50 Essential Historical Fiction Novels

Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of historical fiction, you've heard the names Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton, Anthony Doerr and Kristin Hannah repeatedly over recent years. 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 15th Centrury Florence in George Eliot's study of the Italian Renaissance, Romola.

50 Essential Historical Fiction Novels

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah The Nightingale

Kristin Hannah

Two sisters face horrific challenges in France during WWII.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves I, Claudius

Robert Graves

A fictionalized autobiography of the Roman emperor Claudius.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr

This heartwrenching tale of World War II won the Pulitzer in 2015.

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan The Twentieth Wife

Indu Sundaresan

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

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory The Other Boleyn Girl

Philippa Gregory

An entertaining if inaccurate portrayal of Anne Boleyn's sister, Mary.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel

Booker Prize winner documenting Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of King Henry VIII.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel

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

The Three Muskateers by Alexandre Dumas The Three Muskateers

Alexandre Dumas

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

Silence by Shusaku Endo Silence

Shusaku Endo

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

Waverley 'tis Sixty Years Since by Walter Scott Waverley

Walter Scott

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

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens

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

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill The Book of Negroes

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 The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

David Mitchell

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

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

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

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop

Willa Cather

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

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell Gone With the Wind

Margaret Mitchell

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

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa The Leopard

Giuseppe di Lampedusa

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

The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye The Far Pavilions

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 Oscar and Lucinda

Peter Carey

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

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood Alias Grace

Margaret Atwood

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

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks Cloudsplitter

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 The Last Crossing

Guy Vanderhaeghe

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

March by Geraldine Brooks March

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 Measuring the World

Daniel Kehlmann

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

The March by E.L. Doctorow The March

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 The Long Song

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 Painted Girls

Cathy Marie Buchanan

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

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt The Sisters Brothers

Patrick Dewitt

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

The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer The Twelve Rooms of the Nile

Enid Shomer

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

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton The Luminaries

Eleanor Catton

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

Caravans by James A. Michener Caravans

James A. Michener

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

Troubles by J.G. Farrell Troubles

J.G. Farrell

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

August 1914 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn August 1914

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

An epic chronicle of events leading up to the Russian Revolution.

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden Three Day Road

Joseph Boyden

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

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children

Salman Rushdie

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

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough The Thorn Birds

Colleen McCullough

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

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible

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 Memoirs of a Geisha

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 The Night Watch

Sarah Waters

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

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

Wayne Johnston

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

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova The Historian

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 Arthur & George

Julian Barnes

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

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See Shanghai Girls

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 Half-Blood Blues

Esi Edugyan

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

The Egyptian by Mika Waltari The Egyptian

Mika Waltari

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

The Pillars of Earth by Ken Follett The Pillars of Earth

Ken Follett

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

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset Kristin Lavransdatter

Sigrid Undset

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

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco 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 The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Victor Hugo

A gothic novel that inspired a flood of tourists to Paris' most famous cathedral.

Romola by George Eliot Romola

George Eliot

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

Which historical fiction novels are missing?