Historical fiction authors bring textbook events to life. By creating backstories and intricate narratives, authors can turn a few lines in history into a fully detailed plot and storyline. When you want to learn history but also want to remember it clearly for the deeper stories it implies, check out these innovative, epic historical fiction books.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston
Set primarily in Newfoundland, this wide-ranging novel showcases the ways that characters can change social class. It showcases Newfoundland at a time when it was becoming recognized as a province in the Canadian Confederation in 1949. A fictionalized element ties the real-life main character, Joey Smallwood, to a fictional journalist named Sheilagh Fielding. The book is ambitious and fascinating for people looking to uncover undiscovered historical stories.
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Fascinating as a novel that exists between cultures and worlds, Shanghai Girls offers an insight into the impact of World War II through the lens of those affected by it. The two main characters, Pearl and May, experience the lives of people living in war-torn China before becoming wives and mothers in the United States. They face all the discrimination, gender roles, and family secrets as immigrants in post-war America.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
A historical classic, War and Peace is one of Tolstoy’s best. While chronicling the French invasion of Russia, this story does much more. It is instead a saga of five Russian families as well as a philosophical treatise on society, war, and power that has gained its place as a classic through its sheer scale. If you want epic, Tolstoy certainly delivers it with his dense, thoughtful prose.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The brutality of slavery in the United States is explored in this award-winning novel by Colson Whitehead—there’s a reason it won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer in the same year. With fabulist elements of an actual train underground during times of slavery, Whitehead explores the intergenerational legacy of slavery while offering heart-stopping action sequences and intense loyalty among his characters. You won’t be able to put this one down.
The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
With incredibly in-depth research into the Mughal empire, Sundaresan crafts a story that is equal parts brilliant fiction and deeply rooted in real texts from the period. Sixteenth and 17th century India come alive through the eyes of Mehrunnisa, a heroine who struggles under patriarchal rules while also finding love and taking hold of her own power.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
If you want to learn about an intricate and interesting time in the history of New Zealand, pick this book up. Catton conveys 1866 on the South Island with clarity and candor, while creating an enthralling mystery of unsolved crimes set in the famed gold rush there.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Widely heralded as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century, Morrison creates a vivid portrait of 1930–1960 in the United States. Her novel follows Macon “Milkman” Dead III, an African American man living in Michigan. Morrison’s talent for creating rich family tapestries and showcasing generational connection truly merits the name “epic” for this novel.
Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
Allende knows a lot about the Americas and the impacts of colonial life on the social experience of Chile and other parts of South America. Daughter of Fortune showcases the mid-1800s as a time of gold fever, love, and adventure. Heroine Eliza Summers takes a difficult journey to California with her love, discovering that she has been searching for much more than just a new life in a new place.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich is known for incredible storytelling ability, and this loosely chronological set of conversational stories from the same Ojibwa reservation area. With themes of love and homecoming, Love Medicine brings into sharp relief both the great challenges and beautiful moments of life in North Dakota on a reservation.
Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj
Popular in its original version and in translation, this story follows a woman’s life as she lives through the book’s names, four different reigning kings in Thailand. You’ll learn about history, yes, but you’ll also experience Pramoj’s subtle humor and entertainment while immersing yourself in Thai culture and social life.
Want to get to know more historical fiction? We’ve gathered a 50 Best Historical Fiction list to keep you in the past all summer long. If you favor books originally written in other languages, we’ve also got you covered with 12 Great Historical Fiction Books in Translation. Epic historical fiction books are around every corner at Book Riot.