The 10 Best Historical Fiction Books

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The Book Thief
A Gentleman in Moscow
A Thousand Splendid Suns

This wiki has been updated 14 times since it was first published in March of 2018. Sometimes it can be hard to decide between reading something educational and losing yourself in an entertaining yarn. You don't necessarily have to make that choice at all, however, thanks to these riveting historical fiction books. They take real people, places, and/or events, and invent dramatic storylines that often teach you more than any accurate biography ever could. When users buy our independently chosen editorial recommendations, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki. Skip to the best historical fiction book on Amazon.

10. The Winter Sea

9. The Song of Achilles

8. The Underground Railroad

7. The Girl Who Came Home

6. A Thousand Splendid Suns

5. Before We Were Yours

4. Beneath a Scarlet Sky

3. The Book Thief

2. A Gentleman in Moscow

1. The Nightingale

Editor's Notes

May 16, 2019:

Our list tries to present narratives from various eras that give insight into different worldviews. Historical fiction can be many things: an exercise in imagination, a propagandistic act, an attempt to bring justice to an unjust past; the list goes on. The books that we've chosen portray slavery, genocide, child abuse, and revolution, but often these large tragedies serve as moving backgrounds against which stories about individuals arise. In these stories, we see the unchanging nature of what Faulkner called "the human heart in conflict with itself."

These core human emotions expand outwards, often through interpersonal relationships, as they do in The Song of Achilles, where we find ourselves exploring sexuality and gender; here, though, these seemingly modern issues are recontextualized into the ancient Greek world many of us studied as children, thus suggesting — to those who may not realize it — that these questions are not new, but rather, have been with us from the beginning. By delving into Nazi Germany, as The Nightingale and The Book Thief do, places that many have learned about only in textbooks suddenly become three-dimensional and alive in the mind's eye. As our historical knowledge about these places and epochs grows, so does our understanding about ourselves and those who came before us.

All of these works have something to teach us, but one doesn't need to approach them with the intention of seeking a moral education. They can be read as pure entertainment - all of them are well-written literary works — especially #1, The Nightingale, and #3, The Book Thief.

Why Read Historical Fiction?

At the very least, you’ll be full of insights you would not have had previously.

I remember being very young when I first read Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a work of historical fiction set in Depression-era Mississippi that examines racism and land ownership. Being a relatively sheltered child living in a small town in Arizona during the 1990s, I had little to no knowledge of bigotry, the American South, or what life might have been like in the 1930s. I stayed up all night and read the book in one sitting, horrified and moved by the words on each page. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that that novel taught me just as much as any textbook ever would.

Some of the most compelling stories come from real life, and while documentaries and biographies are illuminating, they can’t always convey the depth and emotion surrounding a true event. A work of historical fiction can take a perspective that a textbook cannot; it can supplement small, colorful details and use inferred action to explain characters, their motives, and the era they lived in with more accuracy. Not only does this help readers comprehend the social conditions of a time period and why certain events might have taken place, but it also helps them to relate to people who are wildly different than they are.

This is why a good work of historical fiction can serve as an excellent teaching device. It can bring history to life for a young reader and engage them in a way that memorizing dates never could. When complemented with the myriad other learning materials educators use, a well-written historical novel can help students grasp a timeline of events while also encouraging them to feel compassion for those with different backgrounds and views.

It’s mentally stimulating for adults, as well. Is this part real? Was that something they actually said? Some of the questions that may occur to you while you pour over that all-engrossing novel might inspire you to further your research on the subject. A google search here, a library book there, and before you know it, you’re an expert on the Titanic. At the very least, you’ll be full of insights you would not have had previously.

When all is said and done, a well-researched, expertly written tome with emotional depth can have you at the edge of your seat and give you a history lesson all at once.

Hallmarks Of A Great Historical Novel

When an author dives into a world that’s part fact and part fiction, it is imperative that they do their research. They must convey the mannerisms, language, technology, and other features of the time period and location with unfailing accuracy. Everything from the fabric of the clothes the main character wears to her favorite food need to be era-appropriate. Even the smallest anachronism can utterly destroy the illusion a writer works so hard to build up.

A character’s motivations help define who they really were, and a writer should be sensitive to their memory and take pains to sketch their personalities accurately.

A historical fiction writer should be a master of nuance. Avoid books where the author has taken pains to enumerate every bit of trivia they’ve ever come across. An overload of information will weigh the plot down, not to mention it makes for a tedious read. That being said, a tome that’s lacking any factual information whatsoever ends up as a lackluster tale that’s hard to believe, which defies the purpose of writing a historical novel in the first place. Look for a well-blended story that balances credible perspective and action with authentic insight. Good writers know how to marry plausibility with accuracy, and when to favor one over the other.

Of course, plenty of books are rife with inaccuracies, and this is usually by design. To get at the larger picture, an author will need to conjure up artificial situations and people that interact with the genuine past. Because of this, readers should take these novels with a grain of salt. You can learn a great deal about a time period from reading historical fiction, but always look something up before you repeat it as fact elsewhere, that way you know you’ve got it right.

Be wary of narratives that misrepresent real people in a negative way for no justifiable reason. When an author relates a tale that involves the names and lives of humans who actually existed, they owe it to them to try their best to do them justice. A character’s motivations help define who they really were, and a writer should be sensitive to their memory and take pains to sketch their personalities accurately.

Dialogue is another instance that’s tough to tackle. You’ll want a novel with characters that have natural, flowing discussions using appropriate language that is still comprehensible to a modern audience. Stilted conversations, displaced slang, and etiquette-defying conversation topics are all things that serve to discredit a historical work.

On The Origins Of Historical Fiction

Boiled down to the simplest terms, historical fiction is a genre of literature in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. Experts disagree on how far back these novels need to occur, but it's generally accepted that the author must have written it at least 25 years after the events occurred.

The genre rose to greater prominence over the 19th and 20th centuries.

Writers have been using fiction to present history to readers for millennia, and both western and eastern civilizations took part. The Iliad, for instance, falls under historical fiction in addition to being categorized as an epic poem. Then there’s Water Margin, a Chinese novel penned in the late 14th century about the exploits of outlaws from the 1100s.

One of the earliest known European historical novels is La Princesse de Cleves, a French tome published anonymously in 1678. Its plot takes place at the royal court of Henry II between 1558 and 1559 and recounts the era with immaculate detail.

The genre rose to greater prominence over the 19th and 20th centuries. Classics like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame championed the value of Gothic architecture, while The Scarlet Letter shed light on the trials of a single mother in a Puritan colony in 17th-century Massachusetts.

Historical fiction has been used to criticize contemporary politics, expose intrigues, and help readers gain perspective on their own time by learning about another. It continues to provide valuable insight into the past, and will likely remain popular well into the future.

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Daniel Goldstein
Last updated on June 13, 2019 by Daniel Goldstein

Daniel is a writer, musician, and frequent traveler with a bachelor’s in creative writing from the State University of New York. In recent years, his writing chops have developed alongside his musical skills, thanks to a rich double life. During the day, he apprenticed with “Rolling Stone” journalist and critic Will Hermes, and when the sun set, he and his NYC-based, four-piece band gigged at high-end venues across the northeastern United States. His affinity for sharing things he's passionate about has culminated in nine years of experience as a music teacher at elementary schools, where he honed his ability to simplify and elucidate concepts to the uninitiated. All considered, he feels most at home writing about instruments, audio electronics and backpacking gear.


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