42 Historical Fiction Novels That Will Take You Around the World

    These thrilling reads are transporting.

    If you’re at all a fan of historical fiction, you may have noticed certain narrative themes—namely, Tudor England and WWII. No knocks to those two subgenres, but sometimes, we need to branch out.

    So, we’ve compiled a list of recommendable and compulsively readable historical fiction that will transport you around the globe and throughout time. 

    Historical Fiction Set in Africa

    Half of a Yellow Sun

    By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    Adichie may be most well known for Americanah, but this 2008 novel tells the compelling story of a family living through the Nigerian Civil War and the short-lived nation of Biafra. A subject few Americans are familiar with, Adichie elucidates the Nigerian Civil War without ever resorting to simple explanations.

    Related: The Best Travel Memoirs and History Books to Read Before (or During) Your Next Trip 

    Half of a Yellow Sun

    By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    The Lion Seeker

    By Kenneth Bonert

    This fascinating story tells the tale of a young Lithuanian immigrant to South Africa during the Great Depression. Bonert draws on his own experience as a young Jewish boy in South Africa to tell a vivid story that is rarely shared.

    The Lion Seeker

    By Kenneth Bonert

    Segu

    By Maryse Condé

    In 1797, Segu (modern Mali) is untouched by influences from either the East or West—and it’s a vibrant, wealthy, and safe nation. As the slave trade, new religions, and other influences enter Segu, the four sons of the king’s advisor are pulled in different directions. The first of two novels, Segu will tug at your heart.

    Segu

    By Maryse Condé

    Homegoing

    By Yaa Gyasi

    Homegoing isn’t just a fantastic piece of historical fiction—it was one of the best books of 2016. Two sisters, born in Ghana, are separated from each other essentially upon birth. Their stories diverge wildly, and each section focuses on the next generation of each sister’s family. One sister’s descendants remain in Ghana, while the other is sold into slavery—her family is wholly American. This beautiful novel will floor you.

    The Cairo Trilogy

    By Naguib Mahfouz

    Nobel Prize winner Mahfouz follows three generations of the Al Jawad family, from the late 1910s to the 1940s. The seemingly cohesive family changes greatly over the course of the Egyptian evolution of 1919 and two world wars. This trilogy, starting with Palace Walk, will thrill any lover of vast intergenerational histories.

    The Cairo Trilogy

    By Naguib Mahfouz

    Ways of Dying

    By Zakes Mda

    Set in South Africa during the 1970s and 80s, Ways of Dying follows Toloki, a professional mourner. Told by a chorus of narrators, this novel situates the personal amidst the tumult of apartheid South Africa.

    Ways of Dying

    By Zakes Mda

    Historical Fiction Set on the Asian Continent

    The Good Earth

    This classic won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. Following Wang Lung, a peasant in the Chinese countryside, as he becomes wealthy, The Good Earth was one of the first popular American insights into Chinese culture.

    Related: 10 Accurate Historical Fiction Books for Nonfiction Readers 

    And the Mountains Echoed

    By Khaled Hosseini

    Hosseini’s most popular novel was his first, The Kite Runner. But And the Mountains Echoed is a much more mature take on Hosseini’s native Afghanistan. And the Mountains Echoed centers on two siblings, Abdullah and his much younger sister Pari. Pari is sold to a couple outside of the family, giving the two vastly different experiences of their home.

    And the Mountains Echoed

    By Khaled Hosseini

    Pearl of China

    By Anchee Min

    Anchee Min has written a number of historical fiction novels, but Pearl of China has a particularly unique perspective. Written partially about Pearl S. Buck, Min imagines her childhood and young womanhood. Willow, a young neighbor, is first infuriated, then enchanted by Pearl. As the two grow, Willow becomes a part of Mao’s circle, while Pearl must flee.

    Pearl of China

    By Anchee Min

    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

    By David Mitchell

    A Dutch trader moves to Nagasaki to take advantage of the new trading concessions opened to only the Dutch. Planning only to stay long enough to earn a large enough fortune to be able to marry his fiancée, Jacob de Zoet soon finds himself intrigued by another woman—a local midwife and the daughter of a samurai. Based loosely on the real life of Hendrik Doeff, The Thousand Autumns offers stunning insight into a 20-year period of the Japanese empire.

    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

    By David Mitchell

    The Fool

    By Raffi

    Raffi is one of the most popular writers in Armenian history, and The Fool is his most popular historical novel. Set amidst the Russo-Turkish war, the novel follows a couple as they fall in love despite their circumstances.

    The Fool

    By Raffi

    Café Nevo

    By Barbara Rogan

    Emmanuel Sternholz runs Café Nevo, a gathering spot in Tel Aviv. Artists, radicals, conservatives, and people of all ethnicities come together at this small shop. Written in 1987, Café Nevo offers a glimpse of Israeli life during a tumultuous period.

    Café Nevo

    By Barbara Rogan

    Ali and Nino

    By Kurban Said

    Sometimes called the Azerbaijan Love Story, Ali and Nino follows a young man and woman who fall in love despite their immense differences. Nino, a Muslim Azerbaijani, and Ali, a Christian Georgian princess, must find the compromises that make their love possible. Meanwhile, the novel gives the reader a clear view of Azerbaijan in the early 1900s.

    Ali and Nino

    By Kurban Said

    Buddha's Orphans

    When Raja's mother commits suicide in 1962, the young boy is left on his own. Buddha’s Orphans follows the boy as he becomes a man over the next 50 years, while Nepal’s society seems to slowly break down around him. The small details beautifully observed in this novel make it a true gem.

    Historical Fiction Set in Australia

    The Sundowners

    By Jon Cleary

    This story is based on the novelist’s own parents—specifically his father, who ran away from his family as a teen to live in Queensland. Paddy is a second-generation Irish Australian, born in Queensland. He, wife Ida, and son Sean are itinerant workers, doing their best in a harsh land. The three will overcome obstacles, including their own emotional hurdles.

    The Sundowners

    By Jon Cleary

    Brother Fish

    By Bryce Courtenay

    Taking place in both Australia and Korea, Brother Fish follows the decades-long friendship of native Australian Jacko McKenzie and an orphaned African-American soldier, Jimmy Oldcorn. Brother Fish focuses on the effects of the Korean War and the White Australia policy.

    Brother Fish

    By Bryce Courtenay

    Outback

    By Aaron Fletcher

    The first entry in Fletcher’s epic saga follows Patrick Garrity as he finds a wife, has children, and ekes out a living from the harsh Australian outback. Outback will teach you much about the early days of Australian colonialism while keeping you intrigued by the fascinating family at its center.

    Outback

    By Aaron Fletcher

    Jewel Sea

    By Kim Kelly

    Set in 1912, Jewel Sea follows three characters along their ride on the (real) luxury ship SS Koombana. Their lives intersect in strange and unforeseen ways as they journey around the coast of Australia.

    Historical Fiction Set in Europe

    Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree

    By Tariq Ali

    Before the conquest of Granada by Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the southern section of the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain) was a predominantly Muslim emirate. Ali’s novel follows a family after the fall of Granada as they attempt to find a way to live amongst Christians who will not tolerate their Islamic neighbors.

    Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree

    By Tariq Ali

    Rebel Princess

    The first entry in Anthony’s Romanov trilogy, Rebel Princess focuses on a fascinating but rarely explored historical figure: Catherine the Great. Catherine was never meant to be a ruling empress, but her reign ushered in a golden age for the Russian Empire. This 1989 novel is a light but informative introduction to Catherine’s life and reign.

    Related: 15 Biographies of Remarkable Women That You Need to Read 

    The Queen of the Night

    By Alexander Chee

    Opera singer Lilliet Berne is a “falcon”: a soprano who can soar to notes that cannot be achieved by others, but whose voice is typically short-lived. As Lilliet struggles to find her place in 19th-century France, she encounters historical figures, survives revolutions, and more. This stunning epic will immerse you in European culture in the 1800s.

    The Queen of the Night

    By Alexander Chee

    My Brilliant Friend

    By Elena Ferrante

    The first entry in a quartet, My Brilliant Friend is a stunning of portrait of a confusing, seductive friendship in the poor neighborhoods of 1950s Naples. Elena and Lila constantly find themselves obsessed with each other and the politics of their world, while also finding nearly any reason to despise the other for their understanding, or lack thereof, of their world. The Neapolitan Novels cover nearly 50 years of Italian history and culture.

    My Brilliant Friend

    By Elena Ferrante

    The Angel Makers

    By Jessica Gregson

    This strange story is based on an all-too-real occurrence in Hungary in the 1920s. When the men of a Hungarian village go to fight in World War I, the women suddenly realize that their lives are much better without their husbands around. Protagonist Sari uses her midwifery knowledge to kill her abusive husband quietly after his return—soon, word gets around to the other women, who come to Sari for her services. At first, only “bad” men are killed. But can Sari and the women stop their killings before it gets out of hand?

    The Angel Makers

    By Jessica Gregson

    The Fall of the King

    By Johannes V. Jensen

    Danish author Jensen’s masterpiece tells the story of (fictional) Mikkel Thøgersen and King Christian II of Denmark, between the years of 1497 and 1536. This sweeping epic has been named as the best Danish novel multiple times and is considered part of the Danish canon.

    The Fall of the King

    By Johannes V. Jensen

    The Succesor

    By Ismail Kadare

    Mehmet Shehu, Prime Minister of Albania and second-in-command to dictator Enver Hoxha, is discovered dead inside a locked room of a shotgun wound. Despite the state’s claims that Shehu committed suicide, many remain skeptical. This historical mystery will keep readers invested all the way through.

    The Succesor

    By Ismail Kadare

    Buddenbrooks

    By Thomas Mann

    Mann won a Nobel Prize for Literature in part because of this sprawling story of a German family, based heavily on his own history. The Buddenbrooks are a wealthy merchant family that slowly falls apart over the course of four generations in the mid-1800s. Buddenbrooks remains popular in Germany to this day and was an inspiration to William Faulkner, among many others.

    Buddenbrooks

    By Thomas Mann

    Famine

    By Liam O'Flaherty

    Famine makes the horrible history of the Irish Potato Famine almost too real for its readers. The Kilmartins, a family of tenant farmers in western Ireland, struggle to survive as their mainstay crop vanishes overnight, with no help in sight from the British government.

    Famine

    By Liam O'Flaherty

    Historical Fiction Set in North America

    A Rendezvous in Haiti

    By Stephen Becker

    U.S. marine Lieutenant Robert MacAllister has been sent to Haiti to put down a rebellion in 1919. This thrilling tale delves into the political state of Haiti, racial politics, and love in times of war.

    A Rendezvous in Haiti

    By Stephen Becker

    As Tears Go By: Inspired by True Events

    By Rosie Christie

    This intensely emotional story will tug at your heartstrings. When Maria, a Cree woman raised in residential schools, discovers that her children will be sent off to the same schools, she will stop at nothing to save them. The legacy of sending native Canadians to residential schools is a black mark on history, and this novel begins to reckon with that legacy.

    As Tears Go By: Inspired by True Events

    By Rosie Christie

    Monkey Hunting

    By Cristina García

    Set in both China and Cuba, Monkey Hunting follows multiple generations of the Chen family. García does not shy away from any of the less-than-ideal facts about Cuba, Chinese immigration there, the use of slaves, and more.

    Monkey Hunting

    By Cristina García

    Rilla of Ingleside

    By L.M. Montgomery

    Yes, this is an entry in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. But it’s also a quietly stunning portrait of a Canadian family during World War I. The only book from the Anne series to really take in the outside world, watching Rilla grow and mature through the years of World War I will affect any reader.

    Rilla of Ingleside

    By L.M. Montgomery

    The Trade

    By Fred Stenson

    The fur trade made Canada and northern New England very prosperous areas in the 1800s. Stenson’s novel delves into the often dark facts behind the romanticized industry. It won a number of prestigious Canadian literature awards upon its release in 2010.

    The Trade

    By Fred Stenson

    Historical Fiction Set in South America

    The House of the Spirits

    By Isabel Allende

    Allende’s classic novel is best known as magical realism, but it’s also a compelling look at the political and historical reality of its time period. The unnamed “the President” is clearly modeled after Allende’s own cousin, Salvador Allende, who became president of Chile in 1970, while “the Poet” is Pablo Neruda. You shouldn’t read The House of the Spirits for straight facts, but it lends immeasurable insight into the lives of Chilean families at the time.

    The House of the Spirits

    By Isabel Allende

    The Discovery of America by the Turks

    By Jorge Amado

    Two Arab imigrants arrive in Southern Bahia, Brazil to discover a stunningly lawless land, akin to the Wild West of American imagination. This slim book is funny, light, and informative.

    The Discovery of America by the Turks

    By Jorge Amado

    Distant Star

    By Roberto Bolaño

    Set during the 1973 Chilean coup d’etat, Distant Star is narrated by an unnamed man who is obsessed with poet and air force pilot Alberto Ruiz-Tagle. Bolaño is one of the stars of Chilean and Central American literature, and Distant Star is one of his darkest and best novels.

    Distant Star

    By Roberto Bolaño

    Spilt Milk

    By Chico Buarque

    Buarque, in addition to his novels, is a prolific and beloved songwriter in Brazil. His fourth novel, Split Milk, follows a dying aristocrat in Brazil who is looking back on his life from his hospital bed. The novel is particularly interested with the history of slavery in Brazil, colonialism, and how people experience their memories.

    Spilt Milk

    By Chico Buarque

    The Villagers (Huasipungo)

    By Jorge Icaza

    One of the best known Indigenist novels of Ecuador, The Villagers is a social protest novel, first published in 1934. Often compared to Steinbeck’s 1939 Grapes of Wrath, this novel describes the plight of the indigenous people of Ecuador and other South American countries. 

    The Villagers (Huasipungo)

    By Jorge Icaza

    The Feast of the Goat

    By Mario Vargas Llosa

    Urania Cabral, now in her late 40s, returns to Santo Domingo to care for her dying father. Coming back home forces Urania to confront the memories of her youth under the rule of Trujillo. Vargas Llosa is a premier Peruvian writer, and his insight into the effects of Trujillo’s reigns do not go unappreciated.

    The Feast of the Goat

    By Mario Vargas Llosa

    The General in His Labyrinth

    By Gabriel García Márquez

    Márquez’s most political and historical novel is a fictionalized take on the final days of Simòn Bolívar, the man most responsible for the success of independence movements in South America.

    The General in His Labyrinth

    By Gabriel García Márquez

    The City of Palaces

    By Michael Nava

    When Miguel Sarmiento and Alicia Gavilán meet while working in a Mexico City jail, their lives change paths forever. The Mexican Revolution is about to begin, and their lives will not be able to continue on in bliss. The historical characters are faithfully drawn, while the fictional characters feel just as vibrant and real.

    The City of Palaces

    By Michael Nava

    The Seamstress

    By Frances de Pontes Peebles

    Sisters Emília and Luzia are both trained as seamstresses in a small village of Brazil, always hoping to leave their home. When Luzia is abducted and Emília is married, their lives follow incredibly different paths.

    The Seamstress

    By Frances de Pontes Peebles

    Featured photo: Daniel Beilinson / Unsplash 

    • historical fiction
    • Asia
    • Europe
    • Africa
    • North America
    • South America


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