Best Historical Fiction Books (Updated 2022)


Reading nonfiction books, especially history books, helps you understand what happened, and reading historical fiction will enable us to be moved by the events that happened. Historical fiction allows us to connect the dots between the past and present in ways that facts can often hide, or at the very least, dilute. Historical fiction is unique in that it brings the characters to life and sets the reader at the table alongside the characters. When we read historical fiction, we can step into the minds of those that helped shape the world we live in today. Historical fiction often has true fragments of the past mixed in with the author’s wild imagination. It challenges us to look deeply at our patterns in hopes that we can make positive changes for the future, and increases our empathy for those who lived during such trying times.

Dan Brown brilliantly executed The Da Vinci Code in a cat-and-mouse chase, which continues to challenge today’s real institutions. Brown does an eloquent job of disturbing the status quo and all of the underlying pillars of everyday life. Like most historical fiction, the books are loosely based on real events that happened, and the authors let their imaginations run wild with the rest. If you are easily offended by liberal theological theory, you will not enjoy this book. However, if you enjoy exploring those ideas, then this book will hold even more interest to you. The author illustrates how there should be a balance of masculine and feminine in religion.

A lovely mix of murder, intrigue, religion, and the arts makes for an exceptional read. There is something for everyone in The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown crafted exciting characters in a whirlwind of history and fiction. Brown’s descriptions of London and Paris will pose great joy for those who have visited there before. It is evident that Dan Brown knows his art history and describes significant art pieces in great detail to the plot. Again, as long as you keep in mind that this work is fictional, The Da Vinci Code is an excellent read.

Key Features

  • Pushes artistic and social boundaries
  • Full of art history
  • Great detail of the cities

  • Liberal theological theories
  • Inventive ideas
  • Challenges today’s societal institutions

  • Can be offensive to some readers

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As the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, The National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a New York Times Best Seller, Wolf Hall is set in England in the 1520s. The King fears that he will die without a male heir, and their country will be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to divorce his wife of nearly twenty years to marry Anne Boleyn. To Henry’s dismay, most of Europe and The pope oppose him. Thomas Cromwell wants to help Henry VIII with the pope’s opposition, but what will the price be of his triumph?

Hillary Mantel is a literary genius for incorporating a famous and influential man of that era whom little is known about him and dove head first into bringing his character to life. Thomas Cromwell is a mysterious figure from history who lacks any sort of imagination. Mantel offers the reader much in regards to the imagination that is used to create the imagery around Thomas Cromwell, and in her search for how such a commonfolk was able to catapult himself into the royal thrown helped her start her writing journey. Full of wit, romance (or lack-thereof), violence and trying times, Hillary Manatel does an impeccable job executing Wolf Hall.

Key Features

  • Darkly brilliant
  • Intimate glimpses of Henry VIII
  • A spirited novel

  • Detailed characters
  • Intense storyline
  • Tons of action

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The Nightingale is a fiction story set in France during the German occupation of World War II. Kristin Hannah writes of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, who struggle to survive durin!g the darkest of times in horrendously brutal conditions. Hannah does an incredible job depicting how vastly different each sister copes through the stress. This story is a great reminder that this 21st-century American lifestyle must never be taken for granted. History has been known to repeat itself, and the amenities we Westerners have grown attached to over the last seven decades could be erased in the blink of an eye. Hannah does an excellent job illustrating how the occupation of France was not quick, so the book moves at that engages the story. The Nightingale has a little bit of something for everyone in it.

Kristin Hannah dives into deep detail regarding the humiliation, starvation, and pain that women faced in the women’s war during World War II. Hannah conveys what it would have been like to love during that time when all you had left was memories to hold on to. The author really makes you think with this novel, it shows you an entirely different side to the Nazi invasion of France. Hannah paints a beautiful picture of Paris despite the tragedies that occurred.

Key Features

  • War novel
  • Touching story
  • Insight to that time period

  • Discover the truths about war despite being fiction
  • Feels like you’re living the story
  • The characters grow on you

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Stephen King published 11/22/63 November 8th, 2011. King writes of Jake Epping, a time-traveler attempting to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. And while this is an accurate description of the novel, it’s more a story of people, the characters, and love, with a backdrop mission of stopping the assassination of JFK. 11/22/63 answers the frequent question of what interfering with the past can do to the future. King tests this through various adventures into the past changing at first small things, and then maybe something larger next. Stephen King is arguably one of the most renowned storytellers of our time, and 11/22/63 is just another confirmation of that. Jake’s trips to Al’s burger joint are costing him valuable time and relationships. One minute, Jake visits Al and he is healthy and fine. The next day Al calls Jake to meet him and he only has a month, or even a few days to live…. What could have possibly happened overnight?

If you’ve followed Stephen King’s works for a while, you’re probably familiar with how he leaves little easter eggs in his novels connecting the universe he’s so eloquently crafted. Without too many spoilers, there is a brief yet terrifying encounter with IT, despite the Losers’ Club defeating IT…. maybe not entirely.

Key Features

  • Time travel
  • Thriller
  • Romance

  • Brilliant character development
  • Crossover of previous King work
  • Incredible imagery

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Set in 1843, Grace Marks, aged 16, has been convicted of murdering her employer, his housekeeper, and his mistress. Grace now has to serve a life sentence. Magaret Atwood illustrates a system of inherently flawed and pitted against someone like Grace because of age, gender, and socio-economic status. The first portion of Grace’s imprisonment is served at an asylum, where she suffers from abuse and sexual assault. Atwood’s central theme seems to reiterate society’s pre-conceived notions of imprisoned women. If she is young and pretty, is she more inclined to be perceived as innocent? Do clever women threaten society? And while we might not ever know the truth about Grace Marks, Margaret Atwood’s novel calls attention to issues that, unfortunately, are still prevalent today.

Margaret Atwood also argues that women are more complex than being a single entity, regardless of facts or the desired narrative. Women should be viewed as an entire package of intelligence, empowerment, confidence, and kindness, etc. This story is based on a true unsolved murder mystery dating back to the mid 1800s. Atwood’s novel is a refreshing wakeup call to issues we still face today.

Key Features

  • Feminist themes
  • Unsolved murder mystery
  • Mental illness

  • Phenomenal character development
  • Heart-wrenching story
  • Easy read

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The Pillars of the Earth takes place near the coast of Normandy in 1120. William Adelin, King Henry’s son, and heir along with 300 other members of the royal party were lost at sea, with the exception of one. Ken Follet does a phenomenal job giving the characters life and plenty of in-depth development. Ken Follet writes of characters we are supposed to love and hate, the good guys are charming and the bad guys are repulsive. Follet goes into depth about medieval history and you can tell a lot of research was done to ensure the way the novel was written is within the dialect of that era. Each character has their own story in this novel and that can pose quite exhausting, but don’t take that as a bad thing! Ken Follet put a ton of detail and depth into the characters, bringing them to life and making the characters 3D.

While most who start reading this book do not expect to fall in love with a work of literature with the premise of building a cathedral. It is very common to find it difficult to put the novel down, as Follet has filled this little epic to the brim with vibrant detail and deep character development.

Key Features

  • Part 1 of 3
  • Medieval time era
  • Dark story

  • Excellent character development
  • Mystery themes
  • Easy read

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Diana Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander series, and the novel was so successful that Starz released an original TV series based on it. The story is set after World War II, and Claire, who was a former war nurse, and her husband, Frank, take a trip to Scotland on their second honeymoon. While in Scotland, Frank learned about his genealogy and traced his ancestors back to Captain Jack Randall of the English Red Dragoons of the 18th-century. As their trip continues, they visit Craigh na Dun and witness a pagan ritual. Claire travels back to the same location to look at some flowers she had found, but there was something about these standing stones that caught her attention. She touches the stones and is transported into the 18th century. Claire meets her husband’s ancestor, Captain Jack Randall. He is nothing like her husband, Frank. After being resued by a Scottish clan, she is held a guest of the Clan Mackenzie. While she tries to get back to the 20th century, she utilizes her nurse background to help heal members of the clan.

Diana Gabaldon does an incredible job detailing each character and moment, allowing you to savor the text truly while living through the characters. Claire has an important choice to make; will she stay in the 18th century, or return to Frank and the 20th century?

Key Features

  • Time travel
  • Romance
  • Book 1 of 8

  • In depth story
  • Interesting plot
  • Well-developed characters

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Anthony Doerr is an author, unlike any other. In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr writes with such grace and detail that you are encouraged to slow down as you read and allow you to savor the language truly. Being a recipient of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Anthony Doerr writes of Werner, an 18-year-old, geeky, and thoughtful engineering prodigy based in Germany, who meets Marie-Laure, a blind 16-year-old French girl during the siege of Saint-Malo in 1944. A fateful encounter brings together Werner and Marie-Laure. Doerr crafted characters with many layers, exposing the not-so poetic side of their personalities in ways that are often missed by authors who get trapped into the idea of needing flawless characters. This story is written in a way that is open and honest about personal and social struggles of that period that gives you valuable insight as to why the characters develop the way they do.

All the Light We Cannot See has many lessons to share with the reader, most being about the titular Light that we all must see. Doerr soundly shows us how those who are blind in the literal sense can see more than those of us who can see. The novel carefully depicts how those who are blind can still find the goodness of heart and lightness of mind in the most unlikely people and places. Doerr does an incredible job weaving for the reader how darkness consumes those who choose to be figuratively blind and are left disillusioned by their own anchor.

Key Features

  • Important themes
  • Short and descriptive chapters
  • Moral conflict

  • Brief chapters
  • Engaging story
  • Thorough understanding of life during that time

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All the Light We Cannot See

The White Queen is the story of Elizabeth Woodville, who recently married  Edward IV from the house of York. They married in secret because marriages during that time among nobles were arranged for political alliances. Gregory wrote The White Queen in mostly the first-person from Elizabeth’s point of view. Philippa Gregory did a ton of research to write this novel and wrote an extensive bibliography for those that would like to read the history behind the book. Gregory offers a description of history from a woman’s point of view. Of course, with any work of literature, some parts are bound to become boring or repetitive, and the “brothers misbehaving” part felt a little too frequent. This story will be a bore if you are not interested in this time period.

Philippa Gregory introduces authentic pieces of history into this novel. While some might find it unfitting to the storyline, it gives the reader insight into what life was like while allowing the author to be creative with the time period. This story is set during the War of the Roses. Philippa Gregory writes in such a way that it keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

Key Features

  • Historical facts intertwined in the story
  • Great history
  • Action and intense speculation

  • Accurate portrayal of that time period
  • A well-told tale
  • Royal romance

  • Fact mixed with imagination can seem too unrealistic

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Hannah Kent authors a curious tale of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who has been charged with the brutal murder of her former master and is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Agnes is now housed by a low-level government official, his wife, and their two grown daughters. Tóti is the priest that Anges chooses to counsel her. The family is terrified to house a convicted murderer, but Agnes opens up while she lives with them. Is Agnes truly guilty for this horrific crime? The story is set north of Iceland, and the descriptions are so vivid that you feel the brutal cold and hear the howling winds. Burial Rites is a dark novel with no humor to lighten the tale.

Hannah Kent flawlessly captures the sadness, torment, dread, love, and overall idea of suffering. Kent is a master wordsmith and captivates the audience from page one with this emotional rollercoaster of a murder mystery. Agnes grows on you as you read, and you genuinely want to help save her, to listen and comfort her, even in her bitterness. Kent displays the rough reality of living on a farm in the 1800s, from the dirt and grime, to the (still prevalent) inequality of women. Burial Rites is complex, emotional, and full of descriptive beauty.

Key Features

  • Takes place in 1828
  • Murder mystery
  • Accurate history despite being fiction

  • Captivating detail
  • Wonderful character development
  • Engaging read

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When an author writes about historical fiction, the author is empowered to create coherence amid the chaos that history is. Reading history allows us to understand what happened, and reading historical fiction will enable us to be moved by what happened. Historical fiction allows us to connect the dots between the past and present in ways that facts can often hide, or at the very least, dilute.

Why Historical Fiction Is Unique

Historial fiction is unique in that it brings the characters to life and sets the reader at the table alongside the characters. When we read historical fiction, we can step into the minds of those that helped shape the world we live in today. Authors actually do a ton of research before tackling a work of historical fiction. They often gain access to old diaries, newspapers, old costumes and living conditions to allows the readers to feel what it was like back in the 1800s or even 1120.

Historical fiction often has real fragments of the past mixed in with the author’s wild imagination. It challenges us to look deeply at our patterns in hopes that we can make positive changes for the future and increases our empathy for those who lived during such trying times. With everything that we have now because of the animosities our ancestors faced, historical fiction allows us to understand what they might have felt living through war or being wrongly accused of murder. We can learn so much through historical fiction despite some of the stories or characters being made up. Works of historical fiction are the stories of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.

While history can be a boring subject for some, we must be familiar with what happened before our time so we can ensure that history does not repeat itself and that we can prepare ourselves for the future we are responsible for creating. Historical fiction also allows us to see what has not worked in the past to help better our judgments for our future. Moreso now than ever, teachers are integrating more historical fiction into their classrooms so that we can raise and properly inform the upcoming generations. It has been said that good historical fiction is a lot like a time machine. You cannot change the past, but by diving into some works of historical fiction, you may find out how those novels have changed you.


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