30 Historical Fiction Novels for Your Reading Bucket List
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If you love books that take you back in time, you’ll love this list of some of the best historical fiction books to read in your lifetime. Whether you’re looking for a great historical fiction series, an epic historical novel, or some of the most popular historical fiction books to add to your reading bucket list, this book list will give you some great options for your next historical read.
I’ll never forget the first historical fiction books I read on my own as a kid.
The Little House on the Prairie series was my first foray into historical fiction, and from those first moments in the log cabin in the big woods of Wisconsin, I was hooked.
And not just on the details of life over a hundred years ago (which, on rereading the books with my kids, can be a little dry). No, I was hooked on historical fiction as a genre.
Because those details? Are fascinating.
And when the story is so compelling you can’t put it down? That’s when the details, the people, the events that really happened (or some fictionalized version of them)–the history–all come to life.
Because I read historical fiction, I have a better understanding–or at least imagining–of the real people who lived long ago. I empathize with their worries, understand their struggles, and know what their lives may have been like.
Historical Fiction Books for Your Reading Bucket List
Because historical fiction novels are more than just great stories, I consider them essential for a lifetime reading list. And so, this historical fiction book list is part of my series on reading bucket list recommendations.
Your book bucket list, or lifetime reading list, should be personal to your reading goals and tastes. I hope these lists will help you put together your own list of must-read books.
In case you missed them, here are other posts from this series:
- 30 Middle Grade Books for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Twentieth Century Classics by Women for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Contemporary Fiction Novels for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Memoirs and Nonfiction Books for Your Reading Bucket List
- How to Create a Reading Bucket List that You’ll Actually Finish
- 50 Books on My Reading Bucket List
The historical fiction reading bucket list includes some of the best historical fiction books and series I’ve read, as well as some others that are high on my to-read list.
The best historical fiction brings the past to life and makes the daily dramas of the people who lived during those times real.
Even if the characters in historical fiction books aren’t real, when you care about them and the stories being told, the real history also tends to stick with you.
30 Must-Read Historical Fiction Books
Rules of Civility
Author: Amor Towles
Rules of Civility is a look at 1930s New York high society through the eyes of Katey Kontent, an independent 20-something who, with her friend Evelyn, finds her way into those hallowed circles by way of a chance meeting with Tinker Grey at a jazz bar.
Circumstances keep Katey on the invite list over the course of a year, as she works as a secretary by day and navigates the world of the wealthy by night.
Author: Jess Walter
What I love about Beautiful Ruins is its focus on the smaller-scale dramas of the people caught in the over-the-top dramas of Hollywood–in this case, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Minor characters in the novel, their relationship reverberates through the lives of the people around them, even decades after the fact.
We follow the story from the Italian coast in the 1960s to modern day Scotland and Hollywood. Beautiful Ruins is a reminder that everyone has a backstory and is the protagonist of their own life–even after the so-called main characters have left the spotlight.
The Red Tent
Author: Anita Diamant
The Red Tent illuminates the lives of women who are only briefly mentioned in the context of the men around them in the Bible.
Dinah is more than just the daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph and their many brothers. She is a girl who grows up with four mothers, learning the feminine customs and the skills of midwifery in the red tent to which they all retreat each month.
She’s also the one whose life determines the fate of the entire family. This fictional imagining of Dinah grants her the hopes, fears, and–most of all–the agency she is denied in the male-centric stories of the Bible.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven
Author: Chris Cleave
An hour after England enters World War II, socialite Mary North signs up for service and teaches students who were rejected from evacuation to the countryside. This turn brings into her life Zachary, a young black student; Tom, an education administrator; and Alistair, a soldier.
Mary, Tom, and Zachary face the bombings of the Blitz, while the ills of society–race, poverty, addiction–persistently remain. Alistair, meanwhile, faces brutality, starvation, and violence as a soldier in Malta.
Cleave tells a beautiful and surprisingly witty tale of love, loss, and bravery. Also check out my in-depth look at the history and writing of this book in my Story of the Story series.
As Bright As Heaven
Author: Susan Meissner
On the heels of the devastating loss of their infant son and brother, the Bright family moves to Philadelphia to join an uncle’s funeral home business. The family soon faces another devastation: the Spanish Flu pandemic that literally leaves bodies at their doorstep and an orphaned infant in their care.
The family isn’t immune to the losses wrought by the flu and World War I, and in their grief they grasp for hope and purpose in different ways, keeping secrets to protect themselves and one another. A heartfelt, engrossing look at a historical pandemic, and an especially relevant read during our modern pandemic.
The War that Saved My Life
Author: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Ada’s abusive mother has kept her locked inside her entire life, ashamed of her club foot. When the bombings of World War II start, Ada and her brother sneak away, to be evacuated from London with the other children.
They find themselves in Kent, placed with Susan Smith, a woman who does not want children but sees to both their health and education.
Ada finds solace in a pony, crutches, and freedom she’s never had. But she struggles with the trauma of her past and when the war comes to their doorstep the stakes are raised. I was enthralled by this middle grade book and I loved the sequel just as much.
Author: Tatiana de Rosnay
In 1942 Paris, Jewish people are rounded up and sent away–often to their deaths. Sarah, 10 years old, hides her little brother in a cupboard, locking the door and promising to return.
What follows is the story of her desperate journey back to him, alternating with the story of a journalist 60 years later who is investigating the round up.
Author: Diana Gabaldon
In 1945, English combat nurse Claire Randall walks through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and finds herself in 1743. Separated from her new husband by 200 years and at the mercy of a suspicious clan embroiled in conflict, Claire must use her cunning to survive and make her way back to the 20th century.
Young Highlander Jamie Fraser emerges as a potential ally and protector in an alien time and land. As she and Jamie grow closer, Claire faces decisions about her life–including when and where she wants to live, and who she wants to be with.
This entire series was completely immersive for me–dramatic, a little sexy, and unputdownable. (And the television series is excellent, too!)
The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
This massive tome about the building of a cathedral in the Middle Ages is filled with drama and intrigue, evil characters, romance, political maneuvering, and fascinating history. I call it soapy historical fiction, in the best possible way. Highly readable, hard to put down, and also a bit of a guilty pleasure.
I also loved the two sequels, World Without End and A Column of Fire. And Follett fans take note: a Kingsbridge prequel, The Evening and the Morning, is coming in September 2020!
Gone with the Wind
Author: Margaret Mitchell
Gone with the Wind is a book on my reading bucket list that I can’t believe I haven’t read yet! While it (and the film) are certainly problematic, it’s still a book that I want to read for myself. Publishers description:
Gone with the Wind is set in Clayton County, Georgia, and Atlanta during the American Civil War and Reconstruction era. It depicts the struggles of young Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do plantation owner, who must use every means at her disposal to claw her way out of the poverty she finds herself in after Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Life After Life takes us through the many versions of Ursula Todd’s life and addresses the question that often accompanies the deaths of the young: what if she had lived?
As Ursula makes different decisions or encounters different situations, she dies–or lives. Through each version of her subsequent life, we get the answers to that very question.
That Ursula’s recurring lives are set during two of the most devastating wars the world has ever seen is particularly poignant, as even today we look back on the lives lost and wonder, what if?
Author: Sigrid Undset
I’ve been wanting to read this one for ages, because it sounds like just the kind of epic historical fiction I love. Publisher’s description:
In her great historical epic set in fourteenth-century Norway, Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the life story of one passionate and headstrong woman. As a young girl, Kristin is deeply devoted to her father, a kind and courageous man. But when as a student in a convent school she meets the charming and impetuous Erlend Nikulaussøn, she defies her parents in pursuit of her own desires. Her saga continues through her marriage to Erlend, their tumultuous life together raising seven sons as Erlend seeks to strengthen his political influence, and finally their estrangement as the world around them tumbles into uncertainty.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
When aging movie star Evelyn Hugo recruits Monique Grant, an unknown reporter, to write her biography, Monique can’t fathom why Evelyn would want her. She is quickly drawn into Evelyn’s winding tale, from her rise to stardom, her multiple marriages, and the dramas of her life.
Evelyn is an enigmatic character–fascinating, confident, and powerful. It’s no wonder, since she and her story are based on several of Hollywood’s leading ladies.
I loved the peek behind the curtain of the careful construction of Evelyn’s public life versus her private life. This was juicy, smart, and unputdownable.
The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Set in World War II Germany and narrated by Death, The Book Thief brings us Liesel Meminger. A foster girl who is taught to read and about quiet acts of resistance by her accordion-playing foster father, Liesel attempts to make sense of the horrors happening around her while living her day-to-day. When Max, a Jewish man, moves into the basement, Liesel shares her (stolen) books with him as he shares his stories with her.
That the story is narrated by Death hints at its direction, but the tragedy of World War II is never a question. It’s Zusak’s vividly imagined daily lives of Germans in World War II and a dutiful Death lingering in everyone’s shadows at that time that (perhaps ironically) bring this story to life.
The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried is a historical fiction novel set in the Vietnam War. It follows the men of Alpha Company, including the character of Tim O’Brien (based on the author himself).
With lyrical prose and sensitivity, it examines the experience of the war, as well as memory, truth, and fear. If you have any interest in the Vietnam War, this is a must-read.
Code Name Verity
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Code Name Verity is told through a journal written by “Verity,” a female English pilot captured in German-occupied France, and by her friend Maddie in the second half of the book. Verity has been tortured and she is writing for her life, charged by her captors with revealing codes and information about the Allies.
Both to fulfill her obligation and to maintain her sanity, she weaves the tale of a friendship and how she landed in her present situation. Often written with surprising humor, this book often has a light tone throughout that is only one of the misleading elements. If you haven’t read this one, don’t read much more before picking it up–the twists and spy games will be all the more satisfying.
Author: Hilary Mantel
Another historical drama that’s been on my list for a while, I look forward to giving this one a try. Publisher’s description:
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Author: Lisa See
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is the story of an intimate friendship between two 19th century Chinese women. At age seven, Lily is matched with her laotang–“old same”–Snow Flower, in a match that is meant to create a lifelong bond between the two.
They communicate in a language known only to women through messages written on a fan, breaking through the loneliness of life as a female in China: foot binding, arranged marriage, and motherhood. This is a fascinating look at an aspect of Chinese culture that was new to me, as well as a testament to the power of female friendships.
The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker
I read this way back in high school, and it’s definitely time for a reread. Publisher’s description:
The Color Purple is the story of two sisters–one a missionary to Africa and the other a child wife living in the South–who remain loyal to one another across time, distance, and silence. Beautifully imagined and deeply compassionate, this classic of American literature is rich with passion, pain, inspiration, and an indomitable love of life.
The Clan of the Cave Bear
Author: Jean M. Auel
I’ve been hearing great things about this historical fiction series for years–I have a feeling I might love it as much as the Outlander and The Pillars of the Earth series. Publisher’s description:
Set at the time of the dawn of humans during the Ice Age, a natural disaster leaves young Ayla wandering alone in an unfamiliar and dangerous land until she is found by a woman of the Clan of the Cave Bears. To them, blond, blue-eyed Ayla looks peculiar and ugly. She is one of the Others, those who have moved into their ancient homeland, but she is taken in and most come to accept her. But the brutal and proud youth who is destined to become their next leader sees her differences as a threat. His hatred for Ayla grows and he is determined to get his revenge.
The Book of Longings
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
This ambitious and daring novel imagines the life of Ana, the fictional wife of Jesus. Kidd creates a compelling narrative for this woman, casting her at the center of her own story and granting her a feminism and independence that someone like Jesus would have appreciated.
There is no evidence that Jesus ever married, but also none that he didn’t. Kidd’s focus on Ana’s and Jesus’ lives while he was in his 20s–10 years before he began his preaching–brings the life of Jesus the human into sharper focus, and makes a good case for why he would have married.
Memoirs of a Geisha
Author: Arthur Golden
Memoirs of a Geisha is a fascinating fictional look at the life of one geisha. Chiyo is sold to a geisha house at a young age, enduring difficult training and brutal treatment with the aim of becoming a geisha. The role involves artistry, entertainment, companionship, and is–at the time–essentially prostitution cloaked in an elegant veneer.
The paradox of a geisha’s life is her role of servitude coupled with her power over men. Chiyo–now Sayuri–spends her life devoted to beguiling men and becomes one of the most celebrated geishas in Japan. As World War II changes Japan, the role of the geisha will also be forever changed.
Let the Great World Spin
Author: Colum McCann
Historical fiction set in New York is always fascinating; I’m looking forward to reading this one. Publisher’s description:
In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.
Fall of Giants
Author: Ken Follett
Fall of Giants is the first in another epic historical trilogy from Ken Follett. While the Pillars of the Earth trilogy was set over multiple centuries, Fall of Giants is placed squarely in the 20th century. The story follows five families across the world through World War I, the Russian Revolution, and women’s suffrage. This trilogy felt heavier on the political history than the soapy drama than the Pillars of the Earth (though there’s a bit of that as well!).
While, for me, this historical fiction series didn’t have the same “unputdownable” quality, it’s still another compelling, meticulously researched epic with richly drawn characters who bring the history alive. The books are extremely long but worth the read.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
There aren’t many World War II novels that could be described as “charming,” but The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is just that. Told as a series of letters between an author in post-World War II England and the residents of the island of Guernsey, we learn how books helped them survive the German occupation. An impromptu book club, invented as an excuse for missing curfew, becomes a touchpoint for the various residents of the island.
Charming as it is, the book doesn’t shy from the realities of the war and what it meant for the island to be occupied. Between the epistolary storytelling and the book club at the center of it all, this is truly an ode to power of words.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet takes us between two time periods: 1986, when Henry, a Chinese-American joins others in Seattle as a hotel with belongings from people sent to Japanese internment camps is opened up, and 1942, when he first meets Keiko a young Japanese girl whose family is sent to those camps. The book is both romance and family story, and it also looks at Japanese-Chinese relations in America at the time, the internment of Japanese citizens, and the jazz scene in Seattle.
Author: Margaret Atwood
Based on a true case from 1843, the story focuses on Grace Marks, a young woman who at the age of 16, was convicted of the murders of her employer, Mr. Kinnear, and a fellow housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, was also employed in Kinnear’s home. The two were arrested in a hotel after the murders, wearing the victim’s clothes and carrying items stolen from the home. Grace insists she has no memory of the key events.
Now, eight years later, McDermott has been executed. Grace remains in prison and psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan to draw out lost moments of Grace’s memory in the hopes of exonerating her. Read my full review of both the book and Netflix series.
All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
This Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II novel tells the story of a blind French teen, a young German soldier, and how they come together during the war in occupied France. This is a book to be read slowly to fully appreciate the rich descriptions and sensory-laden language.
A girl finds refuge running her hands across the snails lining a grotto; a boy closes his eyes and visualizes the electrons allowing the voices to carry over the airwaves; an old woman whispers a few words to sustain a resistance, finding the only power she has. Doerr’s telling is a reminder that wars aren’t just history, but personal and deeply felt.
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing is an epic generational novel following the family lines of two half-sisters born in Ghana 300 years ago: one is married off to an English slave trader while the other is sold into slavery. Each chapter follows a new descendant of the women, illustrating how events and injustices of the past reverberate through the lives and struggles of future generations.
An astonishing, emotional novel that deftly answers the question of how the descendants of slaves continue to be oppressed by the institution of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, even 150 years after abolition. One of my best reads of 2017.
Author: Geraldine Brooks
This Pulitzer-Prize winning novel brings imagines the life of Little Women father Mr. March, absent for most of that famous novel to serve as a Union chaplain in the Civil War.
The tie to the Little Women provides points of familiarity, but fans hoping for a new perspective on the girls will be disappointed. Instead, the novel provides insight into one man’s experience of the Civil War, life as an abolitionist, and his human fears, failings, and moral quandaries when faced with the violence of war and the horror of slavery.
This was a slow read, at times, but worth it for fans of both Little Women and historical fiction.
You Might Also Like
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- Fiction Books by Black Authors for Your Antiracist Reading List
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I love historical fiction recommendations! What are the best historical fiction books you’ve read?