Summer implies languorous days reading “take me away” books: under an umbrella at the beach, on a blanket next to a lake, in a lounge chair in your backyard, or stretched out on a sofa with a tall, cool glass of something nearby. While that vision may be more mythic than actual, let’s pretend.
Historical fiction—including its subgenres: mystery, romance, family saga, etc.—makes an especially good get-away, not only from real life, but also from real time. No present-day politics, social issues, or crises. The best historical fiction allows readers to explore those human elements from a safe distance. You can escape to another time and place and watch human drama unfold. After all, human emotions and urges haven’t changed much.
From ancient history to WWII, the United States and Europe to Asia and Africa, below are “best historical fiction” links from a variety of sources. I chose curated collections over sales statistics, so no Amazon list.
Post a few of your all-time favorite historical novels in the comments below.
“Book Riot is the largest independent editorial book site in North America and home to a host of media, from podcasts to newsletters to original content, all designed around diverse readers and across all genres. We’ve been recommending buzzy and under-the-radar books, celebrating the reading life, reporting on headlines from the world of books and publishing, and bringing readers the progressive, feminist, inclusive bookish content they love since 2011. Our backgrounds are as varied and expansive as our expertise. Some of us are or have been booksellers, teachers, librarians, and authors. All of us are into books.” Curated 2022.
Barnes & Noble: “Here’s your all-access pass into the ultimate historical fiction guide: revisionist history, speculative history, and good old-fashioned historical fiction can all be found here, spanning Biblical Ages through to the early new Millennium. Our list of the best historical fiction books includes bestsellers, bookseller favorites, and award-winning titles.” Curated 2019.
Good Housekeeping: “The best historical fiction doesn’t read like a textbook at all, but a gripping account of a moment in time through another person’s eyes. And especially in the case of books about women, BIPOC and other marginalized or underrepresented voices, reading historical fiction can broaden your mind with fresh perspectives on historical happenings or even accounts of entire events that aren’t taught in the classroom.” Curated 2021.
The Niche Reader: “Welcome to our guide to 30 of the best historical fiction books. This collection of must-read historical novels has something for everyone, whether you love action and adventure, mystery and intrigue, romance and passion, or a combination of them all. We’ve divided the novels by time period, including ancient history, the medieval period, early modern history, the late modern period, and contemporary history. Enjoy!” The Niche Reader is associated with The History Quill: Historical Fiction Specialists, whose website is a one-stop for historical fiction writers. Includes affiliate links. List curated 2023.
Reedsy: “Crafting beautiful books is at the heart of everything that Reedsy does. We’re changing the way books are published by giving authors and publishers access to talented professionals, powerful tools, and free educational content.…We’ve proudly built a community of over 1 million authors and 3,700 freelance professionals — helping them bring more than 15,000 books to market each year.” Interestingly, Reedsy has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. “Whether you’re keen to visit biblical Judaea or feel like living through the chaos of World War II, historical fiction can make you feel immersed in the colors and textures of the distant — or recent — past.” Curated in 2023, these historical fiction books are listed by period and span continents. Reviewed by Reedsy members, the books include Amazon “buy” links.
Books and Bao: “Historical fiction is a brilliantly broad genre of fiction, with the potential to span so much of human history and culture. Because of this fact, many of the best historical fiction books come from far and wide — from Latin America to Japan, and everywhere in-between….Books and Bao offers reviews of the most recent global fiction, poetry, and graphic novels along with inspiring cultural journeys. With our team of dedicated reviewers we provide readers with insightful critiques that not only delve into the narrative but also its cultural significance.” Curated 2023.
LibraryThing, created by librarians, is “an easy, library-quality catalog” that “connects you to people who read what you do.” A community of 2,800,000 book lovers. Curated 2014.
“List Muse is dedicated to publishing stimulating book, film and music lists. These lists provide ideas as to the best cultural works that are available today…. The 100 Best Historical Novels of All Time is a book list for those who enjoy a taste of history in their fiction. The three giants of historical fiction are of course Tolstoy, Graves, and Vidal. Yet there are many other names worthy of note.” Caveat: each book links to an Amazon buy button and was curated in 2013—a bit dated, but many noteworthy books not found on other lists.
Reader’s Digest: “The books on this list were hand-picked for a number of reasons. Some of these historical novels are classics and rank among the best books of all time, while others are more recent, critically acclaimed award winners. Some were chosen by Reader’s Digest book editors for their lasting appeal….Still others are brand-new works written by authors who previously knocked it out of the park or are audience favorites, according to Amazon and Goodreads.” Curated 2023.
For a non-curated mega-list, there’s GoodReads. The list seems to be ranked, but who knows how: ratings, reviews…?
This Wikipedia list is no “best of” list. It’s more like rummaging around in an attic full of lumpy stacks with a time period scrawled on a piece of paper atop each stack. But I found a favorite that I didn’t see elsewhere: Brother Cadfael! Plus many more not found in other lists. Each title is linked to its Wikipedia page.
The Niche Reader: “Whether it’s a locked-room mystery with an unlikely investigator, or a serial killer evading a hard-boiled police detective, there’s a real page-turning thrill as we follow the clues and move ever closer to the final ‘whodunnit’ revelation. Historical mystery and thriller books offer all that and more: rich period detail, social conventions that are often very different to our own, and even the occasional cameo appearance from a ‘real life’ historical figure.” Many of these are series. Pulitzer Prize-winner The Sympathizer is one of the stand-alones. Includes affiliate links. Curated 2023.
Reading Lists founder Phil Treagus-Evans: “Historical mystery books often feature detailed research, making them a fascinating read for history buffs and armchair detectives alike. If you’re looking for a book that will transport you to another time and place while keeping you on the edge of your seat, then a historical mystery book is a perfect choice.”
SheReads blogger, Cindy Burnett: “Historical mysteries series blend two of my favorites genres together: historical fiction and mysteries. Finding an engaging new mystery series is so much fun, especially if there are a number of titles, and the great thing about reading a series is that picking my next book is a lot easier. Series that bring to life earlier time periods with vivid details and descriptions especially appeal to me.” Curated 2021.
The Niche Reader: “As much as the historical fiction genre is rage-fueled warfare and political intrigue, there’s also a significant place for romance. It’s often what fuels conflict, bolsters character development and heals our protagonists’ wounded outlook upon the world. What’s more, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a stoic main character go wobbly when they meet that special someone.” The Niche Reader is a book discovery service associated with The History Quill. “Our aim is to create a vibrant community of book lovers where you can discover books in your favorite niches, connect with authors, and meet other readers.” Curated 2023.
“Prepare to Be Swept Away,” by Elena Nicolaou, former culture editor at Oprah Daily: “Is the modern age getting to be a bit much? We have a solution. Curl up with a cozy throw blanket, and crack open a romance novel that combines sexy tales and historical fiction. Soon enough, you’ll be swept up into a world of duchesses in big dresses and charming rakes with winks in their eyes. In this version of the past, everyone gets a happy ending.” Curated 2020.
Short Form: “We’ve researched and ranked the best historical romance books in the world, based on recommendations from world experts, sales data, and millions of reader ratings…Featuring recommendations from Tracy Chevalier, Audrey Penn, Reese Witherspoon and others.” The vast majority are series, so if you like one in a series, you’ve got plenty of others to read. Curated 2020.
Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.