History is the part of the “human experience” that is actually worth reading about. It may seem counter-intuitive when you think about it, but history represents that which has really happened in our world. The other aspect of the human experience (fiction) is just thoughts and ideas.
The aim behind this list was to find novels that depict actual events over novels where historical figures are fictionalized or portrayed as they should have been in hindsight. As such, there are no Harry Potter or Game of Thrones novels on this list since they don’t accurately portray events in our past. They’re still amazing books/shows though!
Even though this is a list of historical fiction, the first few novels on this list are not. They are however still excellent novels and I recommend them to anyone interested in the genre.
The 20 Greatest Historical Fiction Novels to Read
1. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova:
This novel is a blend of fiction and nonfiction since the characters are fictional but the places they visit are real. Especial care was given to fact-checking this novel so that readers can rest assured that what they’re reading is accurate. This results in a much deeper experience, one where the lines between history and fiction are blurred. The protagonist is a young girl who comes across her father’s research on Vlad Dracula without knowing who he really was.
2. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles:
This is a novel that takes place during the Russian Revolution. It features a rich, sophisticated protagonist who spends years under house arrest in Moscow at a hotel for members of the aristocracy. The only other person around him is a butler. The story follows his life over the years as he deals with both the restrictions and the freedom to interact with everyone else. It’s a powerful story about an interesting period in Russian History, both for the rich and poor alike.
3. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon:
This series of novels is widely popular among fans of historical fiction because it features time travel. So while it’s set in 1743 (Scotland), there are scenes that take place in the 1940s. The protagonist travels back in time after being sent on a second honeymoon by her husband. She ends up meeting some interesting people, including Scottish outlaws and British Army soldiers. It’s an unforgettable historical journey that you won’t want to put down until you’ve finished it.
4. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka:
The events of this novel occur during Japanese immigration to the United States in the early 20th century. The protagonist is a young girl who is one of many Japanese women sent to San Francisco with high hopes. The novel tells her story through the perspectives of several different people, including her nanny, husband, and even their children.
5. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah:
This is another novel set in World War II, although it features different characters than Outlander does. The protagonist is a young woman who struggles to provide for herself and her sister once their father is taken away. The story follows them as they try to survive the war, which isn’t easy when everyone around them has a gun. This novel shows what it was like during this time for those who weren’t included in government efforts. It’s a gripping story that you won’t want to stop reading.
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6. The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote:
This is an extremely long and detailed novel that chronicles the events of the Civil War. It’s written as a timeline, so it starts with the lives of various people leading up to the war and then goes into detail for specific points in time. It follows everyone on both sides of the war, including generals, soldiers, and regular civilians.
7. The Lie by Helen Dunmore:
This novel takes place during World War I. We follow the main character, a young woman who has just broken off her engagement to go on an adventure. She goes to war in France, although she’s only supposed to be there for six weeks. While there, she meets up with two men and falls in love with one of them.
8. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters:
This is another novel set in Victorian England, where we see the protagonist go through many different types of living experiences. She ends up befriending a lady and becomes her maid, but then she gets asked to help with a crazy scheme that will change everyone’s lives forever. This story has lots of twists and turns as well as interesting things like finger-swapping and Victorian finger rings.
9. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy:
This is a classic novel set in Russia, although the language isn’t difficult to understand. It follows the main character (Anna) through the highs and lows of her life, including her marriage to someone outside of her social class. This is a profound story that you’ll love reading for its interesting insights into 19th-century Russian society.
10. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver:
This is another long novel, but it features a lot of different characters and perspectives. The story takes place in Africa during the late 1950s as we see how this family deals with living in a foreign land. It’s another gripping story that will make you think about life from a new perspective even though it’s set in the past.
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11. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque:
This is a classic World War I novel that offers an interesting perspective into that war from German soldiers’ points of view. The main character starts off as an eager young man who’s looking for adventure, but then he finds out that war is much different than what he expected.
12. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters:
This novel takes place during and after World War II, as we see how the main characters deal with coming out of the war and trying to start over. It’s another fascinating tale that follows people from all different walks of life and features excellent character development.
13. Arthur and George by Julian Barnes:
Arthur was an upstanding citizen while George was a person with mental disabilities. The book also follows the story of their relationship through these different perspectives, making it interesting to see how they are similar or different from one another.
14. The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro:
This is a large book that takes place during the 1950s and 1960s while Johnson was president of the United States. This story covers everything from his early life to his years in office, making it incredibly absorbing. It’s another novel that takes place during the beginnings of the civil rights movement and one that will make you think about America’s past from a different perspective.
15. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier:
This book follows the story of a young girl who gets sold by her father into slavery. It’s another brutal look at American history, but it shows how slaves reacted to their situation and what they did to survive. This is one of those novels that will make you think differently about history after reading it, and it’s gripping enough to make you want to keep reading without putting it down.
16. The Master by Colm Tóibín:
This is a novel that takes place in Dublin during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It covers all of the main events of that time, starting with Ireland’s independence from Great Britain up until when The Troubles begin in Northern Ireland. This book shows how many people in Ireland changed their views over the years and also made me think about how Ireland’s stance on the Troubles is different from Canada’s.
17. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan:
This book is another female-centered story that shows how women were treated in historical times, especially when they had no say in what happened to them.
18. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz:
This book is the debut novel for this Dominican-American author and it quickly won awards after being published. This epic tale takes place in New Jersey and has a lot of references to geek culture, from Star Wars to classic video games. This story follows Oscar from his family’s history to how he met a girl that showed him a completely different life.
19. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson:
This book follows the story of a man who’s born in North Korea just as his sister disappears. It shows what life was like for “normal” people in North Korea, including all of the restrictions they had to deal with. It also provides readers with an idea of what it was like when foreigners were visiting the country. This novel is a great way to learn more about North Korea’s history and its effects on the people who lived there.
20. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters:
This story takes place in 1948, at a time when England was still recovering from World War II. It follows the story of an English doctor working in a small village where everything seems quiet and peaceful, but there might be something lurking under the surface that he can’t see.
Just like with the books on my list of novels to read about growing up in Canada, this is a collection of stories that will help readers understand history better. History can often seem overwhelming because it covers thousands of years and dozens of different events, but these 20 historical fiction books will make it easier for people to comprehend events from the past.