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

The Books I Picked & Why

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!

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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. 

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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