The best historical fiction for people who don’t read historical fiction

Who am I?

I love historical fiction in all its forms, from the multi-volume family epics to the Dear America middle-grade books I grew up with. And I really, truly don’t understand why historical fiction has a reputation for being dry, dull, or worst of all, like homework. Sure, there are some novels written for history buffs only, but the vast majority aren’t, and neither is mine. When I wrote A Tip for the Hangman, my goal was to write historical fiction that reads like a page-turner, not a textbook. The books on this list all pull off that trick beautifully, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.


I wrote...

A Tip for the Hangman

By Allison Epstein,

Book cover of A Tip for the Hangman

What is my book about?

England, 1585. In Kit Marlowe’s last year at Cambridge, he receives an unexpected visitor: Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, who informs him that Her Majesty’s spies are in need of new recruits. Kit, a scholarship student without money or prospects, accepts the offer, and after his training, the game is on. Kit is dispatched to the chilly manor where Mary, Queen of Scots is under house arrest, to keep his ear to the ground for Catholic plots. But the ripple effects of Kit’s service are more than he bargained for, and much as he tries to extricate himself and build a new life in London’s raucous theater scene, the uncertain world of espionage, conspiracy, and high treason threaten to destroy everything he holds dear. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Dead Dead Girls

By Nekesa Afia,

Book cover of Dead Dead Girls

Why this book?

The reason I’m flinging this debut historical mystery at everyone who reads books is because of its main character, Louise Lloyd. Lou is a tiny, determined, fierce Black lesbian who lives in 1920s Jazz-Age Harlem and really does not want to keep solving crimes, but crimes keep happening and who else is going to solve them? If you like your heroines ferociously competent, your murder mysteries fast-paced, and your stories to be equal parts harsh tragedy and unstoppable joy, this one’s for you. Plus, it’s the first in a series!

Dead Dead Girls

By Nekesa Afia,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dead Dead Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“In this terrific series opener, Afia evokes the women’s lives in all their wayward and beautiful glory, especially the abruptness with which their dreams, hopes and fears cease to exist.”--The New York Times

The start of an exciting new historical mystery series set during the Harlem Renaissance from debut author Nekesa Afia

Harlem, 1926. Young Black women like Louise Lloyd are ending up dead.

Following a harrowing kidnapping ordeal when she was in her teens, Louise is doing everything she can to maintain a normal life. She’s succeeding, too. She spends her days working at Maggie’s Café and her nights…


The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh

By Molly Greeley,

Book cover of The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh

Why this book?

If you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool historical fiction reader, you might think Jane Austen retellings aren’t for you. That’s only because you haven’t read The Heiress yet. This stunning, dreamy, gothic-infused book takes a minor character from Pride and Prejudice who hardly gets any lines and spins up a story about finding your voice in a world that wants to keep you silent. Anne’s struggle against addiction and desperate desire to embrace the beauty of life feels like it could have taken place yesterday. Also, it’s got lesbian yearning that’s both sweet and sexy, aka the dream. Give me that queer pining, please and thank you. 

The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh

By Molly Greeley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Heiress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'With stunningly lyrical writing, Greeley elevates Austen-inspired fiction onto a whole new plane.' - Natalie Jenner, author of The Jane Austen Society

As a fussy baby, Anne was prescribed laudanum to quiet her and has been given the opium-heavy syrup ever since on account of her continuing ill health. While her mother is outraged when Darcy chooses not to marry Anne, as has been long planned, Anne can barely raise her head to acknowledge the fact.

But little by little, she comes to see that what she has always been told is an affliction of nature might in fact be…


The Queen of the Night

By Alexander Chee,

Book cover of The Queen of the Night

Why this book?

I love this novel about a 19th-century French opera singer so much because Alexander Chee is having so much fun. It’s got a traveling circus. It’s got mysterious operatic composers. Betrayal. Romance. Several wars. Acrobatics on horseback. So much money. A daring escape in a hot-air balloon. I think of The Queen of the Night as the Grey’s Anatomy of the historical fiction world. Is it melodramatic? Absolutely. But this book knows it’s over the top, and it’s winking at you about it the whole way. Don’t worry about family trees or detailed maps in this book—just buckle up and enjoy.

The Queen of the Night

By Alexander Chee,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Queen of the Night as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Recommended by The Observer . . .

'One doesn't so much read it, as one is bewitched by it. Epic, gorgeous, haunting' HANYA YANAGIHARA, author of A Little Life

When it begins, it begins as an opera should begin: in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger, who you discover has your fate in his hands . . .

She is Lilliet Berne. And she is the soprano.

1882. One warm autumn evening in Paris, Lilliet is finally offered an original role, though it comes at a price. The part is based on her deepest secret.…


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke,

Book cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Why this book?

This book is one of my Top 5 favorite books of all time, and it combines the best parts of historical fiction and fantasy better than anything else I’ve ever read. This sprawling adventure of two Victorian English magicians goes everywhere, from the army of the Duke of Wellington to the dark Faerie kingdom. It’s funny, moving, exciting, and hands-down has my favorite use of footnotes ever. Admittedly, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a doorstop—my paperback is just over 1,000 pages—but if you’re looking for a chatty, exciting companion to spend a few weeks with, I can’t recommend it enough. (Message me when you’re done. I always want to talk about this book.)

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke,

Why should I read it?

18 authors picked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation's past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of…


Under the Pendulum Sun

By Jeannette Ng,

Book cover of Under the Pendulum Sun

Why this book?

Mysterious victorian missionaries with dark secrets in the land of the fae. I truly do not know how to sell this book any better. I tend to recommend gothic literature for historical fiction newbies, since the emotional stakes are always so high and the plots often bend close to horror or fantasy, and this one is no different. The worldbuilding is spectacular, and it plays on the tropes of classic gothic novels in a way that’s knowing, clever, and never dry or stilted. No wonder Ng won the Hugo for best new author when she released this book—it deserves it.

Under the Pendulum Sun

By Jeannette Ng,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Under the Pendulum Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Jeannette Ng brings a stunningly different Victorian fantasy that mixes Crimson Peak with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Victorian missionaries travel into the heart of the newly discovered lands of the Fae, in a stunningly different fantasy that mixes Crimson Peak with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Catherine Helstone's brother, Laon, has disappeared in Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae. Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in romantic love, castles, and magicians?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about romantic love, castles, and magicians.

Romantic Love Explore 506 books about romantic love
Castles Explore 31 books about castles
Magicians Explore 25 books about magicians

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like H Is for Hawk, The Lord of the Rings, and The Road if you like this list.