Historical fiction is a literary genre in which a fictional plot is put in the context of real-life historical figures or events.
It's one of my favorite genres because it's a great way to learn certain details of the past—from historical battles to social conditions to cultural differences—while also being engrossed in a fictional story.
The best historical fiction books allow us to travel through time and space to immerse ourselves in eras long gone, whether in Ancient Greece or the Middle Ages or great wars like WWI and WWII.
Here are my favorite historical fiction books that I think you should read if you're looking for period piece-type novels.
15. The Song of Achilles
Authored by Madeline Miller
First published in 2011
408 pages — 4.34 on Goodreads
The Song of Achilles is a 2011 novel by Madeline Miller. The story is set in Ancient Greece and it's a retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles's loyal companion.
The story focuses on Patroclus and Achilles's romantic relationship, from their first meeting to their adventures during the Trojan War. (Although not explicit in Homer's Iliad, it's widely accepted by scholars that Patroclus and Achilles were indeed more than "just friends.")
The novel took Madeline Miller ten years to write and she did it while working as a Latin and Greek teacher. At release, The Song of Achilles received critical acclaim and won the prestigious Women's Prize for Fiction in 2012.
In recent years, it got a boost in sales thanks to its popularity with book bloggers, and as of 2022, the novel has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. It's a must-read if you're a fan of Ancient Greece, Greek mythology, and romantic stories.
14. The Historian
Authored by Elizabeth Kostova
First published in 2005
704 pages — 3.79 on Goodreads
The Historian is a 2005 novel by American author Elizabeth Kostova. The book combines fact with fiction as it blends the history of Wallachian ruler Vlad the Impaler with his literary counterpart Count Dracula.
The novel follows the story of a young woman's quest to find the tomb of Vlad the Impaler. Through the use of letters and oral accounts, the book narrates the decades-long obsession of the protagonist's father and his mentor before him to find the missing tomb.
The Historian was a huge success upon its initial release, and it became the first debut novel to top the New York Times Best Sellers list in its first week of release. At the time, it was the fastest-selling hardback debut novel in U.S. history.
If you're a fan of Gothic literature, historical thrillers, and the Victorian era, then The Historian is perfect for you.
13. She Who Became the Sun
Authored by Shelley Parker-Chan
First published in 2021
416 pages — 3.88 on Goodreads
She Who Became the Sun is a 2021 historical fantasy novel by Shelley Parker-Chan. The book is a reimagining of the rise to power of the Hongwu Emperor who founded the Ming Dynasty.
The novel is set in 14th century China during the Red Turban Rebellions and it tells the story of a girl who takes the name of her deceased brother and disguises herself as a man to survive. She, of course, eventually joins the rebellion against the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty.
She Who Became the Sun is an epic novel filled with political scheming, armed conflicts, and an interesting exploration of who gets to be a hero and a villain.
It received critical acclaim from both critics and audiences alike, and it won both the Best Novel and Best Newcomer prizes at the British Fantasy Awards. If you like genderqueer stories and Chinese history, then this is definitely the novel for you.
12. Alias Grace
Authored by Margaret Atwood
First published in 1996
468 pages — 4.04 on Goodreads
Alias Grace is a 1996 novel by celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood, which was based on the real-life murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in 1843.
The novel explores the life of Grace Marks, a convicted murderess who's interviewed by psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan. His hope is to determine whether she was wrongfully convicted and to have her freed if she wasn't in fact responsible for the infamous murders.
Alias Grace is a beloved novel that deals with themes of identity, justice, and women's perspective. If you're just getting your toes wet with historical fiction, then you can't miss this influential book.
11. The Book Thief
Authored by Markus Zusak
First published in 2005
592 pages — 4.39 on Goodreads
The Book Thief is a 2006 novel by Australian author Markus Zusak. This one is set in Germany during World War II and explores the lives of many victims of the war.
Narrated by Death itself, The Book Thief centers on the life of a bright young girl named Liesel Meminger, who begins to steal the very books that the Nazi government wants to destroy.
The Book Thief is one of the most successful books of recent times, having sold more than 17 million copies worldwide. It won the National Jewish Book Award in 2006 and was adapted into a popular film in 2013.
Overall, it's a fascinating novel full of heart while providing an interesting look into the lives of ordinary German civilians who lived through one of the most violent times in human history.
10. The Shadow of the Wind
Authored by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
First published in 2001
487 pages — 4.29 on Goodreads
The Shadow of the Wind is a 2001 novel by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón. The book is set in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War and it reflects the frightening willingness of the Government and the Catholic Church to silence writers and ban books.
It follows Daniel Sempere, the son of a bookshop owner, who one day discovers a mysterious novel titled The Shadow of the Wind in a secret library. He learns that the author of the book has gone missing along with every copy of his books—so he sets out to find out what happened.
The Shadow of the Wind is one of the most famous novels of the 21st century, having sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. It's reminiscent of another Spanish literary bestseller, Don Quixote, as it contains multiple subplots, tales within tales, and a digressive style.
9. Gone With the Wind
Authored by Margaret Mitchell
First published in 1936
1,037 pages — 4.31 on Goodreads
Gone With the Wind is the world-renowned 1936 epic novel by American writer Margaret Mitchell, which takes place in Georgia during the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Era.
The story follows Scarlett O'Hara, the spoiled daughter of a plantation owner, who tries to do everything in her power to avoid poverty after Sherman's March to the Sea.
Gone With the Wind is a controversial but notable piece of American literature. It received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award in 1937, sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, and The Harris Poll ranked it as the second favorite book (just behind the Bible) by American readers in 2008 and 2014.
8. The Nightingale
Authored by Kristin Hannah
First published in 2015
440 pages — 4.61 on Goodreads
The Nightingale is a 2015 novel by American author Kristin Hannah, set in France during World War II and inspired by the story of Andrée de Jongh, a Belgian woman who helped Allied pilots escape Nazi territory.
The story centers on two sisters—Vianne Mauriac and Isabelle Rossignol—and their struggles to survive during the German occupation of France. This page-turning novel is an ode to the resilience and endurance of such women during World War II.
The Nightingale earned critical acclaim and commercial success since its debut, having sold more than 4.5 million copies worldwide. It won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction and was named Best Book of the Year by The Wall Street Journal.
7. The Nickel Boys
Authored by Colson Whitehead
First published in 2019
213 pages — 4.26 on Goodreads
The Nickel Boys is a 2019 novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead with a story based on the historic Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a highly abusive reform school that operated in Florida for more than a hundred years.
Set in the 1960s, The Nickel Boys follows Elwood Curtis, an African-American high school student who's wrongfully convicted and sent to Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory in Florida. There, Elwood is exposed to a vicious environment of emotional and physical abuse.
The critically acclaimed The Nickel Boys earned Colson Whitehead his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it was named by Time magazine as one of the best novels of the decade.
All in all, it's a hard but necessary read that shines a light on the injustices and racism that has operated in America for centuries.
Authored by Min Jin Lee
First published in 2017
496 pages — 4.33 on Goodreads
Pachinko is a 2017 epic historical fiction novel by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee, taking place between the years of 1910 and 1989, primarily covering the Japanese occupation of Korea and World War II.
The story follows a Korean family that emigrates to Japan, only to deal with discrimination and stereotyping across decades. The novel's style is reminiscent of Charles Dickens as it explores themes of love, sacrifice, xenophobia, ambition, and loyalty.
Pachinko is a New York Times Best Seller that received critical acclaim, becoming a finalist for the National Book Award and being named by The New York Times as one of the best books of 2017.
It's a must-read for fans of epic historical novels packed with complex and passionate characters, and it was so good that it was picked up and turned into a critically acclaimed TV series by Apple TV+.
5. The Name of the Rose
Authored by Umberto Eco
First published in 1980
536 pages — 4.14 on Goodreads
The Name of the Rose is a 1980 historical murder mystery novel by Italian author Umberto Eco. It's set in Italy during the year 1327 and is based on monastic life during the 14th century.
The story follows Brother William of Baskerville, who must investigate seven bizarre deaths at a wealthy Benedictine monastery. The novel combines semiotics, biblical analysis, and medieval studies to provide an addictive, page-turning mystery.
The Name of the Rose is one of the most popular novels of all time, having sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. It won the prestigious Strega Prize in 1981 and the Prix Medicis Étranger in 1982 and is widely regarded as one of the most important books of the 20th century.
Authored by Toni Morrison
First published in 1987
324 pages — 3.94 on Goodreads
Beloved is a 1987 novel by renowned author Toni Morrison, set in 1873 after the end of the American Civil War. It was inspired by the life of Margaret "Peggy" Garner, an enslaved African-American woman who escaped from Kentucky to Ohio in 1856.
The story is centered on former slave Sethe and her teenage daughter Denver, whose Cincinnati home is haunted by a spirit that they believe to be the ghost of Sethe's eldest daughter.
Toni Morrison is considered to be one of the greatest American authors of all time and Beloved is one of her most celebrated novels.
It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was a finalist for the National Book Award, and The New York Times ranked it as the best work of American Fiction from 1981 to 2006.
3. Wolf Hall
Authored by Hilary Mantel
First published in 2009
653 pages — 3.90 on Goodreads
Wolf Hall is a 2009 novel by British writer Hilary Mantel. It's the first in a trilogy and it chronicles the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII up to the death of Sir Thomas More.
Set in England between 1500 to 1535, the story follows the life of Thomas Cromwell and how he went from being the abused son of a blacksmith to the right-hand man of King Henry VIII.
Wolf Hall received critical acclaim and won the prestigious Booker Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It was named by The Guardian as one of the best books of the 21st century and it ranked third in a BBC poll of the best novels since 2000.
This is an unskippable book if you're a fan of political intrigue, royal history, and Tudor England.
2. The Underground Railroad
Authored by Colson Whitehead
First published in 2016
320 pages — 4.06 on Goodreads
We already mentioned one book by Colson Whitehead, but he earns another spot on this list with an even better historical novel: The Underground Railroad, published in 2016.
This one is set in America during the 19th century and it reimagines the historical network used by slaves to find freedom, turning it into an actual underground railroad with safe houses and secret routes.
The story centers on Cora, a slave who escapes her Georgia plantation with the help of fellow slave Caesar. While looking for the underground railroad, they find both friends and enemies while trying to survive.
The Underground Railroad was recognized with numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It's a must-read novel that cemented Colson Whitehead as one of the greatest American writers of the 21st century.
1. All the Light We Cannot See
Authored by Anthony Doerr
First published in 2014
531 pages — 4.32 on Goodreads
All the Light We Cannot See is a 2014 novel by American writer Anthony Doerr. The book is set in France during World War II and it takes the Battle of Saint-Malo as inspiration.
The story follows two protagonists: a blind French girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc who must take refuge in her uncle's house after Paris is invaded by the Nazis, and a German boy named Werner Pfennig who's accepted into military school for his knowledge of radio technology.
All the Light We Cannot See spent over 200 weeks in the New York Times Best Seller list, selling over 15 million copies worldwide. It also won the Pulitzer Prize, the Carnegie Medal, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award.
It's really that good and has grown into a modern classic, proving itself as one of the most powerful and moving American novels of this century and one of the best historical fiction books of all time.