Last updated Jan 22, 2023 | Listicle |

The book links below are affiliate links, which means we earn a commission if you click them and go on to make a purchase. This has no influence on the titles we have chosen for this listicle. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

Welcome to our guide to 30 of the best historical fiction books. This collection of must-read historical novels has something for everyone, whether you love action and adventure, mystery and intrigue, romance and passion, or a combination of them all.

We’ve divided the novels by time period, including ancient history, the medieval period, early modern history, the late modern period, and contemporary history. Enjoy!

Ancient history

1) A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

The retelling of ancient myths has become a popular contemporary trend, but few do it as well as classicist Natalie Haynes, who has written five books about Greek myths and ancient life. A Thousand Ships, Haynes’ latest foray into the ancient world, is a powerful retelling of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective. The story begins in the middle of the night when Troy is engulfed in flames, bringing a brutal end to the Trojans’ ten-year war with the Greeks. By retelling its terrible aftermath through the viewpoints and voices of queens, muses and noblewomen, Haynes proves that it was the women’s war just as much as the men’s.

2) The Gates of Rome (Emperor series) by Conn Iggulden

Conn Iggulden’s Emperor books are a popular historical fiction series about the life of Julius Caesar. In the first book The Gates of Rome, we are introduced to Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Junius Brutus as young men. Despite their different social stations, the two men form a lifelong friendship and together navigate the complex political landscape of ancient Rome. But everything changes when Rome descends into chaos after an intense power struggle. Friendships are tested, vendettas are launched, and lives are irrevocably altered. Though it’s more fiction than history, Iggulden’s Emperor series is praised for its vivid characters and unrelenting pace.

3) Under the Eagle (Eagles of the Empire series) by Simon Scarrow

Under the Eagle is the first novel in Simon Scarrow’s adventure series about the Roman army. In 42 AD Quintus Licinius Cato is sent to join the army’s Second Legion, but when he’s given a higher rank than his other comrades, he has a lot to prove to everyone, especially himself. Their battle-scarred leader Lucius Cornelius Macro guides the Legion on a perilous campaign from Germany to Britain. There Cato and Macro undertake a special mission that quickly reveals a deep-rooted conspiracy that could threaten the Emperor himself.

4) Lancelot (The Arthurian Tales series) by Giles Kristian

Lancelot, the first book in Giles Kristian’s Arthurian series, reimagines the life of one of King Arthur’s legendary knights. In this tale of epic battles, forbidden love, friendship, betrayal, power and tragedy, Lancelot is transformed from a young refugee into a fierce and celebrated warrior. Told in Lancelot’s own words, the narrative reveals new facets of the renowned knight. His story is made complete by the inclusion of complex characters from Arthurian mythology, like Merlin, Morgana, Mordred, Arthur and Gawain, in a story awash with magic, superstition and myth.

Author recommendation!

We asked Giles Kristian, author of Lancelot, for his top historical fiction book recommendation. Here’s what he had to say…

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. Twenty-five years ago, Cornwell’s retelling of this island’s greatest myth struck a resonating chord inside me. I saw in vivid detail this world which he had re-created. I felt it, heard it, smelled it. And it’s fair to say these books crystallized in me what had up until then been a somewhat vague, if enduring, ambition to become a writer. Before The Winter King, I knew I wanted to write, to explore language creatively and express myself through writing. After that book, I realized that I needed to feel completely immersed in such tales of the past again. And that the best and most indulgent way to do that would be to write them myself. I’ve been trying to immerse myself neck-deep ever since.”

Find out more about Giles Kristian on his website.

Medieval history

5) Butterfly Swords (Tang Dynasty series) by Jeannie Lin

Set during China’s Tang Dynasty, Butterfly Swords is a compelling romance novel about love, honour and betrayal. When Princess Ai Li discovers her fiancé is planning an uprising against her father, the Emperor, after they are married she makes a daring escape. Ai Li is a trained bladesmith, but her delicate butterfly sword is not enough to protect her. As her ex-fiancé relentlessly pursues her, Ai Li enlists the protection of Ryam, a brave and handsome warrior. Driven by a strong desire to protect her, Ryam vows not to seduce the only woman he has ever wanted.

6) The Last Kingdom (Saxon Tales series) by Bernard Cornwell

In his latest series, Bernard Cornwell, the critically acclaimed virtuoso of historical fiction, takes readers on a thrilling adventure set during the Danish invasion of Britain. The Last Kingdom introduces readers to Uhtred Ragnarson, a character based on Cornwell’s ancestors. Uhtred is Saxon-born but was kidnapped at age eleven and raised by the Danes. Now reaching manhood, Uhtred has become a brave warrior and thinks of the Danes as his family. But when the Danes and the Saxons do battle, Uhtred is finally forced to choose a side, embarking on a life-changing adventure.

7) A Plague on Both Your Houses (Matthew Bartholomew series) by Susanna Gregory

Matthew Bartholomew, a physician and teacher at Cambridge, diverts his attention to the suspicious murder of the Master of Michaelhouse after university authorities decide not to investigate. When three more scholars die, Bartholomew launches a secret enquiry into the murders. He soon finds himself being dragged deeper into a deadly mystery, while the pestilent Black Death also begins to threaten the lives of everyone around him.

8) The White Queen (The Cousins’ War series) by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory’s six-part series The Cousins’ War is a dramatic reimagining of the Plantagenet rivalry. When brother turned on brother, the War of the Roses raged and history was markedly changed. Gregory retells these events through the eyes of the women behind the men, who were excluded from history’s narrative. Her story begins with Elizabeth Woodville, an exceptionally beautiful and ambitious woman who secretly married the boy-king Edward IV. Gregory brings the character of the White Queen to life as she rises to the challenge and commands success in her new position.

Looking for your next unforgettable read?

Let us take the hard work out of it. Get curated book suggestions tailored to your genre preferences. Sign up now to get started – it’s free!

Early modern history

9) Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell series) by Hilary Mantel

Desperately in need of a male heir, Henry VIII intends to leave his wife of twenty years to marry Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cromwell helps the King break down the opposition and secure his marriage to Anne, and rapidly rises to power within the Tudor Court. But Henry VIII is one of history’s most powerful and volatile kings. Can Cromwell maintain his favour? Wolf Hall is the first book in Hilary Mantel’s bestselling series and was named one of the ten best historical fiction books by The Observer.

10) Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake series) by C. J. Sansom

The perfect companion to Mantel’s Cromwell series, C. J. Sansom’s novel Dissolution takes a closer look at the events in England’s monasteries after Henry VIII orders their dissolution. In the first instalment of Sansom’s Shardlake series, incidents surrounding the reformation begin to escalate and culminate in the murder of Commissioner Robin Singleton at the monastery in Scarnsea. A prominent lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, and his assistant are sent to investigate this mysterious death.

11) The Lady Elizabeth (Elizabeth I series) by Alison Weir

Everyone knows the story of England’s captivating and formidable queen, Elizabeth I. But what about when she was a child? The Lady Elizabeth follows the young princess from the age of three until her ascension to the throne. It focuses on all the trials of her early life, including the abrupt death of her mother, being declared illegitimate, and her imprisonment in the Tower of London. While her scars never fully healed, her experiences led her to become one of England’s greatest monarchs.

Author recommendation!

We asked Alison Weir, author of The Lady Elizabeth, for her top historical fiction book recommendation. Here’s what she had to say…

Katherine by Anya Seton. I first read this back in the Sixties. Four decades later it inspired me to write my biography of Katherine Swynford. It’s a haunting, tenderly drawn love story set against the rich tapestry of England in the age of chivalry, and every sentence is a joy to read. The book is written with great integrity, and I regard it as a benchmark for historical novels. Anya Seton spent four years researching it. Given the sources available to her at the time, it’s a tour de force.”

Find out more about Alison Weir on her website.

12) Outlander (Outlander series) by Diana Gabaldon

Diana Gabaldon’s time-slip historical fiction series Outlander follows Claire Randall, an English WWII nurse who accidentally travels back in time to Scotland in 1743. Claire is forced to start a new life in the past, but many things are different here – women are viewed as a man’s property, the Scottish hate the English, and Britain is wrought with political instability. Claire must hide her secret above everything, but this is made harder when she is forced to marry the young and handsome outlaw Jamie Fraser. Even as her feelings for Jamie begin to grow, Claire still yearns to return to the future where her loving husband is waiting for her.

13) These Old Shades (Alastair-Audley series) by Georgette Heyer

These Old Shades is a stylish Georgian romance novel with a twist. It begins when Leon accosts the reprehensible Duke of Avon in a Paris alleyway. The Duke sees a striking resemblance between Leon and his nemesis the Comte and plans to use Leon to get his revenge. But when the Duke discovers Leon is actually a beautiful young girl named Leonie, his interest in her develops. Leonie becomes enraptured by the Duke, but his desire for revenge threatens to eclipse their relationship.

Looking for your next unforgettable read?

Let us take the hard work out of it. Get curated book suggestions tailored to your genre preferences. Sign up now to get started – it’s free!

Late modern history

14) Ross Poldark (Poldark series) by Winston Graham

Winston Graham’s epic Poldark saga is saturated with sweeping romances and intense political and social rivalries. The first novel follows Captain Ross Poldark as he returns from the American Revolutionary War and readjusts to life in Cornwall. But much has changed in his absence: his beloved is engaged to his cousin, his father has died, and his home is in a state of neglect. Trying to make peace with all that is different, Poldark sets to work rebuilding his family’s mine. His attention is soon caught by a destitute young girl named Demelza, who he hires as his maid, but their relationship quickly evolves.

15) Indigo by Beverly Jenkins

Hester Wyatt escaped slavery as a child, and now she belongs to one of the wealthiest black families in New Orleans. She’s also a dedicated member of the underground railroad and is intent on helping others escape slavery. This means she doesn’t hesitate to help Galen, an injured conductor with a price on his head, but his rude and arrogant demeanour soon forces Hester to question her commitment to hiding him. As he heals, Galen begins to feel a connection with Hester he can’t ignore, but the slave catchers are circling and Hester isn’t sure she can trust her heart anymore.

Author recommendation!

We asked Beverly Jenkins, author of Indigo, for her top historical fiction book recommendation. Here’s what she had to say…

“I’m recommending Gathering of Waters by award winning author Bernice McFadden. The story of three generations of women set during the early 20th century, touches upon pain and muted triumph. Narrated by the town of Money Mississippi, McFadden’s magical story is infused with the life and death of Emmit Till, the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi, and moving lyrical imagery as her characters attempt to make sense of the bittersweet times and their place in it. Gathering of Waters was a 2012 New York Times Notable Book, a finalist for the Phillis Wheately Fiction Book Award, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.”

Find out more about Beverly Jenkins on her website.

16) Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

In 1843 Grace Marks was convicted for the murders of her employer, his mistress, and his housekeeper, but she has no recollection of ever committing such crimes. Sentenced to life in prison, Grace has no hope left until a promising expert in the field of mental health and criminal reform begins treating her. He takes his time to listen to Grace and help her unlock her hidden memories, but it turns out they might not be the key to saving her after all.

17) Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Sue Trinder is an orphan raised from infancy by Mrs Sucksby. But Mrs Sucksby’s house is an unusual place, home to orphaned babies as well as a family of transient thieves, or fingersmiths. When she’s older, the most beloved fingersmith, a con man named Gentleman, recruits Sue to help him steal the inheritance of Maud Lilly, a naive gentlewoman. Keen to prove herself, Sue poses as Maud Lilly’s new maid, but as her feelings for Maud grow Sue’s conviction falters. Unsure where Sue’s loyalty lies? This Dickensian novel is full of twists and turns and rightly earns its place as one of the best historical fiction books in recent memory.

18) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is a masterful meditation on history by prize-winning author Colson Whitehead. This multi-generational novel tells the story of Cora, a young girl who escapes from her life as a slave on a plantation in Georgia. Cora’s harrowing escape is made possible by a network of underground trains and safe houses. But Ridgeway, the cruel and vindictive slave catcher who failed to catch her mother years earlier, is close on her trail. Still haunted by the one that got away, Ridgeway unmercifully hunts for Cora and will stop at nothing until she’s in his grasp.

19) Beloved by Toni Morrison

Sethe was born a slave but escaped to Ohio. Eighteen years later, she still isn’t free because her memories hold her captive. As she tries to push down recollections of the torment she experienced as a girl, she cannot forget the tragic death of her baby. Unnamed when she died, her tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. In 1873, Sethe meets a mysterious teenage girl called Beloved and finally realises the secrets of her past cannot stay hidden. Morrison’s novel is the story of indescribable suffering interwoven with the truth of history. Beloved is a multi-award-winning novel that has been hailed as a masterpiece of American literature.

20) Things Fall Apart (African trilogy) by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart is the debut novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe and the first book in his African trilogy, a poignant commentary on power and colonisation. When Christian missionaries arrive in Umuofia and threaten the traditions of the Ibo clan, Okonkwo takes violent action. Okonkwo is a proud man, but too much pride is dangerous and every move he makes against the missionaries endangers himself and everyone around him.

21) The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This award-winning historical fiction book was inspired by true events at the end of the nineteenth century. Newly widowed Cora Seaborne and her son Francis visit Aldwinter in Essex as a much-needed refuge from life in London. There they discover a town legend which supposes that the monster that used to roam the Aldwinter marshes has returned to reclaim them. While Cora and Francis search for the mythic Essex Serpent, everyone in the town must put their faith to the test.

22) The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Set during the 1918 flu pandemic, The Pull of the Stars is an uplifting novel of hope and the need to find the light in the darkness. As the pandemic spirals out of control, Julia, a young nurse, is joined by Kathleen Lynn, a doctor on the run from the police, and Bridie Sweeney, a young volunteer. Over the next three days, they work together fighting to preserve life as well as bringing new life into the world. Left markedly changed from these experiences, these three women have altered each other’s lives irrevocably.

Looking for your next unforgettable read?

Let us take the hard work out of it. Get curated book suggestions tailored to your genre preferences. Sign up now to get started – it’s free!

23) Fall of Giants (Century trilogy) by Ken Follett

Ken Follett’s Century trilogy delves into key facets of world history by chronicling the experiences of five unrelated families as they live through the 20th century. Fall of the Giants begins in 1911 on the day of King George V’s coronation and explores the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and Women’s Suffrage. The families vary from coal miners to high-born aristocrats, but they all find their lives changing because of the world’s shifting political landscape. Follet continues his narrative in Winter of the World, which begins as World War Two is declared.

24) Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is a powerful saga featuring strong women and bold decisions. It begins when teenage Sunja falls for a wealthy stranger visiting the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises Sunja the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant and that her lover is married, she rejects his offer to buy her silence and sets out to forge her own path. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage that takes her far away to Japan, but rejecting her former lover will come at a high price.

25) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak reimagines the harrowing events of the Second World War through the eyes of an unlikely narrator: Death. He recounts the story of Leisel, a brave young girl who, after accidentally finding a book next to her brother’s grave, develops a love affair with words. Soon she’s stealing books from anywhere she can, including the Mayor’s library and Nazi book burnings. Leisel hasn’t been caught yet, but when her family put their lives on the line to hide a Jewish man in their basement, she must do everything she can to protect them all.

26) The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

While the men were fighting at the front, the women were fighting at home. Set in France, The Nightingale is the tale of two women who fight for the survival of themselves and others during the Second World War. After her husband left to join the army, Vianne’s home in Carriveau was requisitioned by a German captain. Vianne is now forced to make life and death decisions to protect herself and her daughter from an increasingly volatile situation. Meanwhile, after being betrayed by her lover, Vianne’s younger sister joins the French resistance and risks her life to save others.

27) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See is the story of how, even in the darkest of situations, people still find ways to be good to each other. Marie-Laure, a young blind girl, flees Paris with her father, who brings along a valuable but dangerous secret. Meanwhile, German orphan Werner Pfennig and his younger sister use a redesigned radio to try to track down the resistance. Doerr weaves together the lives of these children, and despite all the surrounding violence, they help each other on their journeys.

Contemporary history

28) The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

As the Second World War ends, exhausted nurse Hana remains at an Italian villa to care for her final patient. She is joined by Caravaggio, a maimed thief, and Kip, a weary sapper, and together they try to rebuild themselves after the trauma of the war. As the English patient slowly recovers, the three residents are mystified by his possible backstory. They try to piece it together by reading the notes written in a copy of The Histories by Herodotus, which also happens to be his only belonging.

29) Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark is a sensitive and wild-spirited girl who lives peacefully in the marshland around Barkley Cove on the North Carolina coastline. She is disliked by the townspeople, but they were content to leave her alone until the body of a handsome young man is discovered in the marshland. While she becomes a suspect in the murder, Kya yearns to be loved and opens herself up to new possibilities. But the two young townsmen who take an interest in her wild-beauty are not what they seem. Where the Crawdads Sing is an exquisite tribute to the natural world and all the beautiful and violent secrets it keeps.

30) The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

In 1952 sixteen-year-old twin sisters Desire and Stella are forced to escape from their small Black community in Louisiana after they witness a horrific lynching. A decade later, they have abandoned their shared history and are living separate lives with their children. Desiree has returned to their childhood town while Stella is living in California, where she is passing for white and married to a man who knows nothing about her past. When their daughters accidentally meet, Desiree and Stella are reunited and are finally forced to confront what drove them apart.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this list of 30 of the best historical fiction books. Happy reading!

Looking for your next unforgettable read?

Let us take the hard work out of it. Get curated book suggestions tailored to your genre preferences. Sign up now to get started – it’s free!

Pin It on Pinterest

Looking for your next unforgettable read?

Let us take the hard work out of it. Get curated book suggestions tailored to your genre preferences. Sign up now to get started – it's free!