Historical fiction is my favorite book genre of all time, so it stands to reason I have a long list of favorite historical fiction books. There’s something so thrilling to me about picking up a book and being transported to another time and place. Give me a WWII book or a historical romance and I’m a happy girl. While I haven’t met many historical fiction novels I didn’t like, there are some less-than-stellar historical fiction novels out there. So, if you’re new to the genre, use this list of the best historical fiction books to start your journey into the world of historical fiction!
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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Taylor Jenkins Reid can do no wrong. Her novels are all standouts in my opinion, but none more so than The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Not only is Evelyn one of the most controversial main characters ever, but the attention to detail in this book (not to mention the copious research) is also next level. If you’re a fan of Classic Hollywood, this is the book for you! Based loosely on the lives of Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, and Ava Gardner, the tale of Evelyn Hugo is one for the history books, for sure.
Angels of the Resistance
My favorite book of 2022 and quite possibly one of the best books I’ve ever read, Noelle Salazar’s latest WWII novel, Angels of the Resistance, is a masterpiece of fiction. Not only is the tale of the two sister Resistance fighters fascinating, but the heart-pounding second half of the novel is also unputdownable. The first word that escaped my lips as I finished the book was “wow!” You can’t help but get sucked into the world of Dutch resistance when reading this novel. I dare you to read this and not be moved by the character stories.
Code Name Hélène
Easily the best historical fiction book I’ve ever read, Code Name Hélène is a rollicking ride from start to finish. With a whip-smart, fierce female main character, this action-packed historical fiction is a great way to break into the genre. It’s my favorite WWII novel and by far my favorite female lead character of all time. Told in a dual timeline, single POV format, Lawhon’s book draws you in and doesn’t let you go until the final page. Based on the true story of Nancy Wake, Code Name Hélène is a must-read. If you haven’t read this book, you’re missing out!
The Alice Network
I’ve read all of Kate Quinn’s World War II fiction, and, while The Alice Network wasn’t my favorite of hers, it’s the best one for historical fiction newbies or who are new to Kate Quinn. It’s a fun dual timeline and dual point-of-view story of Charlie St. Clair, a young British woman hunting for her cousin last seen during the war, and Eve, a bitter ex-WWI spy. The book is Quinn’s fastest-paced, and it has one of her best endings! The hot Scottish love interest is the cherry on top. If you want to escape into the past, Quinn’s books will definitely do the trick, and I suggest you start with this one!
The Secrets We Kept
Maybe it’s because I’m an 80s baby, but I LOVE a good Cold War story. And it doesn’t get any better than The Secrets We Kept. Told from multiple points of view, this historical fiction novel is full of twists, turns, spies, and scandals. Based on the true story of the CIA’s covert operations to obtain a copy of Dr. Zhivago, the masterpiece of Russian novelist Boris Pasternak. I love David Lean’s film adaptation of Dr. Zhivago, so I might be biased, but I venture to say The Secrets We Kept is one of the best historical fiction books out there. Laura Prescott’s ability to blur boundaries and keep readers guessing will keep you on your toes throughout this wild journey. And the unexpected romance adds icing to the cake!
Looking for Jane
Anyone interested in the history of Women’s Rights will want to read Looking for Jane, a fiction story of the Jane Network. Told in three different timelines from three points of view, this story is full of heartbreak and hope, as well as triumph over adversity. Though it may be triggering for some (themes: abortion, infertility, adoption, suicide), I truly believe feminist fiction this good should be required reading for all.
This book is everything, y’all. It will forever get my vote for the #1 historical fiction novel everyone should read. The Nightingale tells the story of sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, who find themselves on opposite sides of the same team in war-torn France. The dichotomy between the two sisters creates a palpable tension that lasts throughout the entire book, leaving readers on the edge of their seats several times. While it may start slow, Kristin Hannah’s masterful storytelling creeps up on you, and soon you’re so enthralled with these characters’ lives that you MUST finish. Have the Kleenex ready, though! This one packs a mean punch in the gut that will surely leave you in tears.
The People We Keep
While this one might come as a surprise, I think The People We Keep deserves a spot on my list of the best historical fiction books for the sheer fact that it rocked my world. Based in the 90s, The People We Keep has a nostalgia factor that spoke to my Gen X soul. And anyone who was a lost kid at some point should be able to relate to the main character, April, and her search for a place where she belongs. So put on those ripped straight-leg jeans and your faded Nirvana t-shirt, and settle in for an emotional journey back in time.
The Good Left Undone
The Good Left Undone was my first Adriana Trigiani novel, and it will not be my last. Her ability to weave a cast of complex characters is unparalleled. This heartfelt story has something for everyone: historical romance, women in service, scandal, family secrets and drama, and much more. You can feel the love and attention to detail Trigiani pours into her work, in particular the cultural elements. Her Italian heritage seeps off the pages, helping to immerse the readers in an authentic experience of Italy in the WWII era. I couldn’t put this book down, which means it deserved a spot on the list of best historical fiction books!
The Three Lives of Alix St. Pierre
Fashion, feminism, and France: what more could you want in a historical fiction novel? The Three Lives of Alix St Pierre is full of richly drawn characters, gorgeous Dior gowns, and covert Resistance operations. Set primarily in Paris in the post-WWII era, the story of Alix is one for the ages. This highly binge-able novel is part WWII novel and part historical romance with plenty of closed-door spice. Fans of Paris fashion houses and haute couture will enjoy the glitz and glam, while WWII fiction lovers will love the back story. But what I enjoyed the most was the feminist themes the author embraces throughout the novel.
The Winter Orphans
Fans of The Nightingale will want to pay close attention to The Winter Orphans, a heartbreakingly good WWII historical fiction that tells the story of one brave Swiss Red Cross worker and her mission to save as many children from the Nazis as possible. Highly atmospheric and deeply moving, this book is the closest I’ve come to recreating the magic of The Nightingale.
If you enjoy fantasy romance books, then you’ll want to read Outlander post haste. One of my all-time favorite book series, Outlander tells the sagacious tale of Jamie Fraser, an 18th-century Scotsman, and Claire Beauchamp, a 20th-century British time traveler. Built on the forced proximity trope, the romance between these two characters burns fiery and bright. Animalistic lovemaking, larger-than-life personalities, and a strong female main character lie in store for readers who choose to take the trip through the stones at Craigh na Dun. Don’t waste your time husband hunting with Bridgerton. Get yourself a real man in Outlander! (Be sure to check trigger warnings on this one!)
My Final Thoughts on The Best Historical Fiction Books
There truly are so many different types of historical fiction novels out there that it’s hard to pick favorites, but these are a few of the historical fiction books that have stuck with me long after I read the last lines. I highly recommend all these books to those who are new to the genre and those who maybe need help finding their next great read!
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