politically unstable England following the death of Henry VIII, the intrepid investigator Shardlake must uncover the mystery surrounding the murder of Edith Boleyn before it results in the complete unravelling of the English court.
Find out more about the real-life events that inspired Tombland .
Set in 16th century France The Burning Chambers is a perfect example of Kate Mosse’s expert hand when it comes to painting a historical picture. She takes readers along with her to France in the year 1562, where a mysterious conspiracy is afoot, and nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter and meets a young Huguenot convert who will change her life forever. Love, loyalty, and the truth battle it out in this epic 16th century adventure.
Set in 16th century France
The sequel to bestselling author Kate Mosse’s epic historical fiction novel
The Burning Chambers, The City of Tears is set in France in 1572, when the Wars of Religion have been raging for ten violent years. A royal wedding may mean peace at last, but when Minou Joubert receives a wedding invitation she has no idea that in the days following the marriage her own family will be ripped apart. This is set to be one of the best historical fiction books of 2021.
Set in 16th century England
Set in a thinly disguised 16th century England, Megan Campisi’s debut novel is a wonderfully woven tale of treason and treachery, women and power. When fourteen year old May is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread she is sentenced to become a Sin Eater, a devastating sentence that will see her shunned by society and exiled to the edge of town. For a Sin Eater hears the confessions of the dying and eats their sins as a funeral rite, and is believed to be stained by these sins. When May is called to hear the deathbed confessions of two of the Queen’s courtiers she hears whispers of a terrible rumour her invisibility allows her to investigate.
Read Megan Campisi on the truth behind her novel The Sin Eater.
Discover the best feminist historical fiction with this episode of Book Break Historical fiction books set in the 17th century
Set in 17th century Norway
When the men of Vardø are all but wiped out in a devastating storm, the surviving women have no choice but to fend for themselves. But as the women grow increasingly independent, suspicions and rivalries grow, coming to a dangerous head with the arrival of Scottish commissioner Absalom Cornet. The Mercies is based on the true story of a devastating storm that hit the Norwegian island of Vardø in 1617 and the subsequent witch trials of 1621.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave tells us more about the witch trials that inspired The Mercies . Historical fiction books set in the 18th century
Set in 18th century Britain
Historical fiction is often the basis for some of the most acclaimed and popular period dramas, and Winston Graham’s Poldark series is no exception. Fans of the Poldark TV series in particular, and historical fiction in general, will love this sweeping saga. In the first book Ross Poldark, the eponymous hero returns home from the American War of Independence to find his estate derelict and the woman he loves engaged to his cousin . . .
Discover all the Poldark books in order. Historical fiction books set in the 19th century
Set in 19th century Britain
In 1850s London Iris dreams of becoming an artist. In a country that treats her as a second-class citizen because of her sex she jumps at the chance to study under pre-Raphaelite painter Louis Frost in exchange for posing as his model. Unknown to her, however, this isn’t the only man who has her in his sights and a dark obsession bubbles in a stranger watching from the periphery.
Read two exclusive extracts from The Doll Factory.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Set in 19th century Nigeria
Achebe is often praised as the father of modern African literature, for his precise prose and deep insight into the lives of Africans in both his own time and the past. Through the story of an Igbo wrestler named Okonkwo, Things Falls Apart explores pre-colonial Nigeria and the brutal first impact of British rule.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Set in 19th century USA
Beloved opens less than a decade after the abolition of slavery in the USA and follows the life of the now emancipated Sethe and family as they try to build a new life for themselves. Disturbances in their home lead them to believe that Sethe’s older daughter, who died years earlier, is haunting them. This must-read novel explores the psychological effects of slavery as well as family and gender dynamics.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is the historical novel that Oprah Winfrey called, ‘One of the best books I have ever read in my entire life.’ Hiram Walker was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation, but one fateful decision will take him away from his plantation family and into the heart of the underground war on slavery. For Hiram is a man with a secret, a mysterious power he was gifted at birth.
Historical fiction books set in the 20th century
Set in 1914 Vienna
This novel opens with the beginning of WWI. Readers follow Lucias, a medical student in Vienna, who enlists and finds himself stationed in a remote field-hospital ravaged by typhus. His dreams of saving lives are confronted with the stark reality of war, which is unlike anything he could ever have encountered in glamorous Vienna. With the help of a battle-hardened nurse he learns a brutal makeshift medicine, but when an unconscious soldier is brought to him for treatment, the decisions Lucias makes will change his life forever.
Set in 1918 Ireland
As war and disease ravage Ireland, Nurse Julia Power works in a tiny ward in an understaffed hospital, where expectant mothers struck by an unfamiliar flu are quarantined together. Julia is assisted by two new arrivals, Doctor Kathleen Lynn, on the run from the police, and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney, and over the course of three days these women will change each other's lives in unexpected ways. The Pull of the Stars is a classic story of hope and survival from the bestselling author of
Read more about Emma's inspiration for The Pull of the Stars.
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
Set in the southern United States in the 1930s, this historical novel focuses on the lives of Black women and the hardships they endure and tackles themes of racism, poverty and violence. Separated as children, sisters Celie and Nettie nevertheless maintain a close bond despite the years they spend apart. Celie suffers through horrific abuse and terrible marriage, but when she meets a woman unlike any she has ever known, she finds the strength to free herself from her past and reunite with those she loves.
Set in 1936 Britain
In 1936, as the threat of war hangs over Europe, Churchill gathers the brightest minds in Britain together in a Suffolk country house. Their mission? To invent the technology that could mean victory for the Allies. Vic, a shy physicist, has finally found a place where he belongs, and when Kath is recruited to operate the top-secret system they form an unlikely friendship as bombs fall over Britain.
Set in 1940s Europe
Told with fairytale lyricism, this historical novel is set against the horrors of the Holocaust. Once upon a time, a poor woodcutter and his wife lived in a forest. Despite their poverty and the war raging around them, the wife prays that they will be blessed with a child.
A Jewish man rides on a train with his wife and twin babies. When his wife no longer has enough milk to feed them both, in desperation he throws his daughter into the forest, hoping that she’ll be saved. When the woodcutter’s wife finds the baby she takes her home, though she knows this act of kindness may lead to her death. This moving historical fiction book is a testament to our capacity for kindness in even the darkest times.
Set in 1922 Germany
Set in the turbulent years of pre-WW2 Germany, within the radical Bauhaus art school, The Hiding Game is an evocative novel of love, obsession and haunting secrets. When Paul Beckermann arrives at the Bauhaus, he quickly and totally immerses himself in the school’s revolutionary teachings as he builds an intense friendship with a group of fellow students.
Paul falls almost instantly in love with the enigmatic Charlotte, but he’s not the only one, and friendships eventually disintegrate under the pressure of rivalries and betrayals as the Bauhaus finds itself under threat.
The Animals at Lockwood Manor by 27362
Set in 1939 Britain
Hetty needs to find a safe place to store the animals from the Natural History Museum during the war and she finds that safe place in Lockwood Manor. At least it seemed safe enough until some of the exhibits under her care begin to go missing. Hetty must balance her determination to protect her charges with her confusing feelings for the lady of the house in this immersive 20th century story.
Don't miss Jane Healey's pick of the best gothic novels.
Set in 1941 Poland
In Poland, 1941, Róza and her five-year-old daughter, Shira, spend their days and nights hiding in a farmer's barn after escaping being rounded up with the other Jews in their town. Róza tells her daughter stories of a yellow bird, the only one who can sing the melodies Shira composes in her head. Róza would do anything to keep her daughter safe, but eventualy she is faced with an impossible choice – keep her close, or let her go and give her a chance to survive.
Set in 1941 Britain
Womens' lives in Britain were upended when their men were sent to WWII. Emmeline is one of these women. In the midst of war she takes on a job as an assistant to the stark and unyielding Mrs Bird, a magazine agony aunt. Though it’s not quite the war correspondent role she was hoping for, Emmeline finds that there’s more than enough work to do helping those women left behind. And when she learns of all the letters containing ‘Unpleasantness’ that Mrs Bird ignores, what is there for Emmy to do but write back?
Set in 20th century Britain
Jessie Burton’s The Muse guides readers through 1967 London and 1936 Spain. The connection between these two periods is a painting with a story of its own. For protagonist Odelle to understand her present in the 1960s she must look back and unlock the mysteries of this masterpiece and the family who owned it thirty years before.
Set in 20th century Britain
When a war veteran passes away in an Edinburgh nursing home, it seems as though he has no known family. But the fifty thousand pounds found sewn into his burial suit attracts the attention of heir hunter Solomon Farthing, who hopes that if he finds the man’s closest living relative he’ll get a share of the money. His investigations lead him to a mystery dating back to 1918, when a group of abandoned soldiers sheltered in a French farmhouse to await the armistice. Flitting between contemporary Edinburgh and WWI, Mary creates a vivid picture of both settings that demonstrates how intertwined our presents are with our pasts.
For even more historical fiction recommendations, don't miss this episode of Book Break: