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The 20 Most Famous Historical Fiction Books Worth Reading

These compelling novels blend fact and fiction for an exciting, educational ride.

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If you can't decide whether to crack open the spine of a fiction or nonfiction book, boy have we got a genre for you. Historical fiction, works that are set in the past and make their historical setting important parts of the narrative plot, scratch an itch like few other genres can. You get to follow characters and go inside their head while also being transported back in time. The best works of historical fiction can help you understand an era better than simply reading a nonfiction work about it might, as the fictional character you're following in this real time helps you feel connected to the past.

There are countless great examples of historical fiction, so many that there are subgenres within the genre. There are romance historical fiction books, horror historical fiction books, adventure historical fiction books, and many more. To help you get started, we've put together a sampling of 20 great works of historical fiction, spanning several different genres, eras, and places. Read on to discover what books you should read (or listen to) next.

Prices are current at the time of publication but are subject to change.

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The Abominable by Dan Simmons

"The Abominable" by Dan Simmons book cover
Back Bay Books

Dan Simmons is probably best known for The Terror, a work of historical fiction that veers into the supernatural when a monster attacks the doomed men of Franklin's lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The Abominable, whose title references the yetis said to haunt the Himalayas, sounds at first like it could be too supernatural to qualify for this list, but it's largely a very grounded story about mountaineering, full of adventure, colorful characters, and plenty of research about the history of mountain climbing.

$16 at Amazon
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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

"All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr book cover

Recently adapted into a Netflix miniseries, All the Light We Cannot See follows Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl living in Saint-Malo after the Nazis invade Paris, and Werner Pfennig, a German military school student. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel explores themes of war and human nature, and author Anthony Doerr received praise for his sensory writing style.

$13 at Amazon
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Atonement by Ian McEwan

"Atonement" by Ian McEwan book cover
Anchor Books

Ian McEwan's acclaimed 2001 novel follows Briony Tallis, a well-off English girl in the '30s who, in a misunderstanding that's not entirely innocent, has her older sister Cecilia's lover Robbie sent to prison, by identifying him as the perpetrator of an assault he did not commit. The fallout from this accusation carries on into World War II and beyond, with Briony eventually coming to realize that she ruined Cecilia and Robbie's lives and that she wants to atone—if that's even possible. The book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, and Saoirse Ronan.

$11 at Amazon
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Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

"Master and Commander" by Patrick O'Brian book cover
W. W. Norton & Company

Patrick O'Brian's series of nautical history novels, beginning with 1969's Master and Commander, are extremely dad-core, but their appeal is widespread. Set in the Napoleonic Wars, the series follows Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin, an odd couple who embark on many adventures at sea together serving king and country. Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany starred as the pair in a film adaptation that drew from three of the books: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

The movie was critically acclaimed but didn't have the success needed to kick off a film franchise. Luckily, there are 21 books in the Aubrey/Maturin series for fans of the era and O'Brian's nautical wit.

$14 at Amazon
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The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

"The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood book cover

Margaret Atwood of The Handmaid's Tale fame wrote this 2000 novel about a pair of sisters whose lives in an Ontario port town span nearly a century of Canadian history. Intertwined is a novel-within-a-novel, the titular Blind Assassin, a pulpy sci-fi book one of the sisters wrote that has connections to their real relationships.

$11 at Amazon
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City of Thieves by David Benioff

"City of Thieves" by David Benioff book cover
Penguin Books

David Benioff, better known now as one half of the creative duo behind Game of Thrones, wrote an acclaimed historical fiction novel in 2008 before making the jump to TV. Set during the siege of Leningrad in World War II, City of Thieves, follows two boys who have been tasked with obtaining a dozen eggs for a member of the Russian secret police—easier said than done in the besieged city. City of Thieves has been cited as an inspiration for the video game The Last of Us, which was adapted into a blockbuster HBO drama itself.

$11 at Amazon
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Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton

"Eaters of the Dead" by Michael Crichton book cover

Please don't confuse Eaters of the Dead with its film adaptation The 13th Warrior, which is infamously one of the biggest box office bombs in history. The book, from Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain author Michael Crichton, is a horror-tinged adventure. It follows a 10th-century Muslim Arab who travels to the north and encounters Vikings, documenting his travels with them. Their quest? Doing battle with a monstrous tribe, which is Crichton's attempt to make the story of Beowulf into semi-plausible historical fiction.

$15 at Amazon
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I, Claudius by Robert Graves

"I, Claudius" by Robert Graves book cover
Vintage International

Robert Graves' 1934 novel is written as though it were the autobiography of Roman Emperor Claudius, telling a first-person (though fictionalized) account of Roman history from the assassination of Julius Caesar to the death of Caligula, Claudius' predecessor. The book, along with its sequel Claudius the God, were massive successes. Time named I, Claudius one of its top 100 "All-TIME Novels," and it was adapted into hugely popular miniseries by the BBC in the '70s.

$11 at Amazon
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Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

"Les Misérables" by Victor Hugo book cover
Signet Classics

Though now somewhat eclipsed nowadays by the beloved stage musical, Victor Hugo's 1862 novel remains one of the most celebrated works ever published. The book follows Jean Valjean, a former prisoner, and Javert, the police inspector who pursues him across two decades of French history, culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion. It's Les Mis—what more is there to say?

$9 at Amazon
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The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

"The Name of the Rose" by Umberto Eco book cover

Staggeringly, over 50 million copies of Italian author Umberto Eco's 1980 novel have been sold internationally since it was published. A murder mystery, The Name of the Rose follows a Franciscan friar who arrives at an Italian monastery in 1327 only to find suspicious, gruesome murders that he must attempt to solve. It blends historical whodunnit with high-minded medieval studies and biblical analysis, making it an exciting and illuminating read.

$16 at Amazon
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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

"The Nightingale" by Kristin Hannah book cover
St. Martin's Griffin

Another story of survival under occupation in World War II, Kristin Hannah's 2015 bestseller follows two estranged French sisters who deal with the German invasion in different ways. Viann attempts to keep her daughter—and eventually other children—as safe as she can in difficult circumstances. Isabelle joins the Resistance, eventually getting the code name "Nightingale."

$9 at Amazon
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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

"Pachinko" by Min Jin Lee book cover
Grand Central Publishing

Pachinko is a generation-spanning story of a Korean family who emigrated to Japan following the country's annexation of the peninsula in 1910, when the book starts. Sunja, the ostensible protagonist (though her parents and children are major characters, too), faces racism and discrimination as her family attempts to make do. The novel tracks three time periods, running through World War II and ending in the late '80s. It has been adapted into an acclaimed Apple TV+ series.

$13 at Amazon
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Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

"The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett book cover
Penguin Books

Ken Follett's 1989 novel concerns the construction of a grand Gothic cathedral in 12th-century England during a period of widespread civil war. Three characters—a devout ambitious monk, a conflicted architect, and a woman with a dark past—cross paths in this sweeping tale of progress and intrigue.

$16 at Amazon
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The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

"The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane book cover
Ballard Classics

This seminal American novel is one of the most enduring works of fiction about the Civil War, and it was first published only three decades after the war's end. Henry Fleming, a young private in the Union Army, flees the battlefield when he first sees combat, and this act of cowardice drives him through the rest of the war. Filled with gripping descriptions of battles and a keen psychological understanding, Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage is a classic—and a school reading list favorite—for a reason.

$8 at Amazon
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Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

"Red Plenty" by Francis Spufford book cover
Graywolf Press

A truly unique work of historical fiction, Francis Spufford's Red Plenty adds a fictionalized narrative to what's otherwise a deeply researched and comprehensive recounting of the USSR's planned economy—specifically a point in the late '50s when it seemed that the Soviet Union might be able to be a flourishing, prosperous nation of the future. The book is full of information as well as a genuine respect for the scientists and other Soviets who reached for the stars, touched them with Sputnik, and ultimately failed.

$15 at Amazon
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Shōgun by James Clavell

"Shōgun" by James Clavell book cover
Blackstone Publishing Inc

James Clavell's 1975 novel has been adapted into not one but two acclaimed miniseries, first in 1980 and again this year. (Some critics are already touting the FX version as one of the best shows of 2024.) Shōgun uses fictional characters, albeit ones based on real historical people, to tell the story of how the Edo period began and the ambitious lord whose machinations elevated himself to the position of shōgun ushered in a new era for Japan.

$10 at Amazon
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The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien book cover
Mariner Books Classics

Tim O'Brien's collection of interconnected short stories blurs the line between historical fiction and autobiography. His 1990 book about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War is a gripping, vivid recollection of what it was like on the ground. That the protagonist of the book is also named Tim O'Brien is not an accident.

$8 at Amazon
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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead book cover

Colson Whitehead makes one major change to historical fact in his 2016 novel: The titular Underground Railroad, the path that escaped slaves took to get from the South to the North, is reimagined as an actual network of clandestine locomotives. Upon this bit of fantasy, he tells a story that feels horrifyingly real as former slaves Cora and Caesar attempt to make it to safety and true freedom.

$8 at Amazon
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War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

"War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy book cover
Vintage Classics

It's not exactly a breezy read, but Leo Tolstoy's iconic work of Russian literature, War and Peace, deserves all the praise it has received over the past many decades. Published in its final version in 1869, the book tells of the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic era and how the members of five families deal with the challenging times—the best of them and the worst of them.

$13 at Amazon
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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel book cover
Picador Paper

Hilary Mantel's 2009 novel Wolf Hall is a fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell, the controversial leader from the era of the English Reformation. Two sequels, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light, finish telling the story of Cromwell's life, which is full of intrigue and dangerous courtly politics.

$13 at Amazon
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James Grebey
James has been an entertainment journalist for more than a decade, writing and editing for outlets like Vulture, Inverse, Polygon, TIME, The Daily Beast, SPIN Magazine, Fatherly, and more. Read more
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