The best historical fiction with unforgettable characters who stay with you long after you finish reading

Emma Lombard Author Of Discerning Grace
By Emma Lombard

Who am I?

I’ve been described as ‘the Energizer bunny,’ so it’s no surprise that I’m drawn to colorful and passionate fictional characters—especially historical ones who have not only life’s circumstances to deal with but societal limitations too. My personality is such that if I’m told I can’t achieve something, I grit my teeth and say, ‘Watch me!’ So, it’s only natural that I draw on this sheer bloody-mindedness to breathe life into my own historical fiction ensembles. Creating characters who are as limp as wet lettuces is one of my biggest challenges. I want everyone to have gumption, but I also understand that good balance in a story is important.


I wrote...

Discerning Grace

By Emma Lombard,

Book cover of Discerning Grace

What is my book about?

If Bridgerton and Pirates of the Caribbean had a love child.

Society life is stifling enough for Grace Baxter without worrying about finding true love or happiness. Enlisting with the Royal Navy, disguised as a lad, she is tossed into a watery world where mother nature is not the only threat to her life. Brazenly, she holds her own against a ship full of sailors—until her loud mouth lands her bare-bottomed over a cannon for insubordination. A romantic adventure where icy winter storms, opportunistic mercenaries, uncharted lands, and a colorful crew of sailors are all lashed together by an epic love story.

The books I picked & why

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The Burning Shore

By Wilbur Smith,

Book cover of The Burning Shore

Why this book?

With immersive descriptions of lush French landscapes against the backdrop of WWI to skin-blistering scenes in the African Kalahari Desert, the settings are characters themselves. Smith’s writing is like a love letter to the Africa of yesteryear.

What follows is a tale of all-consuming love, wincing brutality, and Smith’s signature romanticized adventure. Centaine de Thiry—my first literary heroine. She survives incredible odds against mother nature, but also holds her own in the even harsher world designed by men. She is also perfectly flawed. Her misjudgment even makes me, her greatest admirer, gasp and do a double take—every read.

And don’t even get me started on that narrow-minded, scheming wretch, Manfred de la Ray!

Romantic adventure at its finest!

The Burning Shore

By Wilbur Smith,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Centaine screamed and drove the point of her stave down into the jaws with all her strength. She felt the sharpened end bite into the soft pink mucous membrane in the back of its throat, saw the spurt of scarlet blood, and then the lion locked its jaws on the stave and with a toss of its flying mane ripped it out of her hands and sent it windmilling out and down to hit the earth below.'

The passionate love of a beautiful French aristocrat for a courageous South African aviator is begun and extinguished in the blazing skies of…


The Power of One

By Bryce Courtenay,

Book cover of The Power of One

Why this book?

This is the first novel that ever made me blubber hot, soul-wrenching tears. Little Peekay, the scrappy underdog, survives bullies at boarding school (horrors based on the author’s experiences) by befriending a rooster, Granpa Chook. Oh, how I love that chicken for saving Peekay’s sanity!

Despite being wrenched from his nanny’s loving arms as a 5-year-old and sent to boarding school, Peekay attracts an eclectic extended family who molds him through his foundational years into a formidable boxer. One character I’ve never forgiven is Doc. He had the power, wealth, and status to take Peekay under his wing instead of sending him to boarding school.

Then again, had Doc done that in the opening chapters, this profound and heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale set in 1930s Apartheid South Africa would not exist.

The Power of One

By Bryce Courtenay,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Power of One as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“The Power of One has everything: suspense, the exotic, violence; mysticism, psychology and magic; schoolboy adventures, drama.”
–The New York Times

“Unabashedly uplifting . . . asserts forcefully what all of us would like to believe: that the individual, armed with the spirit of independence–‘the power of one’–can prevail.”
–Cleveland Plain Dealer

In 1939, as Hitler casts his enormous, cruel shadow across the world, the seeds of apartheid take root in South Africa. There, a boy called Peekay is born. His childhood is marked by humiliation and abandonment, yet he vows to survive and conceives heroic dreams–which are nothing compared…

Once

By Morris Gleitzman,

Book cover of Once

Why this book?

Felix and Zelda have the purest, most joyful, and endearing childhood friendship… set against a horrific time in human history, the Holocaust.

I read this series out aloud to my boys (ages 9 to 12). I wanted to let them learn the history in a way that was age appropriate. Gleitzman delivers spectacularly!

This book doesn’t gloss over anything. It’s all there on the page to interpret. The children in the story are sometimes naively unaware of what some of their observations and experiences mean, making it so powerful to read as an adult—and a great conversation starter for kids.

Felix’s positive thinking and quick wit, used to deflect even the most atrocious characters, were the biggest takeaways for us as a family.

Once

By Morris Gleitzman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

My name is Felix. This is my story.

Felix has been living in an orphanage for three years and eight months when the men in armbands arrive to burn the books.

Going on the run in search of his parents, Felix soon learns that Poland in 1942 is not a safe place for Jewish boys. But can his gift for storytelling keep him one step ahead of the Nazis and help him find his parents?

After all, everybody deserves to have something good in their life at least once.

'Morris Gleitzman has a rare gift for writing very funny stories…


Outlander

By Diana Gabaldon,

Book cover of Outlander

Why this book?

There’s a reason my Instagram profile says, ‘Mentally married to Jamie Fraser.’ ‘Cause it’s true!

Yes, he’s a fictional character. Yes, he’s a man written by a woman author. But neither matters when you escape into Jamie’s words—his declarations of fealty to his clan, his hatred for Black Jack Randall (boo, hiss), or his unflinching love of, Claire, his wife.

Gabaldon has created a mighty and fierce Scottish warrior who is intelligent, articulate, and oh so amazingly passionate! *waves fan frantically before face*

If I had to sum Jamie Fraser up in one word, it would be: loyal. 

Now, if only Claire would bugger off back through the stones and leave us be…

Outlander

By Diana Gabaldon,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked Outlander as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The first book in Diana Gabaldon’s acclaimed Outlander saga, the basis for the Starz original series.

One of the top ten best-loved novels in America, as seen on PBS’s The Great American Read!
 
Unrivaled storytelling. Unforgettable characters. Rich historical detail. These are the hallmarks of Diana Gabaldon’s work. Her New York Times bestselling Outlander novels have earned the praise of critics and captured the hearts of millions of fans. Here is the story that started it all, introducing two remarkable characters, Claire Beauchamp Randall and Jamie Fraser, in a spellbinding novel of passion and…

The Bronze Horseman

By Paullina Simons,

Book cover of The Bronze Horseman

Why this book?

A toast to Tatiana and Alexander! *throws back a shot of vodka*

Compounded by Simons’ exquisitely detailed storytelling, which waxes lyrical about the siege of Leningrad during the summer of 1941, these lovebirds from The Bronze Horseman sit high on my list of unforgettable historical fiction characters.

The superb languor of Alexander’s courtship with Tatiana during a time of terrible hardship helped me overlook both of their faults, and become wholly invested in them as a couple.

He is unrelenting in his desire to take care of Tatiana and her family, and while she is young and at times incredibly naïve, she is also brilliantly resilient.

The character I love to hate: Dasha. Ugh! How can a sister be so cruel?

Boy, did my emotions run the gauntlet with this one!

The Bronze Horseman

By Paullina Simons,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Bronze Horseman as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A magnificent epic of love, war and Russia from the international bestselling author of TULLY and ROAD TO PARADISE

Leningrad 1941: the white nights of summer illuminate a city of fallen grandeur whose palaces and avenues speak of a different age, when Leningrad was known as St Petersburg.

Two sisters, Tatiana and Dasha, share the same bed, living in one room with their brother and parents.

The routine of their hard impoverished life is shattered on 22 June 1941 when Hitler invades Russia. For the Metanov family, for Leningrad and particularly for Tatiana, life will never be the same again.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in South Africa, survival, and the Siege of Leningrad?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about South Africa, survival, and the Siege of Leningrad.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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