39 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 with a cast of characters in another time and place.

09/05/2022
7 minutes to read
Historical fiction novels - The Attic Child, Devotion and Kololo Hill - against a faded backdrop of old notes.

Bestselling historical books are meticulously researched and wonderfully evocative of times gone by. Whether you’re looking for the sweeping historical romance of Winston Graham’s historical fiction series Poldark, feminist retellings of ancient Greek myth like Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, or Ken Follett's masterfully medieval The Pillars of the Earth, 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, the dark middle ages, or the battlefields of WWI and WWII. 

Discover our edit of the best historical dramas and new historical books coming soon:


Historical fiction books set in Ancient Greece

The Children of Jocasta

by Natalie Haynes

Book cover for The Children of Jocasta

Set in mythological Ancient Greece

The Children of Jocasta is a classic Ancient Greek tale flipped on its head. In gripping prose, Natalie Haynes reimagines the Oedipus and Antigone stories from mythology if the often-overlooked female characters were at the centre, and in the process tells a new side of this ancient story.

A Thousand Ships

by Natalie Haynes

Book cover for A Thousand Ships

Set in Ancient Troy

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

Set in 3rd century Roman London

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 Biblical times

The Red Tent

by Anita Diamant

Book cover for The Red Tent

In the Bible, the fate of Dinah is only given a brief and violent reference: she features in the Book of Genesis story that tells the tale of Jacob and his twelve sons. But Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent gives Dinah space to live and breathe. The narrative, which uses Dinah's voice, is one of betrayal, sorrow and love. Diamant’s feminist text weaves vivid storytelling with original insights into the lives of women in early history.


Historical fiction books set in the 10th century

The Evening and the Morning

by Ken Follett

Book cover for The Evening and the Morning

Set in 10th century 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.


Historical fiction books set in the 12th century

The Land Beyond the Sea

by Sharon Penman

Book cover for The Land Beyond the Sea

Set in 12th century Jerusalem and Europe

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 Pillars of the Earth

by Ken Follett

Book cover for The Pillars of the Earth

Set in 12th century England

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 14th century

She Who Became the Sun

by Shelley Parker-Chan

Book cover for She Who Became the Sun

Set in 14th century China

An absorbing historical fantasy, She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan reimagines the rise to power of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor. In a famine-stricken village on a dusty plain, a seer shows two children their fates. For a family’s eighth-born son, there’s greatness. For the second daughter, nothing.

In 1345, China lies restless under harsh Mongol rule. And when a bandit raid wipes out their home, the two children must somehow survive. Zhu Chongba despairs and gives in. But the girl resolves to overcome her destiny. So she takes her dead brother’s identity and begins her journey. Can Zhu escape what’s written in the stars, as rebellion sweeps the land? Or can she claim her brother’s greatness – and rise as high as she can dream?


Historical fiction books set in the 16th century

The Dance Tree

by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Book cover for The Dance Tree

It's 1518 in Strasbourg, and in the intense summer heat a solitary woman starts to dance in the main square. She dances for days without rest, and is joined by hundreds of other women. The city authorities declare a state of emergency, and bring in musicians to play the devil out of the dancing women. Meanwhile pregnant Lisbet, who lives at the edge of the city, is tending to the family's bees. The dancing plague intensifies, as Lisbet is drawn into a net of secret passions and deceptions. Inspired by true events, this is a compelling story of superstition, transformative change and women pushed to their limits.

The Darkest Sin

by D. V. Bishop

Book cover for The Darkest Sin

It's spring in Florence in 1537, and Cesare Aldo is investigating a report that a convent in the northern quarter has been breached. Soon Aldo finds himself immersed in a bitterly divided community. And when a man's body is found in the convent, it seems as if one of the nuns must be the murderer. Meanwhile, Constable Carlo Strocchi finds human body parts in the Arno, which turn out to be the remains of a much feared officer who went missing in the winter. Aldo and Strocchi search for the truth, in an investigation that is increasingly full of peril.

The Sin Eater

by Megan Campisi

Book cover for The Sin Eater

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.

Tombland

by C. J. Sansom

Book cover for Tombland

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 City of Tears

by Kate Mosse

Book cover for The City of Tears

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 The Mercies

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 Daughters of Night

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 Ross Poldark

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

Devotion

by Hannah Kent

Book cover for Devotion

It's 1836 in Prussia, and teenage Hanne is finding the domestic world of womanhood increasingly oppressive. She longs to be out in nature, and finds little companionship with the local girls. Until, that is, she meets kindred spirit Thea. Hanne is from a family of Old Lutherans, whose worship is suppressed and secret. Safe passage to Australia offers liberty from these restrictions. But a long and harsh journey lies ahead, one which will put the girls' close bond to a terrible test.

Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter

by Lizzie Pook

Book cover for Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter

It's 1886, and the Brightwell family has just arrived at Bannin Bay in Western Australia after a long sea voyage from England. Ten-year-old Eliza has been promised bright pearls, shells like soup plates and good fortunes in a new land. Ten years later, and Eliza's father Charles Brightwell is the most successful pearler on the bay. When he goes missing from his boat at sea, rumours of mutiny and murder swirl across the bay. But Eliza refuses to believe that her father is dead and, in a town mired in corruption, she sets out to find the truth.

The Midwife

by Tricia Cresswell

Book cover for The Midwife

1838. A violent storm has hit the Northumberland coast, and a woman is found alone, naked and on the verge of death. She has no memory of how she got there, but she can speak fluent French, dress a wound and help women give birth. She starts to rebuild her life, helping those around her and finding a fragile happiness. Until tragedy strikes and she must go into hiding. Meanwhile in London, respectable Dr Borthwick assists mothers and babies in high society, and in the slums of Devil's Acre. The solitary doctor has a secret though, one which threatens to engulf him . . .

Gone with the Wind

by Margaret Mitchell

Book cover for Gone with the Wind

Set in the American Civil War.

Playing out against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Gone With the Wind's story introduced the world to privileged, beautiful, ruthless Scarlett O’Hara, famously portrayed by Vivien Leigh in the 1939 film adaptation. This story of love, loss and a nation divided has endured as a classic, both in film and literature since it was first published in 1936.

Circus of Wonders

by Elizabeth Macneal

Book cover for Circus of Wonders

Set in 1860s Europe.

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.

Dead Man's Walk

by Larry McMurtry

Book cover for Dead Man's Walk

Set in the American West, 1840s.

The first book in the famed Lonesome Dove series from Larry McMurtry, Dead Man's Walk is a classic western that takes you deep into the heart of the American West. 

These are the wild days when Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call first encounter the untamed frontier that will form their characters. Not yet twenty, Gus and Call enlist as Texas Rangers under the command of Caleb Cobb, a capricious outlaw determined to seize Santa Fe from the Mexicans. The two young men experience their first great adventure in the barren, empty landscape of the great plains, in which arbitrary violence is the only law – whether from nature, or from those whose territory they must cross in order to reach New Mexico.

Danger, sacrifice and fear test Gus and Call to the limits of endurance, as they seek the strength and courage to survive against almost insurmountable odds.

Beloved

by Toni Morrison

Book cover for Beloved

Set in 19th century America

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. 

The Redemption of Philip Thane

by Lisa Berne

Book cover for The Redemption of Philip Thane

Meet Philip Thane: an unrepentant rogue and a scoundrel. He never wanted to come to little Whittlesey to make a speech, and he certainly didn't want to be stuck in a loop, living the same day over and over again. He takes the chance though to get close to Miss Margaret Allen, who is in town to research a book. Philip is astonished to find she can resist his charms. Maybe, just maybe, it's time for Philip to take a good look at himself and win her heart the right way. A must for fans of Bridgerton.


Historical fiction books set in the 20th century

The Lamplighters

by Emma Stonex

Book cover for The Lamplighters

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?

The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle

by Jennifer Ryan

Book cover for The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle

Inspired by true events in the Second World War, The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle is centred around famous London fashion designer Cressida Westcott who loses her home and business in the Blitz. With nothing left in the world, Cressida returns to the family manor house that she escaped decades before. Niece Violet is delighted that her celebrated aunt has appeared, having been desperately bored in a village deprived of men. Meanwhile the vicar’s daughter Grace is trying to repair her mother's wedding dress, for her own white wedding. When Cressida joins the sewing circle Grace asks for help, and soon the group are mending wedding dresses for women around the country. And as they celebrate love and romance for others, it seems they might also find it for themselves . . .

Soul Sisters

by Lesley Lokko

Book cover for Soul Sisters

Soul Sisters tells the story of the lifelong friendship between Scottish Jen McFadden and South African-born Kemisa Mashabane, known to friends as Kemi. Since they were children, Jen and Kemi have lived like sisters in the McFadden home in Edinburgh. On a visit to London the women meet handsome South African lawyer Solam Rhoyi and he has a great impact on them both. Kemi returns to her birth country of South Africa, and Jen decides to come too. It soon becomes clear that Solam is looking for a wife to help further his political ambitions. Which one will he choose? The women, bound by friendship, family and love, are also connected by a buried family secret, one which threatens to reveal itself with shocking consequences . . . 

The Attic Child

by Lola Jaye

Book cover for The Attic Child

It's 1907, and twelve-year-old Celestine is locked in the attic of a house by the sea. He has been forcibly removed from his home in Africa and is treated as a servant. He dreams of home and family, even as his mother's face, and his real name, begin to fade. Decades later a young orphan girl is banished to the same attic. Under the floorboards she finds mysterious artefacts, and on a wall there is a sentence etched in a language she does not recognise. What she does recognise though, is that she is not the first child to be held captive in the attic. This dual-narrative tale of love, loss and family secrets shines a light on the early Black British experience. 

The Kitchen Front

by Jennifer Ryan

Book cover for The Kitchen Front

Young widow Audrey is trying to keep a roof over her and her children's heads, two years into the Second World War. So she decides to enter a BBC cooking contest, which aims to help housewives eke out their rations. The prize is a role as the programme's first-ever co-host, and the competition is intense: there's Audrey's estranged sister Gwendoline, Gwendoline's maid Nell, and trained chef Zelda, who is desperate to succeed in a man's world – and to keep her secret hidden . . .

A Marvellous Light

by Freya Marske

Book cover for A Marvellous Light

Historical fiction with a difference: this is an alternative, magic-soaked version of Edwardian England. Youthful baronet Robin Blyth had assumed he was in line for a minor role in government. But, as it turns out, he's actually the parliamentary liaison for a secretive magic society. Against an idyllic backdrop of hedge mazes and manor houses, Robin must foil a plot that endangers every magician in the entire country.

If you love books with a fantastical twist, discover our edit of the best fantasy books, here.

The Woman Warrior

by Maxine Hong Kingston

Book cover for The Woman Warrior

Chinese-American Hong Kingston delves into her mother’s past in this tale of a changing China in the 1940s. Fusing myth and memoir, The Woman Warrior is a classic of feminist writing. Throughout her childhood, Maxine Hong Kingston listened to her mother's mesmerizing tales of a China where girls are worthless, tradition is exalted and only a strong, wily woman can scratch her way upwards. Growing up in a changing America, surrounded by Chinese myth and memory, this is her story of two cultures and one trenchant, lyrical journey into womanhood.

Sunset Swing

by Ray Celestin

Book cover for Sunset Swing

Kerry Gaudet, a young nurse, travels to LA on an urgent hunt to find her missing brother. A serial killer is on the loose, and Kerry fears the worst. Meanwhile, recently retired PI Ida Young is reluctantly helping the police, when a young woman is found dead in her hotel room – the LAPD turn their gaze on Ida as the main suspect. And Dante Sanfelippo is trying to extricate himself from the Mob so he can move to the Napa Valley to make wine. First he has one more favour to do, one that throws him headlong into a dangerous conspiracy. This swirling story of life and death in the City of Angels completes Ray Celestin's  American crime quartet.

Yours Cheerfully

by AJ Pearce

Book cover for Yours Cheerfully

Set in 1940s England

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.

Pippo and Clara

by Diana Rosie

Book cover for Pippo and Clara

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 Pull of the Stars

by Emma Donoghue

Book cover for The Pull of the Stars

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 The Most Precious of Cargoes

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 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 Kololo Hill

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.

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

Book Break: The Best New Historical Fiction