20 Best Historical Fiction Books: Read Them Today

Delve into an existing read, and get transported back in time, with one of these best historical fiction books

Whether it explores Victorian London or takes place in New York City during the Great Depression, a historical fiction novel will transport the reader to a different time period. The best historical fiction books are those that use the time period as a major plot point, but that still tells a great story.

It doesn't matter if you are exploring the wives of Henry VIII or the real-life stories of French society in the 17th century, the key to writing great historical fiction is writing a great story first.

If you are curious about becoming a historical fiction writer, start by doing some reading. These are the 10 best historical fiction books to consider.

Top 10 Best Historical Fiction Books

Best historical fiction books

As you browse Amazon for historical fiction authors, you may feel a little overwhelmed. This list of the best historical fiction novels will help you narrow down your options.

1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This book explores the story of Count Alexander Rostov who is placed on house arrest in a luxury hotel across from the Kremlin. He watches as some of Russia's most interesting history takes place below his windows, but is not able to interact with the world. 

This book is full of humor and well-developed Russian characters.

“If a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”

Amor Towles
Sale
A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel
  • The mega-bestseller with more than 1.5 million readers that is soon to be a major television series One of five Summer 2019 reading picks by Bill Gates
  • Hardcover Book
  • Towles, Amor (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 480 Pages - 09/06/2016 (Publication Date) - Viking (Publisher)

2. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

This book is set in 1843 and follows Grace Marks, a woman convicted for murdering her employer and his lover. It looks at the subject of mental illness in addition to the time period and culture of 1800s Canada. 

This is a fascinating book by a Booker Prize-winning author. 

Gone mad is what they say, and sometimes Run mad, as if mad is a different direction, like west; as if mad is a different house you could step into, or a separate country entirely. But when you go mad you don't go any other place, you stay where you are. And somebody else comes in.”

Margaret Atwood
Alias Grace: A Novel by Margaret Atwood (August 27,1999)
  • 09/19/2021 (Publication Date) - Emblem Editions (August 27,1999) (Publisher)

3. Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Name of the Rose is set in Italy in the 1300s. When some Italian Franciscans are accused of heresy, Brother William of Baskerville is sent to investigate. He becomes a detective and explores the mystery of several deaths, entering a labyrinth below the abbey that is full of hidden symbols and clues.

This book is fascinating because of the setting, which is not typical of historical fiction novels. 

“Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.” 

Umberto Eco
The Name Of The Rose (Vintage Classics) by Umberto Eco (5-Feb-2004) Paperback
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 09/19/2021 (Publication Date) - Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (5 Feb. 2004) (Publisher)

4. The Underground Railroad By Colson Whitehead

This historical fiction book is set on a cotton plantation in Georgia where Cora, a slave, finds she is even not accepted by other Africans. She learns of the Underground Railroad and tries to make a mistake, only to end up killing a young white boy, which makes her hunted even more passionately. 

This book has a unique take on the Underground Railroad, adding a fiction narrative where the railroad is, in fact, a railroad running under the Southern states.

“Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal unless we decide you are not a man.”

Colson Whitehead
Underground Railroad - version francaise (French Edition)
  • Colson Whitehead (Author)
  • French (Publication Language)
  • 416 Pages - 09/07/2017 (Publication Date) - French and European Publications Inc (Publisher)

5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief takes place in 1939 in Nazi Germany. Rather than following the blight of the Jews as many WWII books do, this one follows a young German foster child as she deals with a Jewish man hiding in her basement.

This book gets its title from the young woman's desire to steal books when she finds them.

“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.” 

Markus Zusak
THE BOOK THIEF
  • Random House Children's Books
  • ZUSAK MARKUS (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 09/08/2016 (Publication Date) - RANDOM HOUSE UK (Publisher)

6. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing follows two half-sisters, born into different Ghana villages, in the 18th century. One is captured in a village raid and imprisoned in a castle where the other married an Englishman and lives in comfort. It follows the path of the sisters from the American Civil War to the Jazz Age in Harlem.

This book makes it on the list because of the many different time periods and cultures it explores, as well as its look at the troubles of slavery. 

“You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

Yaa Gyasi
Sale
Homegoing
  • Gyasi, Yaa (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 05/02/2017 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

7. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Now the subject of a major television series, Outlander is a series of bestseller historical fiction novels that follow the love story of Claire Randall, a 20th-century nurse who time travels to 18th-century Scotland where she meets a dashing young man.

Because it travels through time, this book series is able to merge historical fiction with romance, mystery, and adventure novels as well as a taste of science fiction.

“I can bear pain myself, he said softly, but I couldna bear yours. That would take more strength than I have.”

Diana Gabaldon
Sale
Outlander
  • scarce fine first edition of Diana Gabaldon's first Outlander novel
  • Hardcover Book
  • Gabaldon, Diana (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 640 Pages - 06/01/1991 (Publication Date) - Delacorte Press (Publisher)

8. March by Geraldine Brooks

March is a retelling of Little Women but from the point of view of Mr. March. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006 and is set in the era of the Civil War. 

Interestingly, Brooks based her Mr. March on Louisa May Alcott's own father, Amos Bronson Alcott.

“Instead of idleness, vanity, or an intellect formed by the spoon-feeding of others, my girls have acquired energy, industry, and independence.”

Geraldine Brooks
Sale
March: A Novel
  • Penguin Books
  • Brooks, Geraldine (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 01/31/2006 (Publication Date) - Penguin Books (Publisher)

9. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See is set in Paris, France, during World War II. The protagonist is Marie-Laure, a young woman who must flee the city when the Nazis occupied. With her father, she carries the most valuable and dangerous jewel from the Museum of Natural History. 

Along the way, Marie-Laure meets a German orphan who is passionate about resisting the German army. Doerr skillfully weaves these two stories into one.

“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course, we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.”

Anthony Doerr
Sale
All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel
  • SCRIBNER
  • Doerr, Anthony (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 544 Pages - 04/04/2017 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

10. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars of the Earth takes on Follett's fast-paced action style with a mix of romance, but it is set in the Middle Ages of England. It focuses on the building of the cathedral in the heart of town but skillfully weaves in betrayal, revenge, and a love story.

What makes this book so intriguing is its ability to weave together different characters' stories into one while staying true to the feudal English setting.

“Having faith in God did not mean sitting back and doing nothing. It meant believing you would find success if you did your best honestly and energetically.”

Ken Follett
Sale
The Pillars of the Earth: A Novel (Kingsbridge)
  • Great product!
  • Follett, Ken (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 983 Pages - 07/09/1990 (Publication Date) - Penguin Books (Publisher)

A Final Word on the Best Historical Fiction Books

Reading authors like Follett and Whitehead will show you clearly how to write historical fiction well. Their stories land on the best historical fiction books lists and end up in the hands of book clubs often because they are, at their very heart, great stories. 

Add some of these to your bookshelf to inspire your own reading or to find yourself caught up in a great story.

FAQs About the Best Historical Fiction Books

What is a good historical fiction book?

A good historical fiction book is one that has an engaging storyline and uses the historic setting to fuel that story. The setting becomes a part of the tale, but not the central focus of the plot.

What are the best historical fiction books?

According to Book Riot, some of the best historical fiction books are:

1. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
2. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
3. Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

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