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

A Thousand Ships

by Natalie Haynes

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Part history, part legend, the Trojan War often defines antiquity. Natalie Haynes’s powerful 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. Shortlisted 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.

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Historical fiction books set in Ancient Rome

The Emperor’s Babe

by Bernadine Evaristo

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Booker Prize 2019 winner Bernadine Evaristo’s back catalogue is expansive. 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 . . .

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Historical fiction books set in medieval England

The Evening and the Morning

by Ken Follett

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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.

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The Pillars of the Earth

by Ken Follett

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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.

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Historical fiction books set in the 16th century

The Sin Eater

by Megan Campisi

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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.

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The Burning Chambers

by Kate Mosse

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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.

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Tombland

by C. J. Sansom

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Set in Tudor England

In a novel 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.

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Historical fiction books set in the 17th century 

The Mercies

by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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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.

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Historical fiction books set in the 18th century 

Ross Poldark

by Winston Graham

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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 . . .

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Historical fiction books set in the 19th century

The Doll Factory

by Elizabeth Macneal

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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.

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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

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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.

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Beloved

by Toni Morrison

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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.

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Historical fiction books set in the 20th century

The Winter Soldier

by Daniel Mason

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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. 

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The Pull of the Stars

by Emma Donoghue

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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.

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Under a Wartime Sky

by Liz Trenow

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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.

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The Hiding Game

by Naomi Wood

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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.

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The Animals at Lockwood Manor

by Jane Healey

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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.

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The Yellow Bird Sings

by Jennifer Rosner

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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. 

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Dear Mrs Bird

by AJ Pearce

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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?

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The Muse

by Jessie Burton

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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.

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The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing

by Mary Paulson-Ellis

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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.

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