18 Historical Fiction Novels for Readers Looking for a Challenge

Posted on August 7, 2017 by

It’s always a thrill to immerse ourselves in different time periods and learn the mannerisms and happenings of those before us. But if you’re looking for something a little bit more layered, a historical puzzle that requires some thoughtful navigating to get to the final piece, then we’ve got you covered. Here are some of 2017’s best historical novels that push the boundaries of knowledge and curiosity and are excellent fodder for book club discussions. Publishers’s descriptions included below.

 

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon—and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.

Told from the perspective of both Daniel—as he grows into a directionless young man—and Polly, Ko’s novel gives us one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heartwrenching choice after another.

Why it’s a challenge: An award-winning debut novel that offers insight on the trials and tribulations of illegal immigrants, The Leavers dives into themes of social justice and identity as a boy who was separated from his mother is forced to find a sense of belonging away from everything he’s ever known.

 

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth…no matter where it leads.

Why it’s a challenge: A captivating and evocative look into World War I’s Alice Network, this eponymous book showcases the tremendously brave contribution of women in the war and unrelenting fight to find the truth regardless of their sacrifices.

 

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

Jane Grey was queen of England for nine days. Her father and his allies crowned her instead of the dead king’s half sister Mary Tudor, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her throne, and locked Jane in the Tower of London. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block, where Jane transformed her father’s greedy power grab into tragic martyrdom.

“Learn you to die,” was the advice Jane wrote to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and fall in love. But she is heir to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and then to her half sister, Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a Tudor son. When Katherine’s pregnancy betrays her secret marriage, she faces imprisonment in the Tower, only yards from her sister’s scaffold.

“Farewell, my sister,” writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary keeps family secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After seeing her sisters defy their queens, Mary is acutely aware of her own danger but determined to command her own life. What will happen when the last Tudor defies her ruthless and unforgiving Queen Elizabeth?

Why it’s a challenge: In her latest novel, Gregory revisits the scandalous history of the Tudor dynasty and navigates the complexities of the Grey sisters’ relationships.

 

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Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

In a journey shrouded in mystery and intrigue, Sir John Franklin’s 1845 campaign in search of the Northwest Passage ended in tragedy. All 129 men were lost to the ice, and nothing from the expedition was retrieved, including two rare and valuable Greenwich chronometers. When one of the chronometers appears a century and a half later in London, in pristine condition and crudely disguised as a Victorian carriage clock, new questions arise about what really happened on that expedition–and the fates of the men involved.

When Nelson Nilsson, an aimless drifter from Alberta, finds himself in Canada’s Northern Territories in search of his brother, he meets Fay Morgan by chance. Fay has just arrived from London, hoping to find answers to her burning questions about her past. When they discover that their questions about their pasts and present are inextricably linked, the two will become unlikely partners as they unravel a mystery that traverses continents and centuries.

In a narrative that crosses time and space, O’Loughlin delves deep into the history of Franklin’s expedition through the eyes of the explorers themselves, addressing questions that have intrigued historians and readers for centuries. What motivated these men to strike out on dangerous campaigns in search of the unknown? What was at stake for them, and for those they left behind? And when things went wrong–things that couldn’t be shared–what would they do to protect themselves and their discoveries?

Why it’s a challenge: Longlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, Minds of Winter melds adventure with mystery as it explores the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition.

 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.

In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.

After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.

Why it’s a challenge: Lauded for her lyrical writing, See crafts a poignant and cross-generational story that emphasizes the unbreakable bond of family and takes a look at a mother and daughter who are divided by distance and culture.

 

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

In October 1947, after a summer long drought, fires break out all along the Maine coast from Bar Harbor to Kittery and are soon racing out of control from town to village. Five months pregnant, Grace Holland is left alone to protect her two toddlers when her husband, Gene, joins the volunteer firefighters. Along with her best friend, Rosie, and Rosie’s two young children, Grace watches helplessly as their houses burn to the ground, the flames finally forcing them all into the ocean as a last resort. The women spend the night frantically protecting their children, and in the morning find their lives forever changed: homeless, penniless, awaiting news of their husbands’ fate, and left to face an uncertain future in a town that no longer exists. In the midst of this devastating loss, Grace discovers glorious new freedoms–joys and triumphs she could never have expected her narrow life with Gene could contain–and her spirit soars. And then the unthinkable happens–and Grace’s bravery is tested as never before.

Why it’s a challenge: The Stars Are Fire follows one woman as she fights to protect and provide for her children after years of solely depending on her husband.

 

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel, and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia’s brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world he can’t escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia’s children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities.

Why it’s a challenge: A debut novel that resonates in today’s political climate, Salt Houses is a deeply profound story that explores the impact of war on civilians, the nuances of cultural assimilation, and the heartbreaking truth of being forced to make a new home.

 

Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton

A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.

Pregnant, left behind by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a home for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overtakes her heart. Mothers in her position face disabling prejudice, which is why most give up their newborns. But Lilli can’t accept such an outcome. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep herself and her baby alive.

Confiding their story to her diary as it unfolds, Lilli takes readers from an impoverished charity to a wealthy family’s home to the streets of a burgeoning American city. Drawing on rich history, Lilli de Jong is both an intimate portrait of loves lost and found and a testament to the work of mothers. “So little is permissible for a woman,” writes Lilli, “yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”

Why it’s a challenge: Lilli de Jong is a brave tale about the power of motherhood, and the courage to fight for one’s beliefs and loved ones even in the face of hardship.

 

Isadora by Amelia Gray

In 1913, the restless world sat on the brink of unimaginable suffering. But for one woman, the darkness of a new era had already made itself at home. Isadora Duncan would come to be known as the mother of modern dance, but in the spring of 1913 she was a grieving mother, after a freak accident in Paris resulted in the drowning death of her two young children.

The accident cracked Isadora’s life in two: on one side, the brilliant young talent who captivated audiences the world over; on the other, a heartbroken mother spinning dangerously on the edge of sanity.

Isadora is a shocking and visceral portrait of an artist and woman drawn to the brink of destruction by the cruelty of life. In her breakout novel, Amelia Gray offers a relentless portrayal of a legendary artist churning through prewar Europe. Isadora seeks to obliterate the mannered portrait of a dancer and to introduce the reader to a woman who lived and loved without limits, even in the darkest days of her life.

Why it’s a challenge: A complex and heartbreaking story that examines how one iconic figure is forced to grapple with her two identities — one as an artist and the other as a grieving mother.

 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge–until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents–but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or to redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals–in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country–Lisa Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.

Why it’s a challenge: Based on a true story, Before We Were Yours emphasizes the power of family in the midst of injustice and offers hope that the truth will always come out.

 

The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling

In turn-of-the-century South Africa, fourteen-year-old Lettie, her younger brother, and her mother are Dutch Afrikaner settlers who have been taken from their farm by British soldiers and are being held in a concentration camp. It is early in the Boer War, and Lettie’s father, grandfather, and brother are off fighting the British as thousands of Afrikaner women and children are detained. The camps are cramped and disease ridden; the threat of illness and starvation are ever present. Determined to dictate their own fate, Lettie and her family give each other strength and hope as they fight to survive amid increasingly dire conditions.

Brave and defiant, Lettie finds comfort in memories of stargazing with her grandfather, in her plan to be a writer, and in surprising new friendships that will both nourish and challenge her. A beautiful testament to love, family, and sheer force of will, The Lost History of Stars was inspired by Dave Boling’s grandfather’s own experience as a soldier during the Boer War. Lettie is a figure of abiding grace, and her story is richly drawn and impossible to forget.

Why it’s a challenge: The Lost History of Stars is a rich story of resilience and strong willpower to survive in the face of travesty and the unbreakable bond of family that drives it.

 

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.

As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.”

Why it’s a challenge: The Weight of Ink is an enthralling novel that follows the lives of two women divided by centuries but united in their resistance against social injustice.

 

The Diplomat’s Daughter by Karin Tanabe

During the turbulent months following the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, twenty-one-year-old Emi Kato, the daughter of a Japanese diplomat, is locked behind barbed wire in a Texas internment camp. She feels hopeless until she meets handsome young Christian Lange, whose German-born parents were wrongfully arrested for un-American activities. Together, they live as prisoners with thousands of other German and Japanese families, but discover that love can bloom in even the bleakest circumstances.

When Emi and her mother are abruptly sent back to Japan, Christian enlists in the United States Army, with his sights set on the Pacific front—and, he hopes, a reunion with Emi—unaware that her first love, Leo Hartmann, the son of wealthy of Austrian parents and now a Jewish refugee in Shanghai, may still have her heart.

Fearful of bombings in Tokyo, Emi’s parents send her to a remote resort town in the mountains, where many in the foreign community have fled. Cut off from her family, struggling with growing depression and hunger, Emi repeatedly risks her life to help keep her community safe—all while wondering if the two men she loves are still alive.

As Christian Lange struggles to adapt to life as a soldier, his unit pushes its way from the South Pacific to Okinawa, where one of the bloodiest battles of World War II awaits them. Meanwhile, in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, as Leo fights to survive the squalor of the Jewish ghetto, a surprise confrontation with a Nazi officer threatens his life. For each man, Emi Kato is never far from their minds.

Why it’s a challenge: The Diplomat’s Daughter is a deeply engaging and timeless story of three people clinging onto love and demonstrating acts of bravery amidst the cruelty and heartbreak of war.

 

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell―of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Why it’s a challenge: A terrifying yet fascinating debut, See What I Have Done sheds new light on Andrew and Abby Borden’s 1892 murders, forcing readers to live vicariously through the characters and question what they may have initially considered to be the truth.

 

The Address by Fiona Davis

After a failed apprenticeship, working her way up to head housekeeper of a posh London hotel is more than Sara Smythe ever thought she’d make of herself. But when a chance encounter with Theodore Camden, one of the architects of the grand New York apartment house The Dakota, leads to a job offer, her world is suddenly awash in possibility—no mean feat for a servant in 1884. The opportunity to move to America, where a person can rise above one’s station. The opportunity to be the female manager of The Dakota, which promises to be the greatest apartment house in the world. And the opportunity to see more of Theo, who understands Sara like no one else…and is living in The Dakota with his wife and three young children.

In 1985, Bailey Camden is desperate for new opportunities. Fresh out of rehab, the former party girl and interior designer is homeless, jobless, and penniless. Two generations ago, Bailey’s grandfather was the ward of famed architect Theodore Camden. But the absence of a genetic connection means Bailey won’t see a dime of the Camden family’s substantial estate. Instead, her “cousin” Melinda—Camden’s biological great-granddaughter—will inherit almost everything. So when Melinda offers to let Bailey oversee the renovation of her lavish Dakota apartment, Bailey jumps at the chance, despite her dislike of Melinda’s vision. The renovation will take away all the character and history of the apartment Theodore Camden himself lived in…and died in, after suffering multiple stab wounds by a madwoman named Sara Smythe, a former Dakota employee who had previously spent seven months in an insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

One hundred years apart, Sara and Bailey are both tempted by and struggle against the golden excess of their respective ages—for Sara, the opulence of a world ruled by the Astors and Vanderbilts; for Bailey, the free-flowing drinks and cocaine in the nightclubs of New York City—and take refuge and solace in the Upper West Side’s gilded fortress. But a building with a history as rich—and often tragic—as The Dakota’s can’t hold its secrets forever, and what Bailey discovers in its basement could turn everything she thought she knew about Theodore Camden—and the woman who killed him—on its head.

Why it’s a challenge: An rich and multifaceted read, The Address weaves in and out of two centuries and unravels the secrets, scandal, and complexities behind the walls of The Dakota.

 

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. This new novel from the award-winning author of the Booker Prize short-listed The Dark Room tells of the three days that follow and the lives that are overturned in the process.

Penned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of deportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak.

Come in search of her lover, to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia must confront new and harsh truths about those closest to her.

Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to.

And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy determined to survive this. But to do so, he must throw in his lot with strangers.

As their stories mesh, each of Rachel Seiffert’s characters comes to know the compromises demanded by survival, the oppressive power of fear, and the possibility of courage in the face of terror.

Why it’s a challenge: A poignant story set during the Holocaust, A Boy in Winter chronicles the lives of people who find themselves in different predicaments but connected by hope.

 

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann

Distant, silent, often drunk, Walter Urban is a difficult man to have as a father. But his son―the narrator of this slim, harrowing novel―is curious about Walter’s experiences during World War II, and so makes him a present of a blank notebook in which to write down his memories. Walter dies, however, leaving nothing but the barest skeleton of a story on those pages, leading his son to fill in the gaps himself, rightly or wrongly, with what he can piece together of his father’s early life.

This, then, is the story of Walter and his dangerously outspoken friend Friedrich Caroli, seventeen-year-old trainee milkers on a dairy farm in northern Germany who are tricked into volunteering for the army during the spring of 1945: the last, and in many ways the worst, months of the war. The men are driven to the point of madness by what they experience, and when Friedrich finally deserts his post, Walter is forced to do the unthinkable.

Why it’s a challenge: To Die in Spring is an emotionally searing and gritty account of the final months of World War II from the German perspective.

 

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott

On a dim winter afternoon, a young Irish immigrant opens the gas taps in his Brooklyn tenement. He is determined to prove―to the subway bosses who have recently fired him, to his badgering, pregnant wife―“that the hours of his life belong to himself alone.” In the aftermath of the fire that follows, Sister St. Savior, an aging nun, appears, unbidden, to direct the way forward for his widow and his unborn child.

We begin deep inside Catholic Brooklyn, in the early part of the twentieth century. Decorum, superstition, and shame collude to erase the man’s brief existence. Yet his suicide, although never spoken of, reverberates through many lives and over the decades―testing the limits and the demands of love and sacrifice, of forgiveness and forgetfulness, even through multiple generations.

The characters we meet, from Sally, the unborn baby at the beginning of the novel, who becomes the center of the story, to the nuns whose personalities we come to know and love, to the neighborhood families with whose lives they are entwined, are all rendered with extraordinary sympathy and McDermott’s trademark lucidity and intelligence.

Why it’s a challenge: The Ninth Hour is a complex and stunning portrait of Irish-Catholic American life, intertwining the lives of a widow and her unborn child with those of their neighbors and the nuns who save them.

Which books are you planning to read? Tell us in the comments!

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