It is a truth now universally acknowledged that historical fiction is having a bit of a moment, especially in the domain of the type of books that are often referred to as literary fiction. I have always been a sucker for narratives set in the past and have thought long and hard about what makes them so appealing, especially in times when the world around you seems to be going up in flames. I have not been very good at reading books fresh off the press, though — I am usually drowning in my TBR pile full of backlist titles.
To shake things up a little, one of my reading goals last year had been to read at least some books published in 2023. I managed to read quite a few – owing in no small part to the amazing historical fiction that has been published this year. From new novels from heavyweights like Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith to some unbelievably inspiring debut novels, there was such a wide variety of stories to choose from. Here is some of the best historical fiction published in 2023 to whisk you off to different times and places and offer fresh perspectives on the present.
In Memorium by Alice Winn
This book is inspired by the stories of war poets like Siegfried Sassoon and the obituaries for former students of an English boarding school in the school paper that drives home the reality of teenagers dying horrific deaths on the battlefields of the First World War with heartbreaking clarity. At the heart of the novel is the love story between Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood that blossoms in the accepting, chaotic, and sometimes cruel womb of their boarding school. Their love is tested among the horrors of the battlefields and the aftermath of the war. It is beautifully written and vividly plotted, one of the best books I have ever read about the First World War.
Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue
This is another love story set in an English boarding school but between two young girls in the early 19th century. This book documents the early days of the relationship between Anne Lister (of Gentleman Jack fame) and Elizabeth Raine, a lonely, half-Indian child growing up without parents. It is a tender, honest, coming-of-age story of two ambitious, intelligent young women making space for themselves in a world that doesn’t understand them.
Neon Roses by Rachel Dawson
This book was pitched to me as the movie Pride but from the perspective of a lesbian woman from a Welsh mining family. I was immediately sold. The story starts with the miners’ strike of the 1980s, and it follows protagonist Eluned on a journey of self-discovery. This is a riotous celebration of queer joy, of the confusion and heady euphoria of growing into one’s skin and finding one’s feet in the world.
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer
I only recently came to know of the slow, complicated end of slavery in the British colonies in the Caribbean after the Slavery Abolition Act on an episode of the brilliant podcast Empire. Formerly enslaved people were turned into bonded laborers and were often relentlessly pursued if they escaped, in a manner not very different from before abolition. Eleanor Shearer’s debut novel follows Rachel, who runs away from her former master’s plantation after abolition, as she embarks on an epic journey to find her children who had been taken from her. It is a journey that takes her across Barbados, British Guiana, and Trinidad. This book is rooted in extensive research and illuminates a little-known aspect of the history of enslaved peoples. It is defiantly hopeful, incredibly atmospheric, and a beautiful tribute to human resilience, determination, love, and family.
The East Indian by Brinda Charry
This book follows a young Indian boy who finds himself sold into servitude in Virginia after being sent to London following the death of his mother. This is a fascinating adventure story full of rich historical detail about India, England, and America in the 17th century. It is an ode to the difficulties and uncertainties of the lives of those displaced by the forces of colonialism and greed.
The Fraud by Zadie Smith
This is a book that will dazzle its readers with its brilliance. The protagonist is a middle-aged widow, fiercely intelligent, unshakable in her ideas of justice, and only mildly bitter. Her observations about class, race, and morality in 19th century England, about the Tichborne trial referred to by the title, and about the various members of the Ainsworth household are immensely entertaining. Featuring razor-sharp wit, astute observations, flawlessly funny dialogues, and seamless prose, this is Zadie Smith at her best.
Victory City by Salman Rushdie
While some Salman Rushdie fans have compared his latest novel unfavourably with his earlier works, this is easily going to be one of the best books I read this year. In true Rushdie style, this book blends history with myths and magic to tell the story of a powerful young woman named Pampa Kampana. Pampa helps found the legendary city of Bisnaga, which is the Portuguese name for the medieval Indian kingdom of Vijayanagara. It is a stunningly imagined, smartly executed feminist fable that turns a unique lens to the region’s history and to the history of oppression and ostracization in general.
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
This is the first book I read by Jesmyn Ward, and she made me wonder anew at the power of words and story. Her prose is achingly beautiful as she talks about the life of an enslaved young woman called Annis, who is shuttled from one harrowing existence to another by the whims of those who own her. Reading this book is an incredibly immersive experience, and the reader is present with Annis at every step of her journey, intimately witnessing her loneliness, love, sorrow, grief, powerlessness, hope, and strength.
For more historical fiction recommendations, check out our historical fiction archives. If you are in the mood for more great books published this year, check out our picks for the best books of 2023 across genres.