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8 Novels Any History Lover Must Read

 One of the most compelling ways to learn about history is through historical novels. Being introduced to a specific time and place through the story of relatable human characters makes the past seem vibrant and alive. The best historical books break the distance between now and then and allow the readers to imagine themselves as active participants in the bygone world they present. 

Listing all of the great historical novels ever written would be impossible, but we managed to narrow it down to a mere eight to immerse yourself in if you're in the mood for some time travel. 

1. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

8 Of the Best Historical Novels The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

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Time Period and Setting: World War II, Europe

The English Patient centers around four variously damaged characters in an Italian villa towards the end of the second world war, who all try to come to terms with the past. Hana is a shell-shocked and exhausted nurse, Caravaggio is a thief who put his skills to use for British intelligence, and Kip is a Sikh man from India who worked as a “sapper,” defusing bombs for the British forces. Finally, there is the titular patient, who isn't actually English but a Hungarian desert explorer named Laslo Almasy. He spends the book on what he knows to be his deathbed, recounting his story. 

It’s only right for The English Patient to be the opening book on the list. Micheal Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel was translated into 40 languages, has sold more than 1 million copies, and was turned into an Oscar-winning film. An absolute must-read, accurately capturing the loneliness and unknowability felt by many at the end of the war. 

2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

8 Of the Best Historical Novels  The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Time Period and Setting: 1800s, US

The Underground Railroad chronicles the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. When Ceaser, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the 'underground railroad', they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape to seek freedom. Traveling from Georgia to South Carolina and Tennessee to Indiana, Cora must elude a fanatical slave-catcher named Ridgeway, among other informers. She gets help along the way, from several dedicated ‘railroad’ workers, willing to risk their lives in order to help. 

In reality, the Underground Railroad was a metaphorical name for a secret network of abolitionists who helped African Americans escape from slavery. In the novel, however, the term was re-imagined as a literal railroad. The Underground Railroad is at once an adventure tale of a woman’s determination to escape the horrors of bondage and a powerful meditation of a dark history. 

Related: These Classic Books Have Great Underlying Moral Themes

3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

8 Of the Best Historical Novels Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

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Time Period and Setting: 1600s, Netherlands

The story opens in the year 1664 when the novel’s narrator Griet, is informed that must start working as a maid in the home of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer and his wife Catharina, to help support her own family. One of Griet’s main responsibilities in her new household is to clean the studio where Vermeer works. This is a challenging task as it is extremely important that nothing be moved or altered in this room, and Griet must work very meticulously if she wants to keep her job. 

The novel lays out an imagined relationship between the artist and his servant, who goes on to become his muse. ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, also known as the Mona Lisa of the North, is one of the most famous and mysterious marvels of the art world. Very little is known about Vermeer and even less about his subject, and this novel offers a fascinating and beautiful interpretation of the famous artwork.

Related: These Are Some of the Most Fascinating Books on History
 

4. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

8 Of the Best Historical Novels Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

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Time Period and Setting: Ancient Middle East

In the old testament, Dinah is only a minor character, who is briefly mentioned in the Book of Genesis as the daughter of Jacob and Leah. In The Red Tent Anita Diamant broadens her story, and through Dinah’s narrative, we learn about the daily lives, traditions, and hardships of women in ancient times. The book’s title refers to the tent in which the women of Jacob’s tribe take refuge while giving birth. It is in the red tent that women find mutual support and encouragement from their mothers, sisters, and aunts.  

The Red Tent was featured in The New York Times bestseller list and sparked countless debates and discussions about biblical history. 

5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

8 Of the Best Historical Novels My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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Time Period and Setting: 1950s Italy

Beginning in 1950 in a poor Neapolitan neighborhood, My Brilliant Friend is a saga that spans over four volumes and almost sixty years. The story is centered around the complex friendship between the reasonable and level-headed narrator Elena, and the fiery and impulsive Lila. Book one in the series recounts their fateful meeting as ten-year-old girls and we go on to follow them through adolescence and as they become mothers, wives, and leaders. 

Through the lives of Elena and Lila, Ferrante tells the story of Naples and of Italy, and the transformations the country went through in the second half of the 20th century. 

Related: 8 Times the Future Was Eerily Foretold in Novels

6. Shogun by James Clavell

8 Of the Best Historical Novels Shogun by James Clavell

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Time Period and Setting: 1600s, Japan

James Clavell’s best-selling novel begins around 1600 when The Erasmus, a Dutch warship, is blown ashore on the Japanese coast during a storm. John Blackthorne, an English captain working on the ship, and 10 other survivors are taken captive by local samurai Kasigi Omi. John eventually adopts the ways of the Japanese and earns the respect of the locals, even winning over the feudal lord Yoshinaga Torunaga.


The book is loosely based on the life and exploits of William Adams and includes many factual tidbits about the Japanese culture and language. Shogun is quite a lengthy book, but if you’re willing to take it on you’re in for an entertaining read combined with a fascinating history lesson.
 

7. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

8 Of the Best Historical Novels All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Time Period and Setting: World War II, France and Germany

This is the most recent novel featured on the list. Since its publication in 2014, All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. 

The novel tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German orphan boy, whose paths collide as both of them try to survive the devastation of World War II. When Germany invaded France in 1940, Marie-Laure and her father fled to the coastal town of Saint-Malo. Werner’s talent at building and fixing radios is noticed by the Nazis and he is enlisted to track down the French resistance, despite his young age. 

While switching between the stories of both protagonists, Doerr illuminates the ways in which, against all odds, people tried to be good to one another in this dark period of history.
 

8. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood by Margaret Atwood

8 Of the Best Historical Novels Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood by Margaret Atwood

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Time Period and Setting: 1800s, Canada

This award-winning novel tells the story of Grace Marks, who has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murder of her employer, and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent, while others think her evil or insane. ‘Alias Grace’ takes place several years after the murder with Grace serving a life sentence. She claims she doesn’t remember anything from that fateful day. A doctor named Simon Jordan tries to get to the truth by walking Grace through the events leading up to the murder, acting as what we now call a psychiatrist. Back then psychology was yet to even be recognized as a discipline. 

The novel is a fictional retelling of the real-life murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery in 1843. Two servants of the Kinnear household, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were convicted of the crime. To this day, no one knows for sure whether Grace was indeed guilty or not. While the character of Dr. Jordan is fictional, Atwood’s novel offers a great deal of insight into 19-century Canada and the way mental health was perceived in those times. 

Shaer these captivating novels with other history lovers

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