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Must-read historical fiction based on true events

When people think of historical fiction based on true events, they probably jump straight to WW2, which is understandable – this has become an increasingly popular sub-genre in the last few years and regularly features on this blog and BB’s Instagram feed.

But as much as we can learn from WW2 books, there are plenty more areas of history waiting to be explored. This list contains some of our favourite (and underrated) WW2 books, as well as some other incredible fiction books based on true events.

Spotlight recommendation

For historical fiction based on true events, our spotlight recommendation is:

The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn

Genre: Historical fiction based on a group of Australian & British WW2 servicewomen

Based on true events, The Last Reunion centres around a group of women who run a mobile canteen in the Burma war. Fast forward nearly 60 years and the women reunite on New Year’s Eve, where secrets spill and long-ago friendships face the ultimate test.

This novel is incredibly constructed and very well researched, covering a geographical area rarely touched on in WW2 fiction and aptly named ‘the forgotten war.’ It is enthralling and captivating, spanning decades and countries fronted by female-driven narratives.

More historical fiction based on true events to add to your TBR

Here are some of the best historical fiction books based on true stories, including the 1627 Barbary pirate raids in Iceland, the 1918 Spanish flu, and the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.

historical fiction set in 16th century england

Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

Genre: Historical fantasy fiction set in 16th-century England

After being caught stealing a loaf of bread, May is sentenced to become a sin eater, where she listens to the dying confess their sins and absolves them after death, consuming each sin which is represented by a different food. When a non-confessed food is revealed on the Queen’s governess’ coffin, May is suspicious, aware that something is happening in the underbelly of the castle and is determined to solve the mystery. But at what price?

Sin eating is a popular theme in folklore tales and was the inspiration behind this novel. It’s an interesting concept and one that Megan Campisi has woven into a complex and original story.

Read if you like: Coming-of-age stories, magical realism, and unexpected endings.

Historical fiction set in New York

The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis

Genre: Historical fiction set in New York in 1919 and 1966

1919: After fleeing the scene of a scandal, Lillian seeks refuge in an old home and unwittingly finds herself interviewing for the role of secretary. It’s a far cry from her usual work as an artist’s model, with her figure portrayed in iconic statues across the city, including the Frick residence, where she accepts the job and begins working under the domineering Helen Frick. Though the job at first saves her, she soon becomes privy to family secrets that, if revealed, could cost Lillian her life.

1966: A once-in-a-lifetime fashion shoot brings Veronica from England to the former Frick mansion, now an esteemed museum. There, she meets art enthusiast, Joshua, and the two discover a hidden clue that could hold the answer to long-buried secrets, including an infamous murder.

Taking past events and true facts, Fiona Davis has created a fictional tale around the anonymous New York model who, by mere chance, got caught up in her neighbour’s murder and the wealthy Frick family, overseen by cruel and cunning Henry Clay Frick.

Read if you like: Dual timelines, family drama, and secret identities.

Historical fiction set in Dublin

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Genre: Historical fiction set during the Spanish flu pandemic in Dublin, 1918

The majority of The Pull of the Stars takes place in an understaffed hospital, where Nurse Julia is tasked with looking after the expectant mothers quarantined together in a tiny makeshift ward. With only a smattering of characters and a storyline that covers just three days, it is a raw and honest account of one woman’s fight to save mothers, babies, and staff from a ravaging and unstoppable disease.

Read if you like: slow burns, strong character building, and intense endings.

Note: there are no speech marks in the book and only four chapters which catches a lot of people off-guard.

WW2 historical fiction

People Like Us by Louise Fein

Genre: Historical fiction set in Leipzig, Germany in the 1930s

People Like Us sets itself apart from other books set during WW2 as the story is told from the eyes of Hetty, a girl whose father is a highly ranked SS Officer and who epitomises ‘the perfect German.’ The book paints a tragic love story between Hetty and Walter – a boy she loves but a boy who also goes against everything her family in the Nazi circle believe.

Read if you like: WW2 novels from a unique angle, events that leave you breathless, and heartbreaking endings.

historical fiction set during the great depression

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Genre: Historical fiction set in Texas during the Great Depression

Most would expect The Nightingale to be our Kristin Hannah book of choice for this list (which we still highly recommend) but we’re jumping further back in time with The Four Winds which is set during the dry and drought-ridden Dust Bowl. The way Kristin Hannah explores the Great Depression and the California ‘dream’ is nothing short of exceptional.

Read if you like: Immersive scenery descriptions, family sagas, and character transformations.

historical fiction set in iceland

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

Genre: Historical fiction retelling set in the early 1600s between Iceland and Algeria

Barbary pirates raided Iceland in 1627 and sold the captured Icelanders into slavery. Though the raid itself is well recorded, little is known about the futures of the women or children who were sent to Algiers.

The Sealwoman’s Gift is a rich retelling, layered with sagas and stories, and gives a voice to Icelandic women. Bursting with history, the book is refreshing and interesting, particularly if you’ve not read an Icelandic book before.

Read if you like: Icelandic/North African culture, descriptive settings, and powerful storytelling.

Historical fiction set in depression-era America

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Genre: Historical fiction set in Depression-era America

Most people know Jojo Moyes for her popular series, Me Before You; however, you’d be quite mistaken if you thought The Giver of Stars was anything like its rom-com predecessors. This book is based on the real-life story of the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky and is an epic tale friendship, justice, and bravery. And if you did love Me Before You, then you’ll be pleased to know that true love still plays a key role in the story.

Read if you like: Strong female leads, a solid narrator (audiobook), and interesting character backgrounds.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Genre: Historical fiction about the Blue People of Kentucky

There may be controversy surrounding this book and The Giver of Stars which share themes around the packhorse library, but the stories are entirely different. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is much more focused on the Blue People ancestry, exploring racism, acceptance, poverty, and vanity.

Read if you like: Wholesome characters, remote settings, and a Kentucky accent (for the audio lovers).

WW2 historical fiction based on true events

The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer

Genre: Historical Fiction set in Nazi-occupied Poland and modern-day America

The Things We Cannot Say is one of those stories that absolutely stands out among the sea of WW2 books. Alternating between present day America and occupied Poland, Kelly Rimmer brings two women’s stories together, uncovering secrets that have been buried for over half a century.

Read if you like: Intertwining narratives, gasp-worthy twists, and experiencing every emotion the body is capable of producing.

Historical fiction set in Belfast

The Zookeeper of Belfast by S. Kirk Walsh

Genre: Historical fiction set in Belfast during WW2

Based on a true story, The Zookeeper of Belfast centres around the city’s first ever female zookeeper who is tasked with looking after the zoo’s latest recruit – a baby elephant – as bombers continue to target the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Read if you like: WW2 books from a unique perspective, uplifting narratives, and human-animal friendships.

Don’t forget to check out this WW2 book list if you want to add even more options to your overflowing TBR. Let us know which book(s) you choose and be sure to tag us in your reviews so we can read your thoughts!

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