by Hilary Mantel
Booker Prize winner documenting Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of King Henry VIII.
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.
by Henryk Sienkiewicz
A love story between a Christian woman and a Roman man during the rule of Nero.
by Robert Graves
A fictionalized autobiography of the Roman emperor Claudius.
by Mika Waltari
1949 Finnish novel that was the bestselling foreign novel in the US until 1983.
by Sigrid Undset
1928 Nobel Prize-winning trilogy depicting Norwegian life in the Middle Ages.
The Name of the Rose
A highly-literary murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery.
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.
War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy's epic masterpiece depicting the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic era.
Gone with the Wind
by Margaret Mitchell
Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
by Lisa See
When WWII reaches Shanghai, two sisters leave a life of privilege to enter arranged marriages in the US.
by Esi Edugyan
Highly original story of an interracial jazz band in Berlin and Paris during the early days of World War II.