Historical fiction is one of my favourite literary genres. Ever since I read Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre as an eleven-year-old, I’ve been fascinated with the past. I see historical fiction as an important gateway into world history – and read as much of it as I can.
If this is a genre you love, or perhaps dabble with, here is my list of the top 15 HF novels I have read so far.
Just to note , I have excluded classical literature (so no War and Peace or The Count of Monte Cristo) and I’ve only chosen one book per author/series.
Here we go, in reverse order!
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
I came to this book about fifteen years ago. I had just finished reading Gone With the Wind (which is also amazing) and wanted something similar. Growing up in Ireland, I knew nothing about the American civil war and Gone With the Wind piqued my interest. Indeed I loved the historical aspect of that novel more than the love triangle between Scarlett, Rhett, and Ashley.
This book is a slower paced story, perhaps more akin to Cormac McCarthy than Margaret Mitchell. It also has a love story at the centre, and I found the plight of Inman, who is fighting in the civil war (and then deserting) absolutely gripping. The Civil war acted as a backdrop to Gone with the Wind, here it takes centre stage, and we see how wretched the land and it’s people are after so many years of violence.
The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones
I found this novel at an airport bookshop – and the title immediately hooked me. I’m a massive fan of War and Peace and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, and so have always found Russian history fascinating.
This story centers around the period before WWI and the Russian revolution, and is told from the perspective of two sisters, Anastasia and Militza, who form a friendship with Tsarina Alexandra.
The Tsarina has arrived in Russia as a new bride and is unpopular. To add to her woes, she keeps having daughters and is desperate for a son.
Princesses Anastasia and Militza have also married into the Russian royal family. They have an interest in the occult and believe they have psychic gifts. They befriend the Tsarina and help her in her quest to produce a male heir and she too begins to share their interest in the occult. As Anastasia and Militza’s power at court slips away, they make one final bid for influence and introduce the Tsarina to a man called Rasputin, with devastating consequences.
This is a beautifully written book and very much from the female perspective. The people of Russia see these women as decadent and pampered, but in truth they are trapped and desperate to find a happiness that eludes them. It also shows how the unpopularity of the Tsarina and Rasputin led to one of the most shocking revolutions of all time.
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Fabre
Much of my early HF reading revolved around Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. Upper class love affairs and balls aplenty. The Crimson Petal and the White leaves this behind. This London is gritty, dirty, and the women we meet are not the sort who attend balls.
Sugar is a prostitute who works in her mother’s brothel. She is obsessed with Shakespeare and writing, but she must earn a living and soon catches the eye of Lord William Rackham. William is lonely, his wife seems to be going mad, and managing the family perfume business isn’t easy. Sugar is just what he needs, isn’t she?
Sad at times, funny and tragic, I read this feeling that the glitzy London featured in Sense and Sensibility was only known to the lucky few, those wealthy enough to be allowed into “polite society”. The London known by Sugar, unfortunately, is the more realistic – perhaps following Dickens in his quest for realism. (Our Mutual Friend being the novel that first springs to mind as a comparison.)
If you enjoyed TV shows like Harlots and wanted to read something from this era, this might be the book for you.
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières
While Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is the more famous of Louis de Bernières work, this is my personal favourite.
Set in a fictional town called Eskibahça, it charts the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of modern Turkey.
As the novel starts, the town is made up of a community of Christians, Armenians, and Muslim’s. Everybody gets on, they inter-marry, they speak Turkish but write using Greek letters, and life continues as it always has. However, as the events of WWI unfold, Greece goes to war with Turkey, and the easy harmony which the villagers enjoy, quickly falls away.
I really identified with the novel. Growing up in Northern Ireland and understanding how quickly sectarian conflict can rise, this made the tragedy that befalls many of the villager hit home. Beautifully written, this is a classic and timeless piece of literature.
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
It’s 1348 – and the plague has arrived! ☠️ ☠️
This book is painfully topical – and revolves around a group of people trying to outrun this deadly plague which is spreading like wildfire across England. Yep – plenty of social distancing occurs! 😷
The group consists of an old man, and newly married couple, a relic trader, a conjuror, a magician and his apprentice, and a seriously creepy child. Together, they travel North, hoping to stay ahead of the mysterious illness that is killing so many people.
However, strange things start to happen. One by one, members of the group disappear. Perhaps the plague isn’t the deadliest thing after all?
This is a very readable book. Some of the others here require a bit of concentration. This was fun and creepy, but a well paced yarn too – and has a good twist or two along the way.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This book is on quite a few lists – both for HF and literary fiction. The prose is beautiful. Even though every character is written in 1st person POV, they are so different that you instantly know which character’s head you are in. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.
This story revolves around the Price family. The head of the household is the father, Nathan, an evangelical preacher who takes his family to the Congo. His aim is to save Africa for Jesus. He is single-minded in this vision and frequently fails to understand the cultural differences between himself and the people he seeks to convert. His attempts at arranging a baptism in a river sums this up. He is desperately trying to ‘save their souls’ while the villagers are desperately trying to convince him it’s infested with crocodiles.
Tragic and sad, this book is gripping. From silent and observant Adah, to devoted and thoughtful Leah. Fifteen year old Rachel just wants to be back in America, and Ruth May, a child of 5, likes to climb trees and watch what everybody else is doing. In her own way, she is as observant as Adah, though because of her age, doesn’t always understand what she sees.
We also see what life was like in the Congo as it pulls away from colonial Belgium and sets out towards independence.
The mother, Orleanna, who has reluctantly followed her husband, has only a few chapters – but within them we see the truth of what has happened to Nathan and why this quest for conversion is so important to him. This makes the misery that befalls the Price family all the more tragic.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The year is 1327 and the monks of an Italian abbey are suspected of heresy. Brother William of Baskerville is sent to investigate. When the mission is overshadowed by the deaths of several of the monks in the abbey, he must turn detective and work out who is behind the killings.
Certainly there is no doubt that this book was an influence on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. To solve the case, Brother William must use his knowledge of philosophy (Aristotle in particular), he must decipher cryptic clues, and there are biblical references aplenty – very similar to the methods used by Robert Langdon.
It is a more intelligent book than The Da Vinci Code (which I also enjoyed) and is extraordinary at somehow combining theological debates, philosophy, and 13th century religious historical fiction – while making it interesting. And it is very interesting. By combining a Sherlock Holmes type mystery with a religious setting, it is both familiar and new, and like all good mysteries, expect the unexpected!
It’s so good in fact that I’ve just ordered myself a new copy. My last one has disappeared (aka has not been returned) and just writing the review has made me want to read it again!
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief starts off in a slightly odd manner – we are spoken to by Death. He is busy. Jews and Nazi dissenters are being taken by the trainload to concentration camps. War is looming. He knows he’s about to get much busier.
While collecting the soul of a little boy, Death notices his sister, a girl called Liesel, and throughout the story he watches her. She is the daughter of a communist and is removed from her mother and sent to Germany to be adopted by a German family. She also likes to steal books.
Here we see a perspective of WWII that I hadn’t visited before. A German one. Told mostly through Liesel’s perspective, we see Nazi fervour take hold; but not everyone agrees. It’s a dangerous business if you don’t agree with the Nazi Party, and they have spies everywhere.
Liesel’s adopted parents don’t agree with the new regime and end up hiding one of their Jewish friends. This is very dangerous. If they are caught, all of them will be arrested.
There are a lot of terrible things that happen in this book, but being told through a child’s perspective somehow makes it easier to digest. The relationship between Liesel, her adopted parents, her friends, and Max is beautifully written and as the war unfolds, there are some truly nail-bitting moments.
An truly memorable read.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini writes very passionately about Afganistan, as you will know if you’ve read any of his novels.
While The Kite Runner is about a Father-son relationship, A Thousand Splendid Suns changes focus to a mother-daughter one. Set roughly between 1960-2000, it’s about Mariam, an illegitimate girl, and Laila, who grows up in a stable and loving family. Due to differing circumstances they both marry a man called Rasheed.
The characters live in Kabul during a time where the Taliban are rising to promince and suddenly the women of Afganistan are having their rights and social freedoms eroded.
Miriam and Laila end up finding companionship and friendship with each other and this is very much the light in a difficult story.
I think at times we all like to read a Bridgerton or see a warrior defending his country. We all love a dashing duke, a brave knight, and a witty heroine. These stories are entertaining and light. However, this isn’t all historical fiction should give us. There is no doubt this book is an emotionally difficult book to read at times, but perhaps all the more important for that.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
This is a huge opus – and I’m sure it makes many top 10 HF lists. It does also make for a rather strange hit. Who knew the building of a church in the 12th century would be so riveting?
Well it is! Set against the backdrop of ‘The Anarchy’ the building of the church becomes political and the unscrupulous Bishop Waleran and the ambitious Hamleigh family have ideas of their own.
Meanwhile, the war between Maud, the legitimate heir to the English throne, and her cousin Stephen plunges the country into chaos. Often this leaves the residents of Knightbridge untouched, but all too often, it threatens their very lives.
I loved Tom Builder, Jack, Aliena, and Prior Philip. The love of building, the understanding of how stone structures were built, works alongside the romance and betrayals along the way.
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
I read this book when I was about seventeen and was instantly hooked by the narratives of the three women. Yu-fang, her daughter Bao-Qin, and Jung Chang (the author) who is the daughter of Bao-Qin.
These three generations had such different experiences living in China. Yu-fang grew up in old China. Her feet are bound and she is married to a local warlord. Bao-Qin grows up just as the communist revolution hits and is a follower of the movement. Jung Chang grows up firmly in the grip of the communist party and lives to understand the restrictions of Chairman Mao’s regime.
I don’t want to say too much – as the lives these women lead are best told through their own voices. It is a memoir, but told as a story, and is truly breathtaking and a thought provoking insight into communist China.
Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell
This is a great series for anyone who likes Vikings and battles and a strong male lead. It’s lots of fun too – and perhaps an easier read than anything else on this list. It’s not literary- it’s pure adventure and excitement. Uhtred, son of Uhtred, is a great protagonist too.
I love the whole series. The only book I haven’t yet read is War Lord, the final (13th) book in the Saxon Stories. I’m doing a re-read before I get there and am currently on the 10th book in the series.
However, if I had to pick a favourite, it would be this one. Uhtred is full of conflict here. He has sworn oaths to King Alfred, who he respects, but his heart is with his Danish foster family. Uhtred faces real temptation in Sword Song to break his vows, which is what makes it so riveting. Also many of my favourite characters are here. Beocca, Steapa, Sigefrid, Alfred, Elswith, Father Pyrlig, and even Aethelwold.
The story in this particular novel focuses on the taking of Lundene (London) by the brothers Sigefrid and Erik, two Norse Jarls. We have kidnappings, battles, and pagan trickery. Everything I love about this series! ⚔️ 🛡
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
This is another book I couldn’t put down.
Chiyo and her sister Satsu are sold by their father after the death of their mother as he is too poor to care for them.
Chiyo is sold to a geisha house in Kyoto where she begins her training to become a geisha. The training is difficult; geisha’s are artists, and are meant to dazzle. They must be beautiful, delicate, exquisite dancers and musicians. And of course; they must make money for their Okiya.
Chiyo must learn to navigate her way through the politics of the life she finds herself in. The okiyo owner, Mother, is greedy. Hatsumomo is a terror, and Mameha is cunning. Who should Chiyo trust? Who can she turn to when she falls in love? Everyone knows that Geisha’s are not meant to fall in love.
When war looms, Chiyo (now called Sayuri) must find a new path. For the old ways are fading now and everything she has known is about to change.
Beautifully written and well researched, this is a brilliant story that shines a light on a culture that was little understood. The fights between Mameha, Sayuri and Hatsumomo were captivating – and the love story between Sayuri and The Chairman truly enthralling.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
This book just blew me away.
Wolf Hall was also spectacular, a novel which centres on the rise of Anne Boleyn, told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. He is low working class, but exceptionally clever, and weaves his way up through court. He’s an upstart, according to the nobles, common. But when Cardinal Wolsey fails to procure an annulment between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Wolsey is arrested and this leaves Cromwell to find another way to permit the lovestruck Henry to marry his mistress. Cromwell is a lawyer and the law can bend for a king.
In Bring Up the Bodies, things take a serious turn – and what we have is a spectacular fall from grace. Thomas Cromwell rose with Anne Boleyn; how then should he navigate his future if hers is uncertain?
The prose is beautiful, more stylised than Anne O’Brien and Phillipa Gregory, who also write about this era, but by using Cromwell as the protagonist, it gives much more insight into the politics of the era.
Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
This novel is a masterpiece.
It is set on a ship called Star of the Sea, which represents what became known as a ‘coffin ship’ – a ship that set sail from Ireland to America, but due to the affects of starvation during the Irish Famine, many of those who boarded the ship, died before they arrived.
Obviously, stories about the famine are hard to read, but what Joseph O’Connor does here works so well. In Agatha Christie style, we have a variety of characters who are stuck together; there can be no escape until they reach New York. On board there is a bankrupt English landlord and his wife, their servant Mary, an American newspaperman, several hundred Irish men and women who are on the cusp of dying with the hunger and suffering they have endured, and the crew of the ship. Everyone is desperate to reach America. These is also a murderer on board. A murderer who was evicted from a certain landlord’s holding and revenge is very much on his mind.
Told through a variety of mediums; prose, letters, captain’s logs, and newspaper clippings, the story weaves the characters stories together and shows us the real tragedy of the great Irish famine.
So what did you think of my list? Are there any you thought should have made it?
I’ve a few HF books on my TBR list. Perhaps one of these will nudge its way into my chart. Here is what I’ll be reading over the next few months. If you’ve read these and enjoyed them, let me know!
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