10 Historical Novels For When You Wish You Could Travel Back In Time

By Meghan Dillon
·  11 min read
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There’s nothing like reading in the summer, and sometimes we just want to be transported back in time.

While we can’t actually time-travel, there are plenty of historical fiction novels for when we feel like being transported back in time. From Henry VIII’s England to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, all 10 of these books tell the story of amazing women (some real and some fictional) throughout history. 

1. When We Left Cuba, by Chanel Cleeton

Beatriz Perez is angry with the world, and she has every right to be. Exiled from her home in Havana with her family due to the Cuban Revolution, she struggles to adjust to her new life in Palm Beach while mourning her old life. Both beautiful and smart as a whip, she’s recruited by the CIA to take down Fidel Castro and the communist regime. However, things get complicated when she falls hopelessly in love with a powerful man.

I felt every emotion imaginable while reading this book. I laughed, cried, smiled, and swooned alongside Beatriz through every page, making her one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. The book also covers important historical events like the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Kennedy Assassination. Though I knew the outcome of these events, I still found myself on the edge of my seat as Beatriz lived through them. Equal parts spy novel, coming of age story, and romance, you won’t be able to put this one down. Get your copy here.

2. The Riviera House, by Natasha Lester

This dual-timeline novel follows the stories of two women: Eliane Dufort and Remy Lang. In wartime France, Eliane’s world is turned upside down when the Nazis take over Paris. Heartbroken over the loss of her former life and the betrayal of the man she thought she’d marry one day, she channels her grief into action. She uses her knowledge of the German language to spy on the Nazis smuggling art from the Louvre, and uses her love and knowledge of art to help protect and preserve priceless works of art from the Nazis. Just when she thinks her life couldn’t get any more dangerous, a trip to the French Riviera changes everything.

In present-day France, Remy escapes to a house she inherited on the French Riviera to mourn the tragedy that has turned her life upside down. After discovering a catalog of art stolen from World War II containing the painting she inherited from her parents before they died, she goes on a life-changing journey to find the truth about where she comes from.

Words can’t explain how much I adored this book. This powerful and heartbreaking novel paints the horrors of the daily lives of Parisians in Nazi-occupied France, giving a whole new meaning to the concepts of bravery and courage. Get your copy here.

3. The Last Grand Duchess, by Bryn Turnbill

This novel tells a fictionalized version of the life of Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna Romanova of Russia, the eldest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. From her posh yet sheltered life as a Grand Duchess before World War I breaks out to her life in captivity before her untimely murder, The Last Grand Duchess perfectly tells the story of the last five years in Olga’s short yet eventful life. Readers watch her fall in love, struggle with her relationship with her sisters and mother, her life as a wartime nurse, her complicated relationship with the infamous Grigori Rasputin, and the dark days of her time held captive in Siberia. Whether you’re a die-hard Romanov aficionado (me, of course) or know nothing of her life other than what you’ve seen in movies, this book has something for everyone in it.

Though readers know how Olga’s life was tragically cut short (not exactly a spoiler because it’s a historical event that changed the course of the twentieth century), I was in awe while reading so many historical events through Olga’s eyes and couldn’t help but wonder what would have become of her if she hadn’t met such a horrific fate. Get your copy here.

4. The Secrets We Kept, by Lara Prescott

This gripping dual-timeline novel tells a fictionalized version of the publishing of Doctor Zhivago. Half of the novel takes place in Washington D.C. in the late 1950s, following a young Russian-American typist named Irina Drozdova. Her Russian heritage and knowledge of the language catch the attention of the CIA, making her the perfect candidate to help smuggle Doctor Zhivago into the United States. She’s mentored by veteran spy Sally Forrester, and both women face a harrowing journey and question everything they know during their mission.

The other half takes place in post-World War II Moscow and follows Olga Ivinskaya, the mistress and muse of Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak. Olga risks her safety, time in a gulag, and even death by protecting the man she loves in hopes that his novel will change the world. Even if you haven’t read or seen the movie version of Doctor Zhivago (10/10 recommend, it’s the best), you’ll enjoy this beautiful novel about the power of love and literature. Get your copy here.

5. The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

This bestseller tells the story of two different yet equally brave sisters navigating the horrors of Nazi-occupied France throughout the tenure of World War II. Vianne Mauriac feels helpless since her husband was captured and the Nazis took over her village. With the enemy around the corner 24/7, she has to watch her every move. She discovers how brave and strong she truly is when, throughout the Occupation, her main motivation becomes to protect her daughter, even if she has to make horrific decisions to stay alive.

Vianne’s teenage sister Isabelle Rossignol is fearless in every sense of the word. She joins the French Resistance after falling for a man in a partisan group, risking her life daily to save fellow French citizens and Allied soldiers from the Nazis. Though both sisters deal with the war in different ways, both paint a beautiful and heartbreaking tapestry of how French women struggled to survive on the homefront in World War II.

This is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read and my favorite on this list. I’d recommend it to anyone for its haunting portrait of love and war. Get your copy here.

6. The Borgia Confessions, by Alyssa Palombo

This book will take you all the way back to 15-century Rome, and it’s quite a ride. This romance is told through the perspectives of both leads, Cesare Borgia and the fictional Maddalena Moretti. Cesare Borgia wants nothing more than to live out his life in the military, but the coronation of his father, Pope Alexander VI, forces him to become a cardinal and live a life in the Church. However, his life is far from holy and is filled with debauchery until Maddelena comes into his life.

When Maddelena Moretti becomes a personal maid to Lucrezia Borgia, daughter to Pope Alexander VI, she gets a glimpse into the world of one of the most powerful families of the Italian Renaissance. Things get difficult for Maddelena when she falls for Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare, forcing her to question her Catholic beliefs and making her a convenient pawn of the Pope’s greatest enemies.

I knew I would love this book because I loved the Showtime series The Borgias when it first came out in the early 2010s, but I really enjoyed the beautifully written romance with dark political undertones. Get your copy here.

7. The Social Graces, by Renée Rosen

Based on the real-life rivalry of Gilded Age socialites Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt, this novel gives readers a peek into their glamorous yet complicated lives. Caroline Astor rules New York society with an iron fist. She hosts the most exclusive parties and is the matriarch of one of New York’s most powerful families, and she detests nothing more than the nouveau riche.

Alva Vanderbilt is the epitome of New Money. Because her family lost their fortune in the Civil War, she was determined to succeed after marrying into the Vanderbilt family. Shunned by Caroline Astor due to her nouveau-riche status, Alva will do whatever it takes to make a name for herself and her family in New York society.

The novel follows both women over 30 years, showing the ups and downs of their glamorous lives. From troubles with their daughters to loveless marriages, Caroline and Alva have much more in common than they think, but there can only be one queen of New York society. This novel often feels like the Gilded Age version of beloved shows like Gossip Girl and The Real Housewives of New York City. Get your copy here.

8. Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, by Alison Weir

The life of Katherine of Aragon is one of both courage and tragedy, and Alison Weir perfectly illustrates one of the strongest women in history through this fictionalized version of her life. The novel begins with a teenage Katherine arriving in England to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, and follows her until her death in 1536. Even though many of us already know the bare facts of her story, readers get a glimpse into Katherine’s eventful life and what made her the courageous and passionate woman that we know and love today.

My favorite part of this novel is that, even though it tells the entire story of her relationship and marriage to Henry VIII, it’s still Katherine’s story. It details her friendships with ladies in waiting, her devotion to the Catholic Church, her intense love for her daughter, her struggles with miscarriages and stillbirths, and the complexities of her infamous marriage. While it’s impossible to divorce her (pun intended) legacy from Henry VIII, this novel proves that Katherine was one of the brilliant women of the 16th century. Get your copy here.

9. The Huntress, by Kate Quinn

Craving adventure in her remote Siberian village, Nina Markova joins the Night Witches, an all-female group of deadly Soviet fighter pilots, yet her claim to fame is being the lone survivor of The Huntress, a deadly female Nazi assassin. 

Nazi hunter Ian Graham is haunted by the one Nazi he can’t catch, the woman responsible for his brother’s murder, The Huntress. Ian’s only hope of avenging his brother’s death is bringing the Huntress to justice, and the only person who can help him is the elusive Nina Markova. 

Jordan McBride is an average American teenager and aspiring photographer in post-war Boston, but her life changes when her father brings home his new bride, a young German widow named Anneliese. Though she adores her at first, she can’t help but feel like her new stepmother is hiding something.

All three stories collide in this thrilling historical fiction novel. Both the plot and the loveable characters made this book impossible to put down – it’s the perfect book for someone who is a beginner in the historical fiction genre. Get your copy here.

10. The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory isn’t famous for historical accuracy in her novels, but they’re so much fun to read. The Other Boleyn Girl is possibly her most famous novel, and it tells the story of sisters Mary and Anne Boleyn and how they both fought for the affection of Henry VIII. Told from the lesser-known perspective of Mary, the book details her affair with Henry before his lust and affection for Anne took over his life. It’s fascinating to read about Mary through Anne’s perspective, as she both adores her and knows her flaws all too well.

The novel shows how Henry’s lust for Anne drove him to break from the Catholic Church to divorce Katherine of Aragon, only to dispose of Anne once he realized she wouldn’t provide him with the son he desired with all of his heart. I’ll always love reading the scandalous rise and fall of Anne Boleyn from Mary’s perspective, making this a historical novel I find myself rereading every few years. Get your copy here.

Closing Thoughts

From 15-century Rome to Cold War-era Moscow, all of these books will take you back in time with a compelling story. Be sure to add these to your summer reading list and report back with our custom reading log about which novel was your favorite.

Love to read? Check out our other recommended reading lists: summer reads and the classics.

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