Are you a fan of immersive, enrapturing reads? If so, historical fiction set in a specific time period might be just the genre for you. From the grandeur of the Victorian era to the upheavals of the World Wars, historical fiction allows readers to journey back in time and experience the triumphs and struggles of characters in eras gone by. In this article, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best period books that are sure to captivate and inspire.
So sit back, relax, and prepare to be transported to another time and place.
What Is Historical Fiction?
At its core, period books or otherwise known as historical fiction can be defined as fictional literature set in the past. Typically, these books are written at least several decades after the time period they depict. While some authors may draw on their personal experiences, much of the inspiration for historical fiction comes from thorough research.
Historical fiction tends to prioritize realism, but some writers have experimented with incorporating elements of fantasy or magical realism to provide a unique perspective on the past. Ultimately, the defining characteristic of historical fiction is its deep weaving with a specific time and place. The historical context and events of a particular era are as vital to the story as any plot or character development, making historical fiction an unmatched vehicle for exploring the human experience across time.
Top 10 Best Period Books
Within the list below, you’ll discover a diverse range of books that incorporate elements of fantasy, mystery, and romance. Certain selections may feature well-known historical figures in leading roles, while others highlight the captivating and lesser-known stories of individuals from past eras.
1. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (World War II)
“The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah is a period fiction novel set during World War II in France. The book follows two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, as they navigate the perils and hardships of life under Nazi occupation. While Vianne struggles to protect her family and home, Isabelle joins the Resistance and risks her life to save others. The sisters’ paths diverge and converge as they confront the brutal realities of war and confront their struggles. A poignant and emotional exploration of love, sacrifice, and the human spirit, “The Nightingale” is a powerful and deeply affecting novel that has captured the hearts of readers worldwide.
2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (Medieval Europe)
“The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco is a period mystery novel set in a 14th-century Italian monastery. The story follows the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his apprentice, Adso of Melk, as they investigate a series of bizarre murders that take place within the walls of the abbey. As William delves deeper into the mystery, he uncovers a labyrinthine web of politics, power, and forbidden knowledge. Richly atmospheric and intricately plotted, “The Name of the Rose” is a masterful blend of historical fiction and detective story that has earned acclaim for its stunning evocation of medieval life and thought.
3. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (12th Century England)
“The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett is a period fiction novel set in 12th-century England. The book follows the construction of a fictional cathedral in the town of Kingsbridge, and the lives of the people whose destinies are tied to its creation. Through the perspectives of various characters, including the master builder, the prior, and a noblewoman, the novel weaves a complex tapestry of love, betrayal, and political intrigue. A sweeping epic that spans decades and depicts the societal and technological changes of the Middle Ages, “The Pillars of the Earth” is a gripping and immersive tale of passion and ambition.
4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1930s America)
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker is a novel set in the rural South of the 1930s. The story is told through the eyes of Celie, a young African-American woman who endures years of abuse and oppression at the hands of her father and husband. Through her experiences, Celie confronts issues of sexism, racism, and violence, while forming deep connections with other women who have also been marginalized by society. A profound exploration of the human spirit and the power of female relationships, “The Color Purple” is a timeless classic that has resonated with readers since its publication in 1982.
5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (World War II)
“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak is a period fiction novel set in Nazi Germany during World War II. The story is narrated by Death, who tells the tale of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is sent to live with foster parents after her mother is taken away by the Nazis. Through her love of books and her relationships with her foster family and friends, Liesel finds hope and solace in a world filled with tragedy and loss. A poignant and profound exploration of the power of words and the resilience of the human spirit, “The Book Thief” is a beloved and unforgettable novel.
6. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (18th Century Scotland)
“Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon is a time-travel romance novel that follows the story of Claire Randall, a British nurse who is transported from 1945 to 1743 Scotland. Claire finds herself caught up in the Jacobite risings and falls in love with a Highlander named Jamie Fraser. As she navigates her new life and grapples with her conflicting loyalties, Claire must also find a way to return to her own time. A thrilling and engaging blend of historical fiction, romance, and fantasy, “Outlander” has captivated readers with its vivid characters, intricate plot, and lush descriptions of the Scottish landscape.
7. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Civil War America)
“Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell is a classic period fiction novel set in the American South during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. The novel follows the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a strong-willed young woman who is forced to confront the harsh realities of war and the social upheaval that follows. Through her tumultuous relationships with Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, as well as her complicated family dynamics, Scarlett must navigate a world that is rapidly changing around her. A sweeping epic that explores themes of love, loss, and perseverance, “Gone with the Wind” is a timeless masterpiece that has captured the hearts and imaginations of readers for generations.
8. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (20th Century Japan)
“Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden is a period fiction novel that tells the story of Chiyo Sakamoto, a young girl who is sold into slavery and trained to become a geisha in pre-World War II Japan. Through her journey, Chiyo must learn to navigate the complex social and cultural traditions of the geisha world, while facing competition and jealousy from her peers. As she rises to become one of the most celebrated geishas of her time, Chiyo also grapples with the complexities of love and loyalty. A beautifully crafted tale that immerses readers in the rich and fascinating world of geishas, “Memoirs of a Geisha” is a must-read for lovers of historical fiction.
9. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (16th Century England)
“The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory is a period fiction novel set in 16th-century England, during the reign of King Henry VIII. The story follows the lives of Mary and Anne Boleyn, two sisters who become entangled in a dangerous web of court politics and personal ambition. Through their relationships with the king and their family members, Mary and Anne must navigate the treacherous waters of Tudor England, while grappling with their desires and the expectations of those around them. A gripping and compelling tale of power, and betrayal, “The Other Boleyn Girl” is a must-read for fans of historical fiction and Tudor history.
10. The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi (1950s India)
“The Henna Artist” by Alka Joshi is a period fiction novel set in 1950s India, following the life of Lakshmi, a henna artist who has left her abusive husband to create a new life for herself in the bustling city of Jaipur. As she establishes herself as a successful artist, Lakshmi is confronted with the unexpected arrival of her estranged sister and the revelation that she has a young niece. Through her efforts to protect and care for her family, Lakshmi must navigate the complex social and cultural traditions of her community, while confronting the secrets of her own past. A beautiful and evocative tale of family, tradition, and resilience, “The Henna Artist” is a must-read for fans of historical fiction and Indian culture.