34 of the best historical fiction books of all time

The best historical fiction allows us to immerse ourselves in eras long past. Our edit of the best historical fiction books ever written is perfect reading inspiration for when you want to lose yourself in another time and place.

13/05/2021
6 minutes to read

Exceptional historical fiction is meticulously researched and wonderfully evocative of times gone by. Whether you’re looking for the sweeping romance of  Winston Graham’s historical fiction series Poldark, or feminist retellings of ancient Greek myth like Natalie Haynes’s  A Thousand Ships, there’s a historical fiction novel to match your interests.  Here, Jean Menzies shares some of the very best historical novels of all time.

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 historical fiction novels on this list tells the stories of different characters, from the plains of Ancient Greece to the trenches of WWI.


Historical fiction books set in Ancient Greece

A Thousand Ships

by Natalie Haynes

Book cover for 9781509836215

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

Book cover for The Emperor’s Babe

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 the 12th century

The Land Beyond the Sea

by Sharon Penman

Book cover for 9781447287537

In 1172 the Kingdom of Jerusalem is also known as Outremer – the land beyond the sea. When the men of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem from the Saracens in 1099, many crusaders stayed on and built a life in this new world of blazing heat, exotic customs and enemies who are also neighbours. But now Saladin, leader of the vast Saracen army, is seeking retribution for the massacre in 1099 . . .

Historical fiction books set in medieval England

The Evening and the Morning

by Ken Follett

Book cover for 9781447278788

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.

The Pillars of the Earth

by Ken Follett

Book cover for 9781509848492

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

The Sin Eater

by Megan Campisi

Book cover for 9781529019063

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.

City of Vengeance

by D. V. Bishop

Book cover for 9781529038774

Set in 16th century Florence

When a prominent Jewish moneylender is found dead, Cesare Aldo, an officer of the criminal court, is tasked with solving his murder. Over the course of his investigation, Aldo uncovers a plot to overthrow the unstable ruler of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici. Aldo is caught in a frantic race against time to solve the murder and stop the conspiracy, while keeping his own secrets safely locked away. This historical crime thriller is an exciting debut from D. V. Bishop.

The War of the Poor

by Eric Vuillard

Book cover for 9781529038538

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. 

Tombland

by C. J. Sansom

Book cover for 9781447284512

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.   

The Burning Chambers

by Kate Mosse

Book cover for 9781509806850

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.

The City of Tears

by Kate Mosse

Book cover for 9781509806874

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.

Historical fiction books set in the 17th century 

The Mercies

by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Book cover for 9781529075076

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 

Daughters of Night

by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Book cover for 9781509880829

Set in 18th century London

This historical crime fiction novel is the second from Laura Shepherd-Robinson, following her award-winning debut Blood & Sugar. Set in London in 1782, it’s the story of Caroline Corsham, who is determined to seek justice for a string of murders of high-class prostitutes – crimes that the police are all too happy to ignore. As she delves deeper into the darkest, hidden corners of Georgian society, Caroline soon finds that much more than her reputation is at stake. . .

Ross Poldark

by Winston Graham

Book cover for 9781447281528

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

Circus of Wonders

by Elizabeth Macneal

Book cover for 9781529002539

1866. In a coastal village in southern England, Nell picks violets for a living. Set apart by her community because of the birthmarks that speckle her skin, Nell’s world is her beloved brother and devotion to the sea. But when Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in the village, Nell is kidnapped. Moving from the pleasure gardens of Victorian London to the battle-scarred plains of the Crimea, Circus of Wonders is an astonishing story about power and ownership, fame and the threat of invisibility.

The Piano Tuner

by Daniel Mason

Book cover for 9781529053821

Set in 1880s London and Burma

Piano tuner Edgar Drake has recieved an unusual and unexpected request from the War Office: he must travel to the jungles of Burma to repair a rare grand piano owned by an enigmatic army surgeon. His journey will take him across Europe, over the Red Sea and into India and beyond, accompanied by an elusive woman. As Edgar begins to question the motive for his mission, he wonders if he will return home to the wife who waits for him . . . 

The Doll Factory

by Elizabeth Macneal

Book cover for 9781529002430

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

Book cover for Things Fall Apart

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

Book cover for Beloved

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

Book cover for The Water Dancer

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

Yours Cheerfully

by AJ Pearce

Book cover for 9781509853946

A sequel to AJ Pearce's heartwarming and touching debut, Dear Mrs Bird .

When the Ministry of Information calls on Britain’s women’s magazines to help recruit desperately needed female workers to the war effort, Emmy is thrilled to be asked to step up and help. But when she and Bunty meet a young woman who shows them the very real challenges that women war workers face, Emmy must tackle a life-changing dilemma between doing her duty, and standing by her friends.

The Secrets of the Lake

by Liz Trenow

Book cover for 9781529036619

Set in 20th century England

The war may be over, but for Molly life is still in turmoil. Uprooted from London after the death of her mother, Molly, her father and younger brother Jimmy are starting again in a quiet village in the countryside of Colchester. As summer sets in, the heat is almost as oppressive as the village gossip. Molly dreams of becoming a journalist, finding a voice in the world, but most of the time must act as Jimmy’s carer. At just ten years old he is Molly’s shadow, following her around the village as she falls under the spell of local boy Kit.

Pippo and Clara

by Diana Rosie

Book cover for 9781447293057

Set in 20th century Italy

It’s 1938, Mussolini is in power in Italy and war is on the horizon. Pippo and Clara are brother and sister, newly arrived in an unspecified city with their family. When their mother goes missing one morning they both go in search of her, with Clara turning right and Pippo left. As a result of their choices, the children’s lives will be changed forever. 

The Four Winds

by Kristin Hannah

Book cover for 9781529054569

Set in 1914 Texas

Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing, called this historical fiction novel from Kristin Hannah ‘powerful and compelling.’ Elsa Martinelli finally has everything she had wished for – a family, a home and a livelihood on a farm on the Great Plains. But when drought threatens her family and community, Elsa must decide whether to stay and fight for the land she loves or flee to California in search of a better life. 

The Pull of the Stars

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for 9781529046151

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 Room.

Read more about Emma's inspiration for The Pull of the Stars. 


The Most Precious of Cargoes

by Jean-Claude Grumberg

Book cover for 9781529019568

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. 

The Hiding Game

by 6123

Book cover for 9781509892785

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.

Edge of the Grave

by Robbie Morrison

Book cover for 9781529054019

Perfect for fans of Peaky Blinders, Robbie Morrison’s debut is a dark historical crime novel set in a Glasgow still recovering from the war, split by religious division and swarming with razor gangs. When the son-in-law of one of the city’s wealthiest shipbuilders is found murdered, Inspector Jimmy Dreghorn is assigned to the case. But his troubled history with the victim’s widow may cause problems . . . Meanwhile, a sadistic murderer stalks the city’s streets, leaving a trail of dead bodies behind. 

The Yellow Bird Sings

by Jennifer Rosner

Book cover for 9781529032475

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.

The Muse

by Jessie Burton

Book cover for 9781447250975

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.

The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing

by Mary Paulson-Ellis

Book cover for 9781447293941

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.

The Nickel Boys

by Colson Whitehead

Book cover for The Nickel Boys

Set in 1960s America

Colson Whitehead's second Pulitzer Prize-wining novel is based on the history of a real reform school in Florida. When one innocent mistake sees Elwood Curtis sentenced to a period of time at The Nickel Academy he is faced with a vicious environment of emotional and physical abuse. He befriends fellow inmate Tucker, but one decision will have decades-long repercussions for both boys.  

Kololo Hill

by Neema Shah

Book cover for 9781529030501

Set in 1970s Uganda and Britain

Neema Shah’s debut is a heartbreaking historical fiction novel set in Uganda and Britain. When a devastating decree is announced which says all Ugandan Asians must leave the country in ninety days, Asha and Pran and Pran’s mother Jaya must leave everything they’ve ever known for a new life in Britain. But as they try to rebuild their lives, a terrible secret hangs over them.

The Lamplighters

by Emma Stonex

Book cover for 9781529047318

Set in 1970s Cornwall

Inspired by true events, Emma Stonex’s debut historical novel is a riveting mystery which will grip the reader, and a beautifully written exploration of love and grief. In Cornwall in 1972, three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from shore. The door is locked from the inside, and the clocks have stopped. What happened to those men, and to the women they left behind?

For even more historical fiction recommendations, don't miss this episode of Book Break: