Books

50 essential historical fiction books

Historical fiction

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 Century Florence in George Eliot's study of the Italian Renaissance, Romola.

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50 essential historical fiction novels

By Kristin Hannah
Two sisters face horrific challenges in France during WWII.
By David Mitchell
Love story between a clerk for the Dutch East India Company and a disfigured Japanese midwife.
By Anthony Doerr
This heartwrenching tale of World War II won the Pulitzer in 2015.
By Indu Sundaresan
The story of one of the most controversial empresses of India's 16th century Mughal Empire.
By Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy's epic masterpiece depicting the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic era.
By Hilary Mantel
Sequel to Wolf Hall, chronicling Cromwell's machinations to rid Henry VIII of Anne Boleyn.
By Philippa Gregory
An entertaining if inaccurate portrayal of Anne Boleyn's sister, Mary.
By Hilary Mantel
Booker Prize winner documenting Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of King Henry VIII.
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 Walter Scott
Originally published in 1814 and set 100 years prior, considered the first historical novel.
By Charles Dickens
Parallel stories intersect in London and Paris during the French Revolution.
By Robert Graves
A fictionalized autobiography of the Roman emperor Claudius.
By Lawrence Hill
An 18th century woman journeys from freedom in Africa, to slavery in the US, and back to freedom again.
By Willa Cather
Two priests travel 1851 New Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War.
By Margaret Mitchell
The 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.
By M. M. Kaye
This romantic epic set in 19th century India under British rule has been compared to Gone With the Wind.
By Peter Carey
Winner of the 1988 Booker Prize, about the misadventures two gambling misfits in 19th century Australia.
By Margaret Atwood
A 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.
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.
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.
By Andrea Levy
A bawdy, farcical, yet unflinching portrait of a 19th century Jamaican slave girl on the brink of emancipation.
By Cathy Marie Buchanan
The model for Edgar Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is brought vividly to life.
By Patrick Dewitt
Multiple award winner about two 19th century hired guns traveling from Oregon to California.
By Enid Shomer
A fictional friendship between Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, set in Egypt in 1850.
By Eleanor Catton
This 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
An epic chronicle of events leading up to the Russian Revolution.
By Joseph Boyden
Two young Cree men from Northern Ontario become snipers for the Canadian army in WWI.
By Salman Rushdie
A story of children born at or near the moment of India's independence from Britain.
By Colleen McCollough
Melodramatic family saga of early 20th-century life in the Australian outback.
By Barbara Kingsolver
The family of a Baptist missionary adjusts to life in the Congolese jungle in the early 1960s.
By Arthur Golden
The fictional memoir of a geisha, from age nine to adulthood, in pre- and post WWII Japan.
By Sarah Waters
An evocative story of London during WWII, told in reverse chronological order.
By Wayne Johnston
A fictionalized portrait of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland's colorful first premier.
By Elizabeth Kostova
An interweaving of the stories of Vlad the Impaler, Count Dracula, and a 1930s search for Vlad's tomb.
By Julian Barnes
The story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's efforts to exonerate George Edalji, a solicitor falsely accused of a crime.
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.
By Mika Waltari
1949 Finnish novel that was the bestselling foreign novel in the US until 1983.
By Ken Follett
Intrigue surrounds the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England.
By Sigrid Undset
1928 Nobel Prize-winning trilogy depicting Norwegian life in the Middle Ages.
By Umberto Eco
A highly-literary murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian monastery.
By Victor Hugo
A gothic novel that inspired a flood of tourists to Paris' most famous cathedral.
By George Eliot
Eliot's study of life in Florence during the 15th century Italian Renaissance.

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