10 Most Intriguing Historical Fiction Novels

Period pieces that educate and entertain

10 Most Intriguing Historical Fiction Novels
Photograph from Pexels

Period pieces that educate and entertain

I’ll be honest.

I only thought of writing this article because a friend asked me for a historical fiction book he could gift his partner for their birthday. I ended up naming at least seven.

Far from being helpful, my friend was now forced to pick one from my gigantic list and order it!

Jokes apart, historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and I have read many excellent books — both popular and underrated. In this article, I am sharing ten of the best I have read.

I tried keeping this list as diverse and inclusive as possible. I hope you enjoy reading these brilliant books.

(Note: The links mentioned in this article are affiliate links. If you choose to purchase these books through these links, it will help me earn a small amount of money — at no extra cost to you. Thanks!)

1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Set in: Nazi Germany of 1939–1943

Image: Goodreads

The Book Thief is narrated by Death who possesses a book a girl called Liesel wrote. Liesel, though never greedy, is a thief who starts out by stealing randomly, slowly moving towards being more methodical. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down. Death picks up Liesel’s notebook after she forgets it in her grief, amongst the destruction that was once her home.

“Imagine smiling after a slap in the face. Then think of doing it twenty-four hours a day. That was the business of hiding a Jew.”

Why you should read it

A hearth-wrenching story told with such simplicity; this is a story that would refuse to go away. Though dealing with dark and complex subjects, the book is never morbid. The author’s lively humour dances through the pages, tying the strings together. It is a masterfully written, well-balanced story that would leave its imprint in your memory forever.

Purchase the book here.

2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Depicting Latin American history from the postcolonial 1820s to the 1920s.

Image: Goodreads

Pipes and kettledrums herald the arrival of gypsies on their annual visit to Macondo, the newly founded village where José Arcadio Buendía and his strong-willed wife, Úrsula, have started their new life. As the mysterious Melquíades excites Aureliano Buendía and his father with new inventions and tales of adventure, neither can know the significance of the indecipherable manuscript that the old gypsy passes into their hands.

(Blurb from Goodreads)

Why you should read it

Several readers give up on this book because of the complex family dynamics, made even more convoluted by characters from different generations sharing the same name. But the writing is so unique, riddled with such colourful, absurd metaphors, you will find yourself laughing out loud. Here’s a sample:

“The air was so damp that fish could have come in through the doors and swum out the windows.”

This a mystical and captivating tale, one that plays around with reality itself. It wouldn’t be an understatement if I said this book was an epitome of magical realism at its best.

Purchase the book here.

3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer

Image: Goodreads

Written in an epistolary format, consisting of letters back and forth between Juliet Ashton, a young author in 1946 London and several of her contacts and friends. It is just after World War II, and the people are trying to reclaim their lives and figure out if and how to move on from the tragedy of the war. There is a personal touch to the letters, and they feel like interesting true stories and anecdotes disguised in the book as random people’s letters to Juliet.

This book has some adorable, often quirky, characters, and quite a bit of fascinating (and unavoidably harrowing) tales of WWII history. There is heaps of humour thrown in and just the right amount of romance to leave you with a smile on your face.

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive — all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

Why you should read it

This is one of those rare books that serve to remind us that the written word is a universal language that can speak to even the most distant among us. It will touch you, regardless of age or class. It will remind you why you read: to know that no matter what you are going through, you are not alone.

Purchase the book here.

4. The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor

Set in: Pre and post-independence India (and Pakistan)

Image: Goodreads

This is more of a political satire than historical fiction. Shashi Tharoor’s brilliant novel draws parallels between the socio-political scene of pre and post-independent India and the two-thousand-year-old epic, The Mahabharata. Intense, heartbreaking, beautiful, hilarious, just like the story of India herself.

The narrative encompasses the history of modern India’s struggle for independence and serves it to the reader, wrapped up in delightful humour and masterful language. Amid all the tragedy and violence, the author packs in enough silly puns and parody to make one chuckle.

“Fasts, Ganpathi, have never worked half as well anywhere else as they have in India. Only Indians could have devised a method of political bargaining based on the threat of harm to yourself rather than to your opponent…As a weapon, fasts are effective only when the target of your action values your life more than his convictions — or at least feels that society as a whole does. So they were ideally suited to a non-violent, upright leader like Gangaji.”

Why you should read it

The author is one of India’s most well-loved politicians and writers. His wit shines through his debut work of fiction. There is not a single dull moment throughout the plot. Read this book if you have a knowledge of the events of The Mahabharata, or else, the excellent metaphors would be lost on you. Be warned though: expect to laugh out loud at moments you least expected.

Purchase the book here.

5. Funny Boy by Shyan Selvadurai

Set in: The Buddhist Sinhala and Hindu Tamil violence in Sri Lanka in the 1970s

Image: Goodreads

Funny Boy is the story of Arjie, a teenager, as he comes to terms both with his homosexuality and with the racism of the society in which he lives. Arjie grows up playing with girls, putting on makeup and cross-dressing — acts that are considered weak, unmanly and, “funny.” His non-normative sexual behaviour sets him apart and makes it difficult for him to make friends with people of his gender. Already struggling to fit in, Arjie’s world is torn apart by tragedy as the ongoing war between the army and the militant group calling themselves “Tamil Tigers” gradually begins to encroach on the family’s comfortable life.

“I was able to leave the constraints of myself and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self, a self to whom this day was dedicated, and around whom the world, represented by my cousins putting flowers in my hair, draping the palu, seemed to revolve. It was a self magnified, like the goddesses of the Sinhalese and Tamil cinema, larger than life; and like them, like the Malini Fonsekas and the Geetha Kumarasinghes, I was an icon, a graceful, benevolent, perfect being upon whom the adoring eyes of the world rested.”

Why you should read it

The novel brilliantly portrays the tumultuous time in a divided Sri Lanka, while telling a heart-rending story of the ongoing conflict between homosexuality and social acceptance. This Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men’s Fiction winner (1997) is is a brilliant, underrated work of fiction I believe every reader should read at least once.

Purchase the book here.

6. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

Set in: India of the 1500s under the Mughal rule

Image: Goodreads

Set in the Mughal empire of the 1500s, the author’s debut novel is an epic tale of royal romance, tradition, history and struggle for control of the throne. What makes this book stand out is that the story is fictional, but the characters and places are real. The depiction of the struggles of Mehrunnisa, the daughter of starving refugees who goes on to become the empress of the mighty Mughal empire is inspiring and magical. The slowly-blooming romance between Mehrunnisa (a.k.a Empress Nur Jahan) and the Emperor Jahangir (who ultimately goes on to build the iconic Taj Mahal for her) is portrayed with a lot of empathy.

“We must be careful not to teach the girls too much. How will they ever find husbands if they are too learned? The less they know, the less they will want of the outside world.”

Why you should read it

This book will take the reader back to the grandeur of those days, make them want to visit the palaces and see for themselves how such breath-taking beauty can exist. It will show how the world functioned in those times — the culture, the traditions, the beliefs, and superstition — everything is woven intricately with the story.

Purchase the book here.

7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Set in: Pre and post-independence India of the 1940s

Salma Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize-winning book tells the story of Saleem Sinai, a Mumbai boy born at the midnight of India’s independence. He is one of the 1,001 children born at the midnight hour and endowed with an extraordinary talent that “handcuffs them to history”. Through Saleem’s gifts of the inner ear and wildly sensitive sense of smell — the reader is drawn into a fascinating family saga set against the vast, multi-faceted tapestry of India of the 20th century.

“Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

Why you should read it

A must-read for all lovers of magical realism. Read it for the lush imagery, the curiously-lopsided characters, the beautiful prose, and the brilliant narrative that borders on allegorical. The plot and events of the book can be enjoyed on a deeper level if one has an understanding of Indian history.

Purchase the book here.

8. The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Set in: Ancient India (more of a mythological retelling, but there are elements of historical fiction)

Image: Goodreads

This brilliant book is a reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharata — told from the point of view of an amazing woman — Panchaali.

Many Indians and mythology-enthusiasts might already be aware of the events that unfolded during the Mahabharata, but this book takes us through those times through the eyes of the woman who started it all. The author has brilliantly woven her storytelling with divine and supernatural events in the form of Draupadi’s dreams and the court songs sung by bards. The feminist tinge throughout the book throws light on the challenges women have faced since centuries by virtue of their birth. The book would definitely be an entertaining read with its colourful scenes and also play a part in ssensitising men to the pain women used to face in medieval times and continue to face today.

“I saw something I hadn’t realized before: words wasted energy. I would use my strength instead to nurture my belief that my life would unfurl uniquely.”

Why you should read it

The quotable quotes would make you want to keep coming back to the pages to discover another bunch of hidden gems at each re-read. After all, how can one not fall in love with a female protagonist who claims power for herself and quotes — “I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable — but I always was so, only I never knew it!”?

Purchase the book here.

9. Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

Set in: Pre-Independence India of 1947

Image: Goodreads

India, a land rich in history and culture, was under colonial rule for 200 years. When the country gained her independence in 1947, she was split into two nations — India and Pakistan. What preceded the partition was a period of darkness where the entire mainland was plunged into the abyss of religious hate that ended in the deaths of more than a million people.

Khushwant’s Singh’s masterpiece is set in Mano Majra — a village where Sikhs and Muslims have lived together in peace for hundreds of years. The village gets its first taste of the horrors of the civil war when a silent train arrives at the station — loaded with the dead bodies of thousands of refugees. This isolated village is plunged into a bloodbath of inter-religious hatred and violence, trapped amid which is a young couple — a Sikh boy and a Muslim girl whose love endures and transcends the ravages of war.

“Morality is a matter of money. Poor people cannot afford to have morals. So they have religion”

Why you should read it

I am not educated enough to state facts, but every Indian knows the kind of emotions they have attached with the time when their country won independence, and the fragile history the land has with its nearest neighbour, Pakistan. Train to Pakistan feels like an honest attempt to save what love is left between these two countries. Without doubt, there are a few points where the never-resolved debate of which party was right at that time comes up, but read this book for the emotions, not the facts.

Purchase the book here.

10. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Set in: Pre-World War II concentration camp

Image: Goodreads

This is the harrowing story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and becomes the man who tattoos the arms of thousands of prisoners with their numbers. One day, he meets a female prisoner, Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

I started reading this book on a Saturday morning, and the story was so riveting, I HAD to finish it in one day. And now that I’m done, what shall I say? The Tattooist of Auschwitz is one of the best books I read in recent times, and I hope to re-read it again and again.

“The tattooing has taken only seconds, but Lale’s shock makes time stand still. He grasps his arm, staring at the number. How can someone do this to another human being? He wonders if for the rest of his life, be it short or long, he will be defined by this moment, this irregular number: 32407.”

Why you should read it

More than a story of survival, this book is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions. The characters Lale and Gita will have your heart. You will laugh with them, cry when they tried and failed, feel your heart being wrenched out of as much compassion as it could spare when they are under threat. In the end, you will be left marvelling at what an incredible tragic journey it was.

Purchase the book here.

Final Thoughts

I was worried that out of the ten books I listed, five are set in India. What if this alienates readers from other countries?

I almost deleted those books and had started another draft titled Ten Historical Fiction Novels set in India, but then, something stopped me. As an Indian, I would be equally interested in reading a book set in, say, Palestine or Afghanistan as I would be interested in readinga book set in the United States.

A good reader does not discriminate based on where the story is set.

Moreover, there are very few writers from India here on Medium who write book recommendation lists. As a result, books from the country (and South East Asia in general) remain in oblivion.

Maybe I can be the voice of my place of birth?

Maybe this article can be a step towards educating readers that there are some amazing books set in the subcontinent and that you would expose yourself to a wealth of literature if you open up your minds and broaden your reading horizon.

More book recommendation lists by Anangsha Alammyan in Books Are Our Superpower:

4 Popular Books I Didn’t Quite Enjoy
And what you can read instead
5 Most Inspirational Books to Read if You Loved The Alchemist
Novels that leave a mark
5 Must-Read Fantasy Books by Women
The most epic high fantasy recommendations by female authors

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