The best historical fiction books to add to your reading list in 2021

The best historical fiction books will transport you to another world...

best historical fiction books
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Historical fiction books remain enduringly popular – for who doesn't love journeying back into the past and discovering long-buried secrets? Whether set in medieval times or only a few short decades ago, the time period immediately draws you in.

The best thriller books may be more popular, but millions of us have a soft spot for historical fiction books. With fact and fiction often blurring, the opportunity for historical writers to use their own unique flare and showcase their take on events means you're always in for a dramatic reading experience.

But which time period appeals most to your imagination? And which historical books should be added to your reading list or book club books list in 2021? 

Whether you prefer to read on one of the best eReaders, or favour a traditional print book, here we reveal our pick of the best reads that this genre has to offer…

Best historical fiction books to read in 2021

Of course, the literary world of historical fiction encompasses an enormous time frame, so to make it easier for you to scan our curated list to find the novel you want to read, we've grouped them into time periods - from Pre-19th Century to Victorian and Early 20th Century, all the way through to the Second World War and post World War 2, up to modern historical fiction - most of which takes place in the late 20th Century.

Pre-19th Century

The 19th Century began on 1st January 1801, so all of the fiction picks listed below pre-date this time.

This section is a must for real history buffs - those who want to know more about times vastly different to the modern area. You can expect everything from the tales of early Kings and Queens to the lives of ordinary people living in the 1600s and 1700s.  

1. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Inspired by true events, this bewitching historical book captures a real sense of the suspicion that’s soon to tear a small Norwegian community apart. On Christmas Eve, 1617, the island of Vardø suffers a tragedy as a sudden storm lays waste to the local men. Eighteen months later, godly Absalom Cornet arrives, determined to stamp out what he sees as female evil. This is one atmospheric and unforgettable read.

2. Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir

Charting the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s fifth queen, historian Alison Weir is an expert at weaving together historical detail and political powerplay. When her uncle’s machinations get naïve Katheryn Howard noticed by the ageing Henry VIII, all of her past liaisons are set aside in favour of this more advantageous match. Now all she can do is hope her old secrets won’t be revealed…

3. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Delving into the Elizabethan era with great flair, Maggie O’Farrell’s first historical tale is inspired by the life of Shakespeare’s beloved son. When a young girl falls ill one summer day in 1596, her twin brother Hamnet is desperate to find help. But with both their parents at work far away, it becomes clear that only one child will survive the week. Will the family’s love be enough to hold them together despite their grief? Moving and beautifully written.

4. The Foundling by Stacey Halls

The writer of the bestselling The Familiars returns with a vengeance with this tale set in Georgian London. Bess Bright is devastated to discover that the daughter she left at London’s Foundling Hospital has now been claimed. Meanwhile, widow Alexandra lives in comparative luxury, determined to protect herself and her daughter from the past. With a strong emotional core, you’ll be carried along by the historical details.

5. The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

It’s 1459, and the English nobility are bitterly divided over whether to remain loyal to their weak-minded King Henry VI and his haughty French wife Marguerite of Anjou. And when powerful Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, is imprisoned, she does everything to get her family back where they belong. A compelling story of divided loyalties and family betrayals. Dramatic and highly evocative.

6. A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

Inspired by the real life of Elizabeth Macarthur, Kate Grenville imagines the private life of a remarkable woman whose husband was a pioneer of the Australian wool industry. It’s 1788 when Elizabeth makes the decision to marry John Macarthur, but soon realises her mistake as he proves himself to be devious and angry with the world. Elizabeth must find an inner strength if she is to steer her husband away from danger. Packed with wonderful historical detail, this is an absorbing read.

7. Daughters Of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Already being heralded by critics as the “best historical fiction book of the year”, Daughters Of The Night is a chilling murder mystery set in the dark underbelly of Georgian London. Caroline “Caro” Corsham is awaiting the return of her politician husband from France when she happens upon the body of a well-dressed lady in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. When it transpires that the woman was a high-class prostitute, the police lose interest in the case, and it’s up to Caro and thief-taker Peregrine Child to track down her killer. A delectable whodunnit oozing with menace and lively period language.

8. A Net For Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

Based on the true scandal that rocked the court of James I in the 17th century, this richly layered story seizes attention right from the opening page. With her beauty and family connections, Frances “Frankie” Howard has the position in society that Anne Turner, for all her wit and talent, can only dream about. Yet when the two women meet under the oddest of circumstances, they soon realise that combining their attributes could help them to open powerful doors in the court, doors that others may be seeking to keep shut at any cost… Colourful, characterful and a true celebration of women, this is a debut that warrants a lot of attention.

Victorian and Early 20th Century

In this section we'll be sharing our top historical fiction picks from the Victorian era and Early 20th Century. The Victorian Era spans the entirety of Queen Victoria's reign, from 1837, until her death in January 1901. The recommendations will also cover literature based in the early part of the 20th Century.

Reflecting the growing fascination with the morbid and supernatural in the Victorian era, there are a few book options based around that topic. Below you'll also find tales from foreign countries and their history as they entered the 20th Century.

9. Spirited by Julie Cohen

Blending together supernatural elements with a historical setting, Julie Cohen brings us Victorians Viola and Henriette. After losing her father, the only thing that can lift Viola’s grief is photography, though her pictures seem to pick up spirits that are invisible to the naked eye and after meeting spirit medium, Henriette, she is drawn even further into a very different world. Wonderfully written and evocative.

Spirited by Julie Cohen at Amazon for US$16

10. Meet Me In Bombay by Jenny Ashcroft

Vividly set against the backdrop of colonial India, Jenny Ashcroft’s latest historical tale brings to life the colour, love and heartbreak that make life worth living. When Madeline and Luke first meet at a party in 1914 on the shores of Bombay, the love that blooms is unstoppable, despite the war on the horizon. But when Luke is called to fight, all Maddy can do is think of the promise he made her – that they would once again meet in Bombay.

11. Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

In this literary read, Tremain negotiates the complexity and fragility of the human condition with great skill. Opening in 19th century Bath, a cast of distinctive characters, ranging from Doctor Valentine Ross, to doctor’s daughter and nurse, Jane Adeane, bring forth a tale of passion and soul-searching as Jane must choose between a conventional marriage and an affair with a female lover. Intertwined with their tale is that of eccentric British ‘rajah’, Sir Ralph Savage in Borneo and together, Tremain boldly explores our very human need for sanctuary and expression.

12. The French Wife by Diney Costeloe

With her sister’s spectacular wedding fast approaching, Helene St Clair’s growing feelings for a young Englishman, Rupert, and friendship with orphan Annette may yet prove dangerous. Following the 1871 siege of Paris, Annette and Helene have grown close and now working for the St Clair family, Annette’s dark secret lies squarely in her friend’s hands. This is a truly captivating read that brings together vibrant characters and historical setting with great success.

World War II Era

World War II fiction is without doubt one of the most popular sectors of historical fiction, given the myriad of stories and experiences lived by people at that time. 

In our list complied below you'll discover the stories of everyday people doing extraordinary things as the threat of war looms ever closer - as well as a fascinating fictional retelling of the lives of a young Queen Elizabeth II (then Princess Elizabeth) and Princess Margaret during the Second World War. 

13. Under A Wartime Sky by Liz Trenow

Suffolk, 1936. When Kathleen begins work as a tea girl at Bawdsey Manor, she is initially happy to simply be doing her bit. With the threat of war hanging over Europe, the smartest minds, including shy physicist Vic, have gathered at Bawdsey to work on an invention that could tip the odds hugely in Britain’s favour. As the team’s progress gathers pace and local women are invited to become operators, Kathleen finds herself swept up in an exciting new world. But neither she nor Vic could have imagined what the future has in store. Engrossing and accomplished.

14. The Berlin Girl by Mandy Robotham

It is 1938, and fledgling reporter Georgie arrives in Berlin to find the city overrun with Nazis. As she and fellow Londoner Max witness more atrocities with each passing day, it becomes clear to Georgie that the pair must do something – but how can they hope to ensure the safety of others when to do so will put their own lives at risk? By capturing with gut-lurching accuracy the tension and horror of a country on the precipice of war, bestselling author Robotham has created yet another richly detailed and poignant tale about the immense tenacity of the human spirit.

15. The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

It’s the beginning of the Second World War when Hetty, a young female museum curator and evacuee, arrives at Lockwood Manor with a large part of the Natural History Museum’s collection. She hopes to keep them safe, but there is something strange going on and when Hetty feels she is being followed through the corridors the book takes a more gothic turn. Part love story and part-mystery, this historical book is sure to draw you in.

16. The Unwanted Dead by Chris Lloyd

For Paris police detective Eddie Giral, the day the German forces march into Paris is a day he will never forget. Feeling helpless, he throws himself into investigating the murder of four refugees – people who no one seems to want to claim. But with Europe in turmoil and eyes everywhere, he must be careful. He must do what he can to survive, but Eddie soon begins to unearth a truly horrific conspiracy that goes right to the heart of the German leadership and must soon see the light of day. Tense, emotional and vividly written.

17. The Governess by Wendy Holden

In her first foray in historical fiction, Holden focuses on Scottish educator and governess, Marion Crawford, who soon took the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret under her wing. Just what was Marion doing there when she had intended to teach in the slums, and why was she shunned from the Royal family years later? This intriguing fictionalisation of real-life events offers a fascinating insight into the Queen’s childhood.

Post-World War II Era

Fiction based on a world that was rebuilding itself following a savage and difficult war is complex and multi-faceted.

While some people, and parts of the world, thrived in freedom - finally - after the war, others were left to pick up the pieces and deal with the psychological scars left over. 

As such, the below fiction recommendations cover a wide range of experience in a post-World War II era - everything from the consequences of war crimes to new lives in new countries. 

18. The Silent Hours by CD Major

Former history teacher CD Major was inspired to write this deeply affecting story after discovering what occurred in the French town of Oradour at the end of the Second World War, when losing Nazi soldiers were displaced and desperate. Told from the perspective of Adeline, a mute woman being cared for in a convent, Jewish banker Sebastien, who’s fallen in love with a local woman, and nine-year-old Tristin, newly arrived in the village with his family after they fled from Paris, it charts the events leading up to and after the devastating event that changed all their lives. A haunting yet captivating must.

19. The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

The year is 1934, and Elsa Martinelli is living the life she always wanted as a wife and mother on a farm in the Great Plains of Texas. But when a devastating drought brings the community to its knees and Elsa’s husband flees, she must decide whether to stay and fight for her land or journey to California with her two children in search of a new start. As with all of author Hannah’s breathtaking books, The Four Winds is not only a mesmeric study of nature at its most beautiful and terrible, but also of the bonds that bind us to those we love.

20. The German Heiress by Anika Scott

Set in Essen, Germany in 1946, Anika Scott’s extraordinary novel follows iron works heiress Clara as she desperately tries to evade the Allied authorities, accused of being complicit in her father’s wartime crimes. When Clara returns to find her hometown in ruins, she realises that for her to have a future she must first face up to her past. Fans of The Tattooist of Auchwitz will be fascinated by Scott’s portrayal of post-war Germany in this tale of guilt and redemption.

The German Heiress by Anika Scott at Amazon for US$12.75

21. Tell Me How It Ends by V.B. Grey

Grey brings to life a plot that is as dramatic as its characters, rich with 1960s period detail. Singer Delia Maxwell has been adored and envied since the 50s, although Private investigator Frank thinks Delia’s ambitious new assistant Lily is more obsessed than most. Despite his fears, however, Delia doesn’t seem concerned. With brilliant homages to film noir, this intriguing novel is packed full of tension.

22. Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Clare Chambers’ tender 1950’s mystery follows Jean Swinney, a features writer on a local newspaper, whose world is turned upside down when she is sent off to investigate Gretchen Tilbury’s ‘virgin birth’. Her life quickly becomes intertwined with the charismatic Tilburys, though their story seems to be casting a darker shadow the more she looks deeper. A stunning novel that will steal your heart.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers at Amazon for US$15

23. The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

Just when the little village of Chawton think that they can finally start to put the devastation of the recently ended war behind them, they look set to be dealt another blow in the form of the sale of Jane Austen’s former home. Faced with the possibility of the estate being purchased, eight of the villagers band together to fight to preserve this historic site, calling themselves The Jane Austen Society. Uplifting and warm, the characters and charming settle can’t fail to bring a smile to your face.

24. This Lovely City by Louise Hare

In her atmospheric debut, Louise Hare transports us to post-war London with newly arrived jazz musician, Lawrie. Touring the music halls of Soho by night, by day he paces the streets as a postman – which is when he happens upon a terrible discovery and becomes the prime suspect. It soon becomes clear that the new arrivals from the Caribbean may not be as welcome as they’d been led to believe. A thought-provoking mystery that’s sure to get people talking.

25. She Came To Stay by Eleni Kyriacou

It’s London, 1952 and Dina has arrived from Cyprus with her brother, looking for a better life. When she meets the glamorous Bebba at the notorious Pelican Revue, she sees her chance to start really living. Only, Dina soon learns that everyone has a secret. This is an intriguing tale of friendship, betrayal and hope.

Modern Historical Era

In a move way from the wars that dominated the early to middle 20th Century, our final section is on modern historical fiction - from around the 60s onwards. While these stories might seem like they aren't set too long ago, it's fascinating to examine - throughout literature - the way in which the world has changed in just 50 years or so. 

26. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers disappear from a remote lighthouse far from shore. The door is locked from the inside, the clock has stopped and a ferocious storm has been noted in the log despite skies being clear all week. Nobody can work out what happened or why. Twenty years later, a writer approaches the wives of the three missing men and offers them the chance to tell their side of the story. But are they strong enough to face their deepest fears?  One of 2021’s most-anticipated novels, this chilling and atmospheric story more than delivers on its promise.

27. Liar by Lesley Pearse

Set in 1970s London, Pearse’s latest dark tale follows saleswoman Amelia White, who has ambitions to become a reporter. Luckily, these might just be about to become reality when she discovers a murdered woman’s body. Determined to report the truth amidst a media frenzy that spreads outrageous lies, Amelia convinces her paper’s editor to allow her to delve deeper. A superbly twisting and intense historical book that will have you gripped to the end.