Books: 50 Essential Historical Fiction Novels (82.html)

List Created by Abe Books
List Created by Abe Books

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

With Eleanor Catton's 2013 Booker Prize for The Luminaries falling so closely on the heels of Hilary Mantel's wins in 2009 and 2012, for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies respectively, interest in historical fiction has never been higher. No longer dismissed as bodice-rippers rife with anachronisms or dreary textbooks dressed up in barely discernible plots, historical fiction is gaining the respect of critics and readers alike, regularly appearing on shortlists for major literary awards and on bestseller lists around the world.

Generally speaking, historical fiction is any story that is set in a time period in the past, but depending on who you ask, the criteria can be more - or less - stringent than that. The Walter Scott Prize, created in 2010 to recognize excellence in UK, Irish, and Commonwealth historical fiction, limits the definition to events that take place at least 60 years before publication, during a historical period with which the author has no personal experience.

Regardless of how long ago an historical novel takes place, accuracy and authenticity of the historical setting are absolutely essential. But that doesn't just apply to the physical setting; the worldview of the characters, their values, mores, and general sensibilities must accurately reflect their era. Truly great historical fiction has the ability to portray those sensibilities in a way that can do more than just provide a glimpse into the past - it can also provide insight into contemporary situations and ways of being.

The fact that we're talking about fiction also means that while historical authenticity is important, imagined elements of the story don't have to be based on fact. There is a wide variety of opinion on how much artistic license a writer should be permitted with fictional components, as reflected in the diverse selection below. For the actions and experiences of fictional characters, some will say the only limitation is the author's imagination but for non-fictional events and people, the story must stay true to the historical record. Others allow more leeway, allowing the author to put real people into imaginary situations, as long as the historical outcome remains unaltered.

The books listed below include examples of historical fiction by the strictest of definitions, as well as those that fudge the rules a bit - or a lot. Written over the last 200+ years, with settings that range from ancient Rome in Robert Graves' I, Claudius, to 19th century Egypt and an imaginary relationship between Gustav Flaubert and Florence Nightingale in Enid Shomer's The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, to Malaysia during and after the Japanese occupation of World War II in The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng.

50 Essential Historical Fiction Novels

Quo Vadis

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by Henryk Sienkiewicz

A love story between a Christian woman and a Roman man during the rule of Nero.

I, Claudius

by Robert Graves

A fictionalized autobiography of the Roman emperor Claudius.

The Egyptian

by Mika Waltari

1949 Finnish novel that was the bestselling foreign novel in the US until 1983.

The Pillars of the Earth

by Ken Follett

Intrigue surrounds the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England.

Kristin Lavransdatter

by Sigrid Undset

1928 Nobel Prize-winning trilogy depicting Norwegian life in the Middle Ages.

The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco

A highly-literary murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery.

The HunchBack of Notre Dame

by Victor Hugo

Gothic novel that inspired a flood of tourists to Paris's most famous cathedral.


by George Eliot

Eliot's study of life in Florence during the 15th century Italian Renaissance.

The Twentieth Wife

by Indu Sundaresan

Story of one of the most controversial empresses of India's 16th century Mughal Empire.

The Other Boleyn Girl

by Philippa Gregory

Entertaining if inaccurate portrayal of Ann Boleyn's sister, Mary.

Bring Up the Bodies

by Hilary Mantel

Sequel to Wolf Hall, chronicling Cromwell's machinations to rid Henry VIII of Anne Boleyn.

The Three Musketeers

by Alexandre Dumas

Swashbuckling tale of d'Artagnan and the three Musketeers in 17th century France.


by Shusaku Endo

The story of a Portugese Jesuit missionary's persecution in 17th century Japan.


by Sir Walter Scott

Originally published in 1814 and set 100 years prior, considered the first historical novel.

A Tale of Two Cities

by Charles Dickens

Parallel stories intersect in London and Paris during the French Revolution.

The Book of Negroes

by Lawrence Hill

An 18th century woman journeys from freedom in Africa, to slavery in the US, and back to freedom again.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

by David Mitchell

Love story between a clerk for the Dutch East India Company and a disfigured Japanese midwife.

War and Peace

by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy's epic masterpiece depicting the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic era.

Death Comes for the Archbishop

by Willa Cather

Two priests travel 1851 New Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War.

Gone With the Wind

by Margaret Mitchell

Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The Leopard

by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Sweeping saga of Sicilian society during Italian unification in the 19th century.

The Far Pavilions

by M. M. Kaye

This romantic epic set in 19th century India under British rule has been compared to Gone With the Wind.

Oscar and Lucinda

by Peter Carey

Winner of the 1988 Booker Prize, about the misadventures two gambling misfits in 19th century Australia.

Alias Grace

by Margaret Atwood

Fictionalized account of a notorious 1843 murder case in pre-Confederation Toronto, Canada.


by Russell Banks

Story of radical 19th century abolitionist John Brown, told from the perspective of his only surviving son.

The Last Crossing

by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Complex saga of Victorian England and the North American frontier, told from multiple points of view.


by Geraldine Brooks

Winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, retells Little Women from the perspective of the absent Mr. March.

Measuring the World

by Daniel Kehlmann

Two 19th-century German scientists with different approaches to measuring the world.

The March

by E.L. Doctorow

Sherman's March to the Sea near the end of the American Civil War, told through a large and diverse cast of characters.

The Long Song

by Andrea Levy

A bawdy, farcical, yet unflinching portrait of a 19th century Jamaican slave girl on the brink of emancipation.

The Painted Girls

by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The life of the model for Edgar Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is brought vividly to life.

The Sisters Brothers

by Patrick deWitt

Multiple award winner about two 19th century hired guns traveling from Oregon to California.

Twelve Rooms of the Nile

by Enid Shomer

Fictional friendship between Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, set in Egypt in 1850.

the Luminaries

by Eleanor Catton

Booker Prize winner - part love story, part mystery, set against the backdrop of New Zealand's 19th century gold rush.


by James A. Michener

Story of an American diplomat in Afghanistan following WWII, originally published in 1963.


by J.G. Farrell

Ineligible when published in 1970, Troubles was awarded the 'Lost Man Booker Prize' in 2010.

August 1914

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Epic chronicle of events leading up to the Russian Revolution.

Three Day Road

by Joseph Boyden

Two young Cree men from Northern Ontario become snipers for the Canadian army in WWI.

Midnight's Children

by Salman Rushdie

Story of children born at or near the moment of India's independence from Britain.

The Thorn Birds

by Colleen McCullough

Melodramatic family saga of early 20th-century life in the Australian outback.

The PoisonWood Bible

by Barbara Kingsolver

The family of a Baptist missionary adjusts to life in the Congolese jungle in the early 1960s.

Memoirs of a Geisha

by Arthur Golden

The fictional memoir of a geisha, from age nine to adulthood, in pre- and post WWII Japan.

The Night Watch

by Sarah Waters

An evocative story of London during WWII, told in reverse chronological order.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

by Wayne Johnston

Fictionalized portrait of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland's colorful first premier.

The Historian

by Elizabeth Kostova

An interweaving of the stories of Vlad the Impaler, Count Dracula, and a 1930s search for Vlad's tomb.

Arthur & George

by Julian Barnes

Story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's efforts to exonerate George Edalji, a solicitor falsely accused of a crime.

The Seventh Gate

by Richard Zimler

Chilling murder mystery incorporating Jewish mysticism in pre-war Berlin under Nazi rule.

Shanghai Girls

by Lisa See

When WWII reaches Shanghai, two sisters leave a life of privilege to enter arranged marriages in the US.

Half-Blood Blues

by Esi Edugyan

Highly original story of an interracial jazz band in Berlin and Paris during the early days of World War II.

The Garden of Evening Mists

by Tan Twan Eng

Award-winning story of Malaysia during and after the Japanese occupation of WWII.

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Last Updated: 2015 F June 20
Date Written: 2015 F June 19