A few days ago I reached out to the bookstagram community for some historical fiction recommendations, and oh boy did they deliver! (All quoted descriptions are from Goodreads.)
1) Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
(I just ordered these two books, and definitely plan to read them ASAP.) These two are the first two books in a trilogy (the third has yet to be released), and they BOTH won the Man Booker Prize. I'm not sure how much more of a recommendation you need. The series charts the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, minister in the court of Henry VIII.
2) The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
(I just bought this as an ebook, and can't wait to read it. It was, by far, the highest recommended historical fiction book.) Despite their differences, sisters Vianne and Isabelle have always been close. Younger, bolder Isabelle lives in Paris while Vianne is content with life in the French countryside with her husband Antoine and their daughter. But when the Second World War strikes, Antoine is sent off to fight and Vianne finds herself isolated so Isabelle is sent by their father to help her.
As the war progresses, the sisters' relationship and strength are tested. With life changing in unbelievably horrific ways, Vianne and Isabelle will find themselves facing frightening situations and responding in ways they never thought possible as bravery and resistance take different forms in each of their actions."
3) The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
"Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890's, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way."
4) Emperor: The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden (First in a series of five)
"In a true masterpiece of historical fiction, Iggulden takes us on a breathtaking journey through ancient Rome, sweeping us into a realm of tyrants and slaves, of dark intrigues and seething passions. What emerges is both a grand romantic tale of coming-of-age in the Roman Empire and a vibrant portrait of the early years of a man who would become the most powerful ruler on earth: Julius Caesar."
5) Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Sue Trinder is taken in as a baby by a family of thieves (Fingersmiths), and is taught the art of thievery. One day, Sue is offered the opportunity to help one of the most beloved thieves trick an old woman out of her inheritance so Sue and the thieves can all share in it. She wants to pay back the only family she has ever known for taking her in, however, she also finds she has a soft spot for the old woman. Goodreads described it as a "Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals."
6) Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
"Inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this debut novel reveals a story of love, redemption, and secrets that were hidden for decades." Read the full description here.
7) The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George
"Bestselling novelist Margaret George brings to life the glittering kingdom of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, in this lush, sweeping, and richly detailed saga. Told in Cleopatra's own voice, this is a mesmerizing tale of ambition, passion, and betrayal, which begins when the twenty-year-old queen seeks out the most powerful man in the world, Julius Caesar, and does not end until, having survived the assassination of Caesar and the defeat of the second man she loves, Marc Antony, she plots her own death rather than be paraded in triumph through the streets of Rome."
8) Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini
"The New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker returns with a riveting work of historical fiction following the notorious John Wilkes Booth and the four women who kept his perilous confidence...Mary Ann, the steadfast matriarch of the Booth family; Asia, his loyal sister and confidante; Lucy Lambert Hale, the senator’s daughter who adored Booth yet tragically misunderstood the intensity of his wrath; and Mary Surratt, the Confederate widow entrusted with the secrets of his vengeful plot."
9) Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Katey Kontent is in a jazz bar at the tail end of the 1930s when she runs into a handsome banker who will catapult her into the upper echelons of New York society. It is there that she "experiences firsthand the poise secured by wealth and station and the failed aspirations that reside just below the surface."
10) Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
"Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong."
11) Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
"A captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask."
12) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
"A stunningly ambitious and beautiful novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II."
13) The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
"In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption."
14) The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
The Paris Wife follows the passionate and tumultuous relationship of Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, as they navigate the fast-paced, hard-drinking lifestyle of Jazz age Paris, all while facing the ultimate crisis of their marriage.
15) Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
"Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes in New York, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America, and the world." Find the full description here.
16) Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
"Set in rural Grace County, North Carolina in a time of state-mandated sterilizations and racial tension, Necessary Lies tells the story of these two young women, seemingly worlds apart, but both haunted by tragedy. Jane and Ivy are thrown together and must ask themselves: how can you know what you believe is right, when everyone is telling you it’s wrong?"
17) Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan
This one is based on a true story. Here is the full description:
"Pino Lella wants nothing to do with the war or the Nazis. He’s a normal Italian teenager—obsessed with music, food, and girls—but his days of innocence are numbered. When his family home in Milan is destroyed by Allied bombs, Pino joins an underground railroad helping Jews escape over the Alps, and falls for Anna, a beautiful widow six years his senior.
In an attempt to protect him, Pino’s parents force him to enlist as a German soldier—a move they think will keep him out of combat. But after Pino is injured, he is recruited at the tender age of eighteen to become the personal driver for Adolf Hitler’s left hand in Italy, General Hans Leyers, one of the Third Reich’s most mysterious and powerful commanders.
Now, with the opportunity to spy for the Allies inside the German High Command, Pino endures the horrors of the war and the Nazi occupation by fighting in secret, his courage bolstered by his love for Anna and for the life he dreams they will one day share."
18) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
"In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. Alas, in the opening sequence, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.
Among the hostages are Russian, Italian, and French diplomatic types. Swiss Red Cross negotiator oachim Messner comes and goes, wrangling over terms and demands. Days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months. Joined by no common language except music, the 58 international hostages and their captors forge unexpected bonds. Time stands still, priorities rearrange themselves. Ultimately, of course, something has to give."
19) North and South by John Jakes (trilogy)
"Part history, part novel, this book chronicles two great American dynasties over three generations. Though brought together in a friendship that neither jealousy nor violence could shatter, the Hazards and the Mains are torn apart by the storm of events that has divided the nation."
20) The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DisClafani
This recommendation is my own, and the book that prompted me to search for more historical fiction books. Here is my full review.
Have you read any of these books? Which is your favorite? Which of these do you now plan to read? Have any other recommendations? Let me know in the comments!