Historical Fiction Books for People Who Don’t Like Historical Fiction

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Susie Dumond

Senior Contributor

Susie (she/her) is a queer writer originally from Little Rock, now living in Washington, DC. She is the author of QUEERLY BELOVED and the forthcoming LOOKING FOR A SIGN from Dial Press/Random House. You can find her on Instagram @susiedoom.

Historical fiction is one of the most popular genres in the book world. They’re among my favorite books to read for their blend of entertainment, atmospheric tone, and informative takes on real events. But not everyone is a historical fiction fan. YET! I believe there’s historical fiction out there for everyone. It’s a huge, versatile approach to storytelling, and it often crosses over with other genres. If you don’t think historical fiction is for you, perhaps you haven’t found the right time period or author. Or maybe you’ve only read WWII historical fiction, which has taken up a lot of space in the book world for a while now. There’s so much more out there to explore! This list of 20 historical fiction books is designed to help you find the perfect fit for your reading preferences.

What is historical fiction? Well, that’s actually up for debate. Opinions vary on how far back a book must be set to be considered historical. One rule of thumb is that a story must be set at least 50 years prior to when it was published to be considered historical, but some argue that 25 years or even less is sufficient. While historical fiction often deals with real events and people, that isn’t necessarily required, and it sometimes includes revisionist or alternate histories. Fantasy and fantastical elements can bring fresh twists to history, but historical fiction must have some basis in our real world and documented past.

To help reluctant historical fiction readers explore the genre, I’ve collected these recommendations into five categories: historical fiction for literary fiction, mystery/horror, romance, and sci-fi/fantasy readers, plus a few recommendations that are simply so good that even haters will find something to enjoy.

Historical Fiction Books for Literary Fiction Readers

Cover of Hula by Jasmin Iolani Hakes

Hula by Jasmin `Iolani Hakes

For readers wooed by gorgeous prose and unique narrative perspectives, this historical fiction inspired by Hawaiian history and culture is a must-read. Hi’i comes from a native Hawaiian family that has played an important role in their community for generations. So why does she feel like an outsider? As Hi’i learns the art of hula and competes for Miss Aloha Hula, a title once held by her mother, her family’s complicated story unfurls. Written in the voice of Hi’i’s island neighbors in a Greek chorus style, it’s lush, immersive, and beautifully crafted.

cover of The House of Doors

The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng

Literary fiction lovers will find a lot to enjoy in this stunning novel centered around writing, art, and the real author, W. Somerset Maugham. Lesley and Robert are two wealthy expats living in Malaysia. They’re visited by famous writer Maugham and his secret lover for an extended stay. Robert warns his wife that Maugham is known for stealing inspiration for his novels from others, and we learn Maugham is indeed at a career crossroads and in need of a fresh idea. He finds it in Lesley’s surprising connection to a Chinese revolutionary.

cover of Woman of Light

Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

This sweeping historical fiction novel uses lightly speculative elements to explore themes of family legacy, generational memory, and colonization. Luz’s life in 1930s Denver is upended when her beloved brother is run out of town by a white mob. As she searches for meaning while working as a tea leaf reader, Luz starts having visions of her ancestors’ experiences in Colorado’s Indigenous Lost Territory, and she realizes she’s destined to make sure their lives are never forgotten. It’s a uniquely written story with lavish prose and a dynamic protagonist.

cover of Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Inspired by the real history of Marie de France, this historical fiction novel takes readers all the way back to a 12th-century abbey in England. Brash, 17-year-old Marie, is sent away from the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitane and forced to act as prioress of a destitute abbey whose inhabitants are plagued by hunger and disease. Leading the abbey is an impossible task, but one that Marie bravely takes on, and she finds surprising strength and agency in her role. As she builds community among her new sisters and experiences strange visions, Marie grows into herself in unexpected ways.

Historical Fiction Books for Mystery and Horror Readers

cover of A Disappearance in Fiji by Nilima Rao; illustration of a man in a turban looking out over bunkers in a field

A Disappearance in Fiji by Nilima Rao

This first novel in a historical mystery series stars a dynamic young investigator you’ll love rooting for. When Akal Singh arrives in 1914 Fiji, it’s not for a restorative tropical vacation. It’s because he’s been reluctantly reassigned after a career embarrassment in Hong Kong. All he wants is to get back there, but his new case quickly captures his interest. An Indian woman indentured on a sugar plantation has gone missing, revealing dark secrets of the island’s British colonizers. His bosses hope for an open-and-shut case, but the woman’s disappearance leads Akal to so much more. It’s a captivating story that will make you want to immediately find out what case Akal will take on next.

The Reformatory by Tananarive Due - book cover

The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

Some of my favorite historical fiction titles are inspired by not only real historical events but real events in the lives of the author’s family. That’s the case for this haunting historical horror novel by Tananarive Due. In 1950s Florida, 12-year-old Robbie makes a split-second decision that ends up getting him a six-month sentence at a reform school for troubled boys. He’s determined to stay out of trouble and get out as soon as possible, but when he finds the school is full of the haints of boys that died there — and even more menacing living humans — it’s unclear if he’ll ever see life outside the reformatory again. It’s a creepy, immersive, and incredibly powerful story you won’t soon forget.

Symphony of Secrets cover

Symphony of Secrets by Brendan Slocumb

This mystery/thriller set in the world of classical music has contemporary and historical timelines, and both will keep you on the edge of your seat. Bern is a music historian and the lead expert on America’s most famous composer, Frederic Delaney. When a descendant of Delaney brings Bern sheet music that might be part of a famously lost opera, he thinks it will change history. But there’s a lot more history to uncover when Bern finds a clue to some of Delaney’s dark secrets.

cover of The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas, with a photo of a woman with dark hair in a red dress standing in tall grass in front of a crumbling estate under ominous skies

The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas

There’s nothing as creepy as a historical haunted house story, and this one is perfectly atmospheric and tied to real historical events. Beatriz lost everything in the overthrow of the Mexican government, including her father and home. When a handsome, wealthy man with a sizable estate in the country proposes, Beatriz quickly accepts. But once she arrives at Hacienda San Isidro, she finds her new home isn’t the safe haven she hoped. Beatriz is haunted by strange voices and visions, and when she tries to ask for help, she’s made to feel even more alone. If you’re looking for historical fiction to give you goosebumps, this is the book for you.

Historical Fiction Books for Romance Readers

An island Princess starts a Scandal cover

An Island Princess Starts a Scandal by Adriana Herrera

Take a historical romp through 1889 Paris in this steamy sapphic romance. Manuela has one last summer to live life on her terms before she’s thrust into an arranged marriage that limits her freedom. She plans to spend it showing her art in Paris and makes a deal with business-minded Duchess Cora to trade a valuable plot of land in exchange for showing her around town. Their adventures together give Manuela a taste of the excitement available to her, making her question if there’s a way to change her own fate.

Book cover of A Marvellous Light

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

The Last Binding trilogy is a can’t-miss historical romantasy series full of humor, magic, and charming characters. Bayonet Robin Blyth had no idea of the secret magical world all around him, but when a clerical error puts him in charge of it, he’s got to learn fast. Edwin, a member of the magical society, is begrudgingly assigned to help him. Between a threat against the magical community and a curse binding Robin and Edwin together, they can’t get away from each other.

Mademoiselle Revolution by Zoe Sivak book cover

Mademoiselle Revolution by Zoe Sivak

While this book isn’t a romance, its steamy liaisons with real historical figures make it a great fit for romance readers. Sylvie de Rosiers, the daughter of a wealthy landowner and enslaved woman, has never been fully accepted into 1790s Saint-Domingue society. When the Haitian Revolution begins, Sylvie and her brother escape the violence by fleeing to Paris. But little does Sylvie know, she’s inserted herself into another world-changing revolution — and a love triangle with Maximilien Robespierre and his mistress. It’s a fast-paced, thrilling story that will also teach you some real history along the way.

cover of The Davenports by Krystal Marquis; illustration of several Black people dressed in yellow old fashioned clothes

The Davenports by Krystal Marquis

Move over, Bridgertons! There’s a new family of attractive, wealthy, and single siblings in town! This first book in a new historical series set in 1910s Chicago stars the Davenport family, heirs to the fortune of a booming carriage company. It’s told through the eyes of four young women: oldest sister Olivia, whose search for a husband is derailed by a handsome civil rights leader; younger sister Helen, who is more focused on leading her family’s business into the future; their maid Amy-Rose, who is harboring a secret crush on a Davenport son; and friend Ruby, who has her eyes on the same son. I love how this book highlights an often-overlooked moment in African American history and draws inspiration from a real family.

Historical Fiction Books for Sci-Fi/Fantasy Readers

cover image for Where There Was Fire

Where There Was Fire by John Manuel Arias

If you love fantasy, this historical magical realism novel is a great choice for exploring the magic of historical fiction. A massive fire at a Costa Rican banana plantation in 1968 burned up the evidence of some dark dealings. Decades later, one family is still feeling the impacts of the tragedy and hiding some of their own secrets. Told through a variety of perspectives and timelines, it’s an intricately woven novel full of ghosts of the past and hopes for a better future.

Siren Queen Book Cover

Siren Queen by Nghi Vo

There’s something dark lurking behind the cameras in this 1930s-set historical fantasy novel. In the glamorous Golden Age of Hollywood, actress Luli Wei is hungry for fame. As a queer Chinese American woman, she knows her path to stardom will be fraught. But the biggest dangers lie off-screen, where ancient magic with a thirst for blood requires the sacrifices of eager young starlets like Luli Wei. Living her dreams may just turn Luli into a monster herself. This is a book that sticks with you long after reading it and makes you look at old movies in a new light.

Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig book cover

Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig

This adventurous historical fiction set on the high seas takes its inspiration from both real and fantastical pirate lore. Shek Yeung feels destined to lead a pirate crew, but when her pirate captain husband is killed by a Portuguese sailor, Shek Yeung must get creative to seize power. She quickly marries the second in command and promises to bear him a son. Her tenuous hold over their crew grows even more challenging when they’re pressured by both the Chinese Emperor and seafaring Europeans who want to rid the world of pirates. If you love a powerful, determined, morally complex woman protagonist, look no further than Shek Yeung.

the daughter of doctor moreau book cover

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of the most iconic sci-fi stories of all time, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia brilliantly reimagines it through the eyes of a young woman at the center of the drama in The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. In 1870s Yucatán, Carlota is the only child of Doctor Moreau, a man who walks the line of brilliance and recklessness by creating human-animal hybrids. The careful balance of strange living beings is thrown into chaos when the son of Doctor Moreau’s patron arrives on their island, putting everything at risk.

Historical Fiction Books That Are Just That Good

Lucky Red book cover

Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens

When you think of Western historical novels, you probably envision two dudes in cowboy hats with hands reaching toward the guns on their hips and saying, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.” You’ll get gunslinging adventure in Lucky Red, but it’s definitely not your average Western. It’s a queer, feminist, deliciously wild ride starring the “hooker with a heart of gold” who usually serves as a background character but, in this case, finally gets to tell her own story. Bridget is left alone on the road after her father dies from a snakebite. She stumbles upon the Buffalo Queen, a woman-owned brothel, and finds a home for herself she never envisioned. But when she encounters a prolific woman sharpshooter, her life again turns in an unexpected direction.

cover of Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward is one of our greatest living writers, and her latest novel beautifully delves into the world of historical fiction. Shortly before the American Civil War, an enslaved young woman named Annis is separated from her mother when the enslaver who fathered her sells her mother South. Not long after, in the midst of her grief, Annis’s enslaver sells her too. She’s chained to a group of women forced to walk through swamps and unforgiving terrains from North Carolina to Louisiana and joined on her journey by haunting memories, sympathetic spirits, and ancestors from the other side.

Book cover of River Sing Me Home

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

River Sing Me Home is one of my most memorable reads from 2023 and one of my favorite historical fiction novels of all time. When the 1834 Emancipation Act is announced to the enslaved people at a Barbados plantation, it seems like cause for celebration. But they quickly realize it’s being replaced with “apprenticeships” that are no different, and they still aren’t allowed to leave. Rachel decides to run away, determined to track down the five children that were taken and sold throughout her life. It’s a stunning, powerful story of one woman determined to stitch her family back together after it was systemically torn apart.

How Much of These Hills is Gold cover

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

This epic historical fiction about two siblings fighting to survive during the American gold rush is a case where you can judge a book by its cover. It’s gorgeous inside and out! Lucy and Sam, children of Chinese immigrants in mid-19th century California, are orphaned by the death of their father and set off on a journey to find a place to lay his body to rest. Their journey through the hills is imperiled by dangerous creatures, aching hunger, and untrustworthy humans, bringing Lucy and Sam at times closer together and pushed further apart. It’s an emotional and transportive book steeped in Chinese mythology and gold rush era history.