Historical fiction is a fascinating literary genre that combines research and creativity. The genre contextualizes real events through the author’s lens. The best historical fiction should be entertaining and insightful, providing a so-called “slice of life” view of an era, event, or individual. Our list of the top five novels in this realm of literature might find its way onto the reading lists of curious book enthusiasts.
Historical fiction novels, a captivating genre that seamlessly melds the significance of history with the art of storytelling, have consistently enthralled readers with their ability to transport us across time and space. These literary gems possess the remarkable capacity to resurrect bygone eras, offering a window into the past that educates, entertains, and enchants. Through meticulous research and imaginative prose, the finest of these novels breathe life into forgotten events, iconic figures, and everyday lives of yesteryears, allowing readers to witness history’s twists and turns as if they were present.
Whether unraveling the intrigues of ancient civilizations, chronicling the turbulence of world wars, or unveiling the secrets of lesser-known epochs, these novels transcend mere storytelling, serving as vessels of empathy, knowledge, and inspiration. By illuminating the human experience against the backdrop of history, the best historical fiction novels invite us to embark on a journey of discovery where fact and fiction seamlessly coalesce, leaving an indelible mark on our understanding of the world that was and the stories that endure.
To take a look into pivotal moments in world history, we turned to expert sources to discover the top five best historical fiction novels. For history buffs as well as people that just want a good read, our list could be a helpful resource. Let us know your favorite literary works in the comments below!
The List: Best Historical Fiction Novels, According to Experts
“Wolf Hall” centers on the events of Henry VIII of England’s reign. Author Hilary Mantel’s command of the written word combined with research has resulted in a popular novel that is well regarded by our sources. The Guardian writes, “The 2009 Booker winner is the first in a series of novels… presenting the life of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell. With remarkable immediacy, Mantel inhabits the restless, brilliant, ambitious mind of her subject, so that we see the events of Tudor history – notably Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon – unfold through his eyes.”
Books & Bao raves, “Mantel paints Cromwell as a more sympathetic character than history has done, and uses that altered perspective to tell one of the most engaging historical novels ever penned. Few novels have made as much of an impact on their respective genres as ‘Wolf Hall’ has; unquestionably one of the best historical fiction books of all time.”
“Hilary Mantel’s reimagining of England in the 1520s and the lives of King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell is so creative and enthralling, it’s no surprise that this 2009 historical fiction novel won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The themes of power, jealousy, religion and lust make this a page-turner for any avid Tudor fan—or anyone who loves reading about the royal family and its scandals,” explains Reader’s Digest.
“The Water Dancer” is a story of American slavery in the south. The significant success of this novel has earned contemporary author Ta-Nehisi Coates acclaim in the literary world. Pan Macmillan states, “This is the historical novel that Oprah Winfrey called, ‘One of the best books I have ever read in my entire life.’ Hiram Walker was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation, but one fateful decision will take him away from his plantation family and into the heart of the underground war on slavery. For Hiram is a man with a secret, a mysterious power he was gifted at birth.”
Book Riot offers, “This first novel by National Book Award–winning Coates was an Oprah Book Club pick, a #1 ‘New York Times’ bestseller, and more. It’s about a young enslaved man named Hiram who harnesses a mysterious power that saves him when he almost drowns. It is this event that pushes Hiram to escape his life of bondage and rescue his family.”
“‘The Water Dancer’ is a coming-of-age story about Hiram — a young man with a photographic memory who was born into slavery — and his personal journey of self-discovery and freedom. He’s the son of a white plantation owner and an enslaved black woman, whom his father ultimately sold away. In a community divided into three class systems — the Tasked (black slaves), the Quality (white landowners), and low-class whites — we follow Hiram as he dissects the true meaning of ‘family‘ and why kin doesn’t always equate to bloodlines,” explains BuzzFeed News.
This Russian epic novel shed light into the lives of Russian aristocrats during the Napoleonic wars. As required in many literature classes, this book is famous for its prose and rich detail. The Guardian explains, “Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel – often described as the greatest ever – chronicles the effects of the Napoleonic wars on five aristocratic Russian families. Deploying the technique of literary realism that he helped develop, Tolstoy magnificently evokes the sense of an entire social world. The narrative moves seamlessly between characters and scenes, now describing the inanities of a Moscow drawing room, now charting, in harrowing detail, the chaos of war. Tolstoy’s aim was to use the techniques of fiction to get at the ‘truth’ of history.”
Short Form adds, “‘War and Peace’ broadly focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men.”
“Published to coincide with the centenary of Tolstoy’s death, here is an exciting new edition of one of the great literary works of world literature. Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece captures with unprecedented immediacy the broad sweep of life during the Napoleonic wars and the brutal invasion of Russia,” states List Muse.
Reader’s travel back to ancient Rome in this novel by Robert Graves. It humanizes individuals from antiquity in a riveting read. Discovery details, “A fictionalized autobiography of Claudius, this pioneering piece of historical fiction offers his own documentation of his family and the political intrigue that happens within it. Through detailed observations recited in an incredibly orderly fashion, Claudius, the disdainful scholar, transports you into his mind and to the center of elite life in ancient Rome.”
“Considered an idiot because of his physical infirmities, Claudius survived the intrigues and poisonings of the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and the Mad Caligula to become emperor in 41 A.D. A masterpiece,” claims List Muse.
“This hugely popular 1934 novel is the fictional autobiography of the fourth Roman Emperor. Graves uses this format to present the history of Claudius’s predecessors – Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula – while his 1935 follow-up, ‘Claudius the God,’ is an account of his subject’s own rule… Graves later dismissed the books as having been written solely for commercial gain, but they remain classics of the genre,” explains The Guardian.
This novel is about the events of World War II Paris, and the plight of a young woman. This Anthony Doerr book is well-reviewed by all our sources. B&N Reads summarizes, “In this historical fiction book, a young blind girl flees Paris carrying a precious jewel while an orphan joins the Hitler Youth; when their paths collide, the course of history changes forever.”
“Now one of the most well-known novels set during World War II, this novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013. It’s about the destinies of a blind French girl and a German boy trying to survive in occupied France,” according to Book Riot.
“There’s a reason that Anthony Doerr’s  World War II novel, ‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ spent more than two-and-a-half years on the ‘New York Times’ Best Seller list (in addition to winning a Pulitzer and being a finalist for the National Book Award). The story… is the perfect combination of fanciful and thrilling,” adds Reader’s Digest.
You might also be interested in:
- The Guardian
- Books & Bao
- Reader’s Digest
- Pan Macmillan
- Book Riot
- BuzzFeed News
- Short Form
- List Muse
- B&N Reads
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