15 best historical fiction books of all time

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Hanging scroll by Li Jian in 1700s Qing dynasty. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

This is a guest contribution by Rachel Quin, a freelance marketing professional with over eight years of experience and a passion for books, digital marketing and most importantly, cats.

If books are a portal to a world beyond our imagination, historical fiction is the time machine that can show you who we are and where we came from.

The best historical fiction novels of all time have the power to summon rich and varied realities, inviting you to dance in the royal courts of Europe, see behind the mask of the most influential figures in human history, and walk side-by-side with everyday people navigating the aftermath of tragedy.  

After all, history is so much more than museums and crumbling castles (though I do love them too). It’s the opportunity to live a hundred different lives and take lessons from that that will shape your own worldview.

In this post, we’ve curated a list of 15 of the best historical fiction of all time. Expect to find modern classics from Booker Prize-winning authors, plus some truly captivating debuts that will take you on a journey.

The best historical fiction novels ever written

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Read Wolf Hall for… a fresh perspective on a well-trodden period of history, the courtship of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The trilogy won the Booker Prize twice.

Hilary Mantel was a literary giant. Wolf Hall is told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the driving force behind England’s break from Catholicism and Henry VIII’s divorce.

Intricately researched and beautifully written, you’ll find yourself completely immersed in the inner machinations of the Tudor court and an extremely turbulent period of English royal history.

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

Read Ariadne for… a captivating retelling of one of Ancient Greece’s most famous myths from the point of view of the women behind it. Perfect for Greek mythology lovers and fans of Madeline Miller.

A smash-hit debut, Ariadne retells the myths of the minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne, the Princess of Crete who helps her love Theseus slay the beast.

In a time when women are nothing more than pawns of powerful men, this bestselling historical novel explores the consequences of betrayal and ambition. Compelling and at times heartbreaking, Ariadne breathes new life into one of humanity’s oldest stories.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Read All The Light We Cannot See for… a breathtaking and all-consuming novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in the wake of World War II. A multi-award-winning must-read!

This is a book so good that I started to read it, was completely absorbed, and had to put it aside for a quieter period in my life because I wanted it to have my full and undivided attention.

Magnificent and deeply moving, All The Light We Cannot See follows the story of Marie-Laure, a young Parisian girl who has been blind since the age of 6, and Werner, a German orphan trying to survive the devastation of the war. 

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

Read River Sing Me Home for… an eye-opening look at life post-abolition as one woman searches the Caribbean for her lost children. It’s one of the best new historical fiction novels for 2023 and a Good Morning America Book Club pick.

Inspired by true events, River Sing Me Home is a soaring novel of courage and sacrifice that will have you sobbing at points. Set in 1834 in the aftermath of the Slavery Abolition Act, we meet Rachel, a former slave searching for her family.

This journey will take her from the cane fields of Barbados to the forests of British Guiana in the hope of finding the faces of the beloved children she never forgot.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Read Alias Grace for… a haunting story inspired by a real Irish murderess. Perfect for true crime enthusiasts, psychological thriller readers, and anybody who enjoys more literary historical fiction.

Alias Grace is the compelling tale of murderess Grace Marks, one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1800s. But who was Grace Marks? A wicked fiend set on murdering her betters? A femme fatale using her wiles for the worst? Or an unwilling victim doing the bidding of a dangerous man?

Now a major Netflix series, Alias Grace was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. It’s truly one of the best historical fiction novels of all time.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

Read The Other Boleyn Girl for… a delicious slice of life and lust in the court of Henry VIII, told through the eyes of one of history’s most misunderstood women, Anne Boleyn’s sister.

My first foray into historical fiction which sparked a lifelong love of history, The Other Boleyn Girl brings Mary Boleyn out of the shadows. Watch the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn through the eyes of her closest friend and her greatest enemy, her sister.

Dramatic, scandalous and full of beautifully detailed descriptions, this book paints a vivid picture of the Tudor court and Mary’s own experience of being the king’s mistress.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Read A Thousand Splendid Suns for… a moving tale of arranged marriage and sisterhood in 1970s Afghanistan from the author of another of the best historical novels of all time, The Kite Runner.

Incredibly powerful and beautifully written, I came across this book after reading The Kite Runner in school and deciding I had to read more Khaled Hosseini.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a powerful novel that introduces us to Mariam and Laila, two women born a generation apart and forced to marry the same man. While things start off rocky, they eventually form an unbreakable tie that helps them survive the brutality and fear of a regime taking hold in Afghanistan and threatening their very existence.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Read The Reader for… a coming-of-age story of a clandestine love affair and a gut-punch of a twist that will leave you gasping for breath.

When German schoolboy Michael Berg was 15 years old, a chance meeting with an older woman shaped his life in ways he could never have imagined. For one unforgettable year, he embarks on an all-consuming affair with Hanna before she mysteriously disappears. 

Decades later, they meet again in the most damning of circumstances, and Michael finds himself forced to make a life-changing decision. You may also be pleased to hear this was adapted into an award-winning film featuring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.

The Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas

Read The Mad Women’s Ball for… a dark sumptuous gothic tale set in a 19th-century Parisian asylum. A French bestseller that fans of translated fiction will also enjoy.

Travel back in time to 19th-century Paris, where celebrated hypnotist Dr Charcot holds French society in his thrall thanks to his work at the Salpêtrière asylum.

Within its walls you’ll find women who have been declared hysterical and outcast from society, but as ever, many are simply inconvenient. But with the annual grand ball just around the corner, the stage is set for a night of chaos and collision… Shocking, moving and thrilling, I read it in just one evening.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Read Hamnet for… the tragic story of Shakespeare’s beloved son, whose name inspired one of the most celebrated plays ever written. It also won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Another trip into the Tudor period, but this time the Elizabethan age to tell the story of William Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. A perfect pick for your next book club, Hamnet is a lyrical and brilliantly imagined story of a tragedy faced by one of history’s most influential writers. 

While you’re here, I also can’t recommend The Marriage Portrait strongly enough, a page-turning story of a Florentine duchess who dies under mysterious circumstances in 16th-century Italy.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

Read The Moor’s Account for… a startling work of imagination that will take you on a fantastic adventure travelling through 1500s America.

Longlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Lalami presents the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America, Mustafa al-Zamori aka Estebanico.

As a slave of a Spanish conquistador, Estebanico finds himself on a dangerous expedition on which he remakes himself as an equal, a healer, and a master storyteller.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Read Burial Rites for… a stark and devastating tale of a female killer condemned to death in 19th-century Iceland. Perfect for anyone who likes their historical fiction with a touch of crime.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been sentenced to death for murdering her lover, and she has been sent to live out her final months on a rural farm with only a priest to keep her company.

It’s not often you get to spend time among the stark landscapes of Iceland. In this chilling historical debut, you’ll find yourself thoroughly immersed in the culture and justice system of this particular time period.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

Read A Net For Small Fishes for… fascinating insight into the world of the Jacobean court. Billed as a “sumptuous feast of plotting and intrigue” according to Mail on Sunday, which is a pretty fitting summary.

Based on a true scandal, Jago ushers us into the court of James I, the 17th-century monarch who succeeded Elizabeth I to become the first King of England, Scotland and Ireland.

In A Net For Small Fishes we meet Frances and Anne, two women from different walks of life who meet under peculiar circumstances and realise that together, they may be able to achieve great things at court. A celebratory debut that centres on female friendship, politics and power struggles.  

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Read The Help for… a glimpse into a carefully varnished and tense period of 1960s America where civil rights activists fight for equality.

Set in 1960s Mississippi, The Help became an instant classic for historical fiction lovers. This novel centres around three women: Aibileen, a black maid struggling to come to terms with her own grief; Minny, the sassy cook with a sharp tongue; and Skeeter, a recent college graduate still figuring out her life. 

Together, they find unexpected companionship and the desire to write a tell-all story of what it was really like to be black in such a turbulent period, especially in the deep South.  

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Read The Luminaries for… narrative historical fiction set during the 19th-century New Zealand goldrush. A 2013 Booker Prize winner and a true literary feast at over 800 pages long.

Written by the youngest-ever winner of the Booker Prize, The Luminaries transports you to the world of 19th-century shipping and banking in New Zealand.

In this intricately plotted debut, we are introduced to Walter Moody, a Scottish lawyer ready to make his fortune during the New Zealand gold rush… until he has a strange encounter in a hotel lobby. A murder mystery of sorts, you’ll find yourself gripped by the fascinating characters and immersive dialogue.

Looking for more of the best historical fiction of all time? Find more historical page-turners in these collections of the best big books that are absolutely worth reading, the best audiobooks of all time, and the best modern novels that have already become classics. Enjoy!

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