Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao taught me more about the early 20th-century Dominican dictatorship than any history lesson ever could. It’s something I’ve always loved about fiction: its ability to transport you not just anywhere in the world, but so absolutely to a certain point in time. To learn about the past by immersing yourself entirely in a world unrecognisable before you open the pages; the bone-deep chill of war, the glamour of early Hollywood, a dating scene without Tinder…
And I know I’m not alone. Scrolling through the last three Ask Penguin sessions, I see requests for an “historical novel written by a woman”, something set in the “Victorian era (preferably romance)”, one “set in the 1920s/30s” even, and, slightly more niche: “time travel originating in an 18th-century English mill town”. The people know what they want, and it’s this: historical fiction.
But where to start? We’ve compiled a list of some of the greatest historical novels ever written. Combining our own recommendations with those of readers on social media, there’s something to suit every taste: sizzling romance, gripping spy sagas, Tudor court drama, time-travelling from 14th-century Italy to 20th-century Japan and beyond.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
We said: The first in Hilary Mantel’s ground-breaking, Booker Prize-winning trilogy explores Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power in the court of Henry VIII. If you’re finding the 672-page word count daunting, there’s always the brilliant BBC adaptation.
You said: Real page-turners, as if the author is observing the events and characters.
@uralume on Twitter
Everything and the Moon by Julia Quinn (1997)
We said: Julia Quinn might be best known for her hugely popular Bridgerton series, but you don’t want to sleep on Everything and the Moon. It’s a feel-good story of love at first sight, featuring a vicar’s daughter and the dashing earl of Macclesfield… A delight from beginning to end.
You said: The MCs are really fun and enjoyable, and it’s just such a feel good series that you know can only end well.
@ailsreads on Instagram
Read more: What to read if you love Bridgerton
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011)
We said: The opening novel of Ferrante’s critically-acclaimed Neapolitan Quartet charts two best friends’ coming-of-age in post-war Italy. An impressive piece of storytelling.
You said: Gives us a beautifully written deep dive into historical Naples.
@cullenesther on Instagram
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (2020)
We said: Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Brit Bennett’s second novel centres on two estranged twin sisters leading very different lives. Ambitious and exquisite, it’s both a compelling family saga and a thoughtful meditation on the American history of "passing" – the ability to appear to be considered part of another race or identity catagory from that you were born in.
You said: Beautifully written and poignant. The issues tackled in the book are still relevant today (race, identity, family and belonging). I wanted to devour as I was loving it but at the same time savour it so it didn’t end!
@rare_opal on Twitter
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
We said: A New York Times bestseller, Min Jin Lee’s comprehensive, page-turning saga chronicles the lives of four generations of a Korean family living in Japan. Told with huge amounts of empathy, understanding and love. An instant classic.
You said: A deeply moving and soul-stirring story which resonates with themes of migration, identity crisis and human resilience.
@anjushaaus on Twitter
We said: Amor Towles’ second novel reached new levels of relatability in 2020. It follows Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat sentenced to house arrest indefinitely during a particularly tumultuous period of history. A wry, whimsical, surprisingly uplifting story about finding happiness and connection, even in the most trying circumstances.
You said: It shows how much people can change and grow even when they can't travel.
@americaseditor on Instagram
Jackdaws by Ken Follett (2001)
We said: From bestselling author Ken Follett comes a compelling, fast-paced novel of love, courage and revenge, set just a few weeks before D-Day. You’ll be recommending it to everyone you know.
You said: It’s about a team of female saboteurs behind enemy lines in the waning months of WW2.
@robert_stermscheg_author on Instagram