The Must-Read Historical Fiction Books of Summer 2023

Books Lists Historical Fiction
The Must-Read Historical Fiction Books of Summer 2023

Summer is a time of escapism—whether that means a literal adventure in a new location, spending more time in the great outdoors, or just letting your mind wander alongside your nearest pool or beach. And what better time of year to mentally check out by diving into the world of a good book? 

We’ve already taken a look at some of the dozens of amazing titles heading our way in the realms of fantasy, horror, thrillers, and romance, but if you’re looking for a story to really transport you, we’ve got some great recs for historical fiction books that will transport you to another time in the coming months. 

From the tension of the Tudor-era and the decadent world of eighteenth-century Venice to a 1950s-era leprosarium and post-World War II Nantucket, there’s a trip back in time for everyone here. 


The King's Pleasure cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

The King’s Pleasure: A Novel of Henry VIII by Alison Weir 

Release Date: May 30 from Ballantine Books

Why We’re Excited: Technically, this book hit shelves at the end of May, but there’s no way we could do a summer historical fiction list without Alison Weir’s massive coda to her Six Wives series of novels, which takes on the brutal, extraordinary man who made their lives so memorable and miserable by turns. 

Publisher’s Description: Young Henry began his rule as a magnificent and chivalrous Renaissance prince who embodied every virtue. He had all the qualities to make a triumph of his kingship, yet we remember only the violence. Henry famously broke with the pope, founding the Church of England and launching a religious revolution that divided his kingdom. He beheaded two of his wives and cast aside two others. He died a suspicious, obese, disease-riddled tyrant, old before his time. His reign is remembered as one of dangerous intrigue and bloodshed—and yet the truth is far more complex.

An idealistic monarch who expanded Parliament founded the Royal Navy, modernized medical training, composed music and poetry, and patronized the arts. A passionate man in search of true love, he was stymied by the imperative to produce a male heir, as much a victim of circumstance as his unhappy wives. Had fate been kinder to him, the history of England would have been very different.


Lady Tan's Circle of Women cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

Release Date: June 6 from Scribner

Why We’re Excited: Lisa See’s latest historical novel highlights a fascinatingly rare female figure: Tan Yunxian, a practicing female physician from 15th century China who published a book of her cases that still eists today, titled Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor. And it’s a story that’s as much about the way communities of women have long relied on and lifted one another up as it is about the specifics of medicine. 

Publisher’s Description: According to Confucius, “an educated woman is a worthless woman,” but Tan Yunxian—born into an elite family, yet haunted by death, separations, and loneliness—is being raised by her grandparents to be of use. Her grandmother is one of only a handful of female doctors in China, and she teaches Yunxian the pillars of Chinese medicine, the Four Examinations—looking, listening, touching, and asking—something a man can never do with a female patient.

From a young age, Yunxian learns about women’s illnesses, many of which relate to childbearing, alongside a young midwife-in-training, Meiling. The two girls find fast friendship and a mutual purpose—despite the prohibition that a doctor should never touch blood while a midwife comes in frequent contact with it—and they vow to be forever friends, sharing in each other’s joys and struggles. No mud, no lotus, they tell themselves: from adversity beauty can bloom.

But when Yunxian is sent into an arranged marriage, her mother-in-law forbids her from seeing Meiling and from helping the women and girls in the household. Yunxian is to act like a proper wife—embroider bound-foot slippers, pluck instruments, recite poetry, give birth to sons, and stay forever within the walls of the family compound, the Garden of Fragrant Delights.

How might a woman like Yunxian break free of these traditions, go on to treat women and girls from every level of society, and lead a life of such importance that many of her remedies are still used five centuries later? How might the power of friendship support or complicate these efforts?


The House of Lincoln cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

The House of Lincoln by Nancy Horton

Release Date: June 6 from Sourcebooks Landmark

Why We’re Excited: Exploring the lives of Abraham Lincoln and his family through the eyes of a Portugese immigrant girl whose family settles in Springfield, Illinois is certainly a unique premise. 

Publisher’s Description: Showing intelligence beyond society’s expectations, fourteen-year-old Ana Ferreira is offered a job in the Lincoln household assisting Mary Lincoln with their boys and with the hosting duties borne by the wife of a rising political star. Ana bears witness to the evolution of Lincoln’s views on equality and the Union and observes in full complexity the psyche and pain of his bold, polarizing wife, Mary. Yet, alongside her dearest friend in the Black community, Ana confronts the racial prejudice her friend encounters daily as she watches the inner workings of the Underground Railroad, and directly experiences how slavery contradicts the promise of freedom in her adopted country.


Maddalena and the Dark cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

Maddalena and the Dark by Julie Fine

Release Date: June 13 from Flatiron Books

Why We’re Excited: This story of dangerous dark wishes and competition at a prestigious all-girls conservatory in eighteenth-century Venice is decadent and thrilling. 

Publisher’s Description: Venice, 1717. Fifteen-year-old Luisa has only wanted one thing: to be the best at violin. As a student at the Ospedale della Pietà, she hopes to join the highest ranks of its illustrious girls’ orchestra and become a protégé of the great Antonio Vivaldi. Luisa is good at violin, but she is not the best. She has peers, but she does not have friends. Until Maddalena.

After a scandal threatens her noble family’s reputation, Maddalena is sent to the Pietà to preserve her marriage prospects. When she meets Luisa, Maddalena feels the stirrings of a friendship unlike anything she has known. But Maddalena has a secret: she has hatched a dangerous plot to rescue her future her own way. When she invites Luisa into her plans, promising to make her dreams come true, Luisa doesn’t hesitate. But every wager has its price, and as the girls are drawn into the decadent world outside the Pietà’s walls, they must decide what it is they truly want—and what they will do to pay for it.


Loot cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

Loot by Tania James

Release Date: June 13 from Knopf

Why You’ll Love It: I’ve been fascinated by the bizarre story of Tipu’s Tiger—a large automaton featuring a big cat mauling a British soldier that once belonged to the ruler of the kingdom of Mysore in India and which you can still see today at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum-–since I first heard about it on Dana Schwartz’s Noble Blood podcast, and Tania James’s story, which centers around the life of the young Indian woodworker who helped make it, is just as impressive.

Publisher’s Description: Abbas is just seventeen years old when his gifts as a woodcarver come to the attention of Tipu Sultan, and he is drawn into service at the palace in order to build a giant tiger automaton for Tipu’s sons, a gift to commemorate their return from British captivity. His fate—and the fate of the wooden tiger he helps create—will mirror the vicissitudes of nations and dynasties ravaged by war across India and Europe.

Working alongside the legendary French clockmaker Lucien du Leze, Abbas hones his craft, learns French, and meets Jehanne, the daughter of a French expatriate.  When Du Leze is finally permitted to return home to Rouen, he invites Abbas to come along as his apprentice. But by the time Abbas travels to Europe, Tipu’s palace has been looted by British forces, and the tiger automaton has disappeared. To prove himself, Abbas must retrieve the tiger from an estate in the English countryside, where it is displayed in a collection of plundered art.


A Right Worthy Woman cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

A Right Worthy Woman by Ruth P. Watson

Release Date: June 13 from Atria Books

Why We’re Excited: What is historical fiction for, if not to give readers a better understanding of the lives and historical context of remarkable figures from our shared past? Author Ruth P. Watson shines a necessary light on the remarkable life of Maggie Lena Walker, the first Black woman to charter an American bank and whose indomitable spirit is still felt in her hometown (and mine!) of Richmond, Virginia today. 

Publisher’s Description: Maggie Lena Walker was ambitious and unafraid. Her childhood in 19th-century Virginia helping her mother with her laundry service opened her eyes to the overwhelming discrepancy between the Black residents and her mother’s affluent white clients. She vowed to not only secure the same kind of home and finery for herself, but she would also help others in her community achieve the same.

With her single-minded determination, Maggie buckled down and went from schoolteacher to secretary-treasurer of the Independent Order of St. Luke, founder of a newspaper, a bank, and a department store where Black customers were treated with respect. With the help of influential friends like W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod, she revolutionized Richmond in ways that are still felt today. 


The Beach at Summerly Cover Summer 2023 Historical Fiction

The Beach at Summerly by Beatriz Williams

Release Date: June 27 from William Morrow

Why We’re Excited: After The Golden Hour and The Summer Wives, a new Beatriz Williams novel pretty much belongs on any most-anticipated historical fiction list, but this post-World War II story of love and international espionage on a Natantucket-esque New England island sounds like a winner in its own right.

Publisher’s Description: June 1946. As the residents of Winthrop Island prepare for the first summer season after the sacrifice of war, a glamorous new figure moves into the guest cottage at Summerly, the idyllic seaside estate of the wealthy Peabody family. To Emilia Winthrop, daughter of Summerly’s year-round caretaker and a descendant of the island’s settlers, Olive Rainsford opens a window into a world of shining possibility. While Emilia spent the war years caring for her incapacitated mother, Olive traveled the world, married fascinating men, and involved herself in political causes. She’s also the beloved aunt of the two surviving Peabody sons, Amory and Shep, with whom Emilia has a tangled romantic history.

As the summer wears on, Emilia develops a deep rapport with Olive, who urges her to leave the island for a life of adventure, while romance blossoms with the sturdy and honorable Shep. But the heady promise of Peabody patronage is blown apart by the arrival of Sumner Fox, an FBI agent who demands Emilia’s help to capture a Soviet agent who’s transmitting vital intelligence on the West’s atomic weapon program from somewhere inside the Summerly estate.

April 1954. Eight years later, Summerly is boarded up and Emilia has rebuilt her shattered life as a professor at Wellesley College, when shocking news arrives from Washington—the traitor she helped convict is about to be swapped for an American spy imprisoned in the Soviet Union, but with a mysterious condition only Emilia can fulfill. A reluctant Emilia is summoned to CIA headquarters, where she’s forced to confront the harrowing consequences of her actions that fateful summer, and a choice that could destroy the Peabody family—and Emilia’s chance for redemption—all over again.


The First Ladies cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

The First Ladies by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Release Date: June 27 from Berkley

Why We’re Excited: Its unexpected premise—the story of the extraordinary partnership between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune—immediately makes me want to know more. 

Publisher’s Description: The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Mary McLeod Bethune refuses to back down as white supremacists attempt to thwart her work. She marches on as an activist and an educator, and as her reputation grows she becomes a celebrity, revered by titans of business and recognized by U.S. Presidents. Eleanor Roosevelt herself is awestruck and eager to make her acquaintance. Initially drawn together because of their shared belief in women’s rights and the power of education, Mary and Eleanor become fast friends confiding their secrets, hopes and dreams—and holding each other’s hands through tragedy and triumph.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected president, the two women begin to collaborate more closely, particularly as Eleanor moves toward her own agenda separate from FDR, a consequence of the devastating discovery of her husband’s secret love affair. Eleanor becomes a controversial First Lady for her outspokenness, particularly on civil rights. And when she receives threats because of her strong ties to Mary, it only fuels the women’s desire to fight together for justice and equality.


Queen of Exiles cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

Queen of Exiles by Vanessa Riley

Release Date: July 11 from William Morrow

Why We’re Excited: Vanessa Riley continues her rich exploration of the fascinating women of the Haitian Revolution with this story of Marie-Louise Christophe, the crowned queen who ruled the Northern Hemisphere’s only free Black nation. When her kingdom is overthrown and she and her daughters are forced to flee to Europe in the wake of the King’s suicide, they’ll have to remake their lives and redefine their places in the world.

Publisher’s Description: In 1810 Marie-Louise Christophe is crowned queen as her husband begins his reign over the first and only free Black nation in the Western Hemisphere. But despite their newfound freedom, Haitians still struggle under mountains of debt to France and indifference from former allies in Britain and the new United States. Louise desperately tries to steer the country’s political course as King Henry descends into a mire of mental illness.

In 1820, King Henry is overthrown and dies by his own hand. Louise and her daughters manage to flee to Europe with their smuggled jewels. In exile, the resilient Louise redefines her role, recovering the fortune that Henry had lost and establishing herself as an equal to the kings of European nations. With newspapers and gossip tracking their every movement, Louise and her daughters tour Europe like other royals, complete with glittering balls and princes with marriage proposals. As they find their footing–and acceptance–they discover more about themselves, their Blackness, and the opportunities they can grasp in a European and male-dominated world.


The Madwomen of Paris cover Summer 2023 Historical Fiction

The Madwomen of Paris by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Release Date: July 18 from Ballantine Books

Why We’re Excited: This haunting story of the cruel and misogynistic mental health system of late 19th-century Paris has a more non-fiction flavor than many of the titles on this list, which only makes the gruesome details of what women had to endure at the infamous Salpêtrière.all the more horrifying.

Publisher’s Description: When Josephine arrives at the Salpêtrière she is covered in blood and badly bruised. Suffering from near-complete amnesia, she is diagnosed with what the Paris papers are calling “the epidemic of the age”: hysteria. It is a disease so baffling and widespread that Doctor Jean-Martine Charcot, the asylum’s famous director, devotes many of his popular public lectures to the malady. To Charcot’s delight, Josephine also proves extraordinarily susceptible to hypnosis, the tool he uses to unlock hysteria’s myriad (and often sensational) symptoms. Soon Charcot is regularly featuring Josephine on his stage, entrancing the young woman into fantastical acts and hallucinatory fits before enraptured audiences and eager newsmen—many of whom feature her on their paper’s front pages.

For Laure, a lonely asylum attendant assigned to Josephine’s care, Charcot’s diagnosis seems a godsend. A former hysteric herself, she knows better than most that life in the Salpêtrière’s Hysteria Ward is far easier than in its dreaded Lunacy division, from which few inmates ever return. But as Josephine’s fame as Charcot’s “star hysteric” grows, her memory starts to return—and with it, images of a horrific crime she believes she’s committed. Haunted by these visions, and helplessly trapped in Charcot’s hypnotic web, she starts spiraling into actual insanity. Desperate to save the girl she has grown to love, Laure plots their escape from the Salpêtrière and its doctors. First, though, she must confirm whether Joséphine is actually a madwoman, soon to be consigned to the Salpêtrière’s brutal Lunacy Ward—or a murderer, destined for the guillotine.

Both are dark possibilities—but not nearly as dark as what Laure will unearth when she sets out to discover the truth.


King of the Armadillos cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

King of the Armadillos by Wendy Chin-Tanner

Release Date: July 25 from Flatiron Books

Why We’re Excited: A historical coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a real 1950s-era leprosarium in Louisiana certainly doesn’t sound like any book I’ve ever read before.

Publisher’s Description: Victor Chin’s life is turned upside down at the tender age of 15. Diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, otherwise known as leprosy, he’s forced to leave the familiar confines of his father’s laundry business in the Bronx – the only home he’s known since emigrating from China with his older brother – to quarantine alongside patients from all over the country at a federal institution in Carville.

At first, Victor is scared not only of the disease, but of the confinement, and wants nothing more than to flee. Between treatments he dreams of escape and imagines his life as a fugitive. But soon he finds a new sense of freedom far from home – one without the pull of obligations to his family, or the laundry business, or his mother back in China. Here, in the company of an unforgettable cast of characters, Victor finds refuge in music and experiences first love, jealousy, betrayal, and even tragedy. But with the promise of a life-changing cure on the horizon, Victor’s time at Carville is running out, and he has some difficult choices to make.


Horses of Fire cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

Horses of Fire by A.D. Rhine

Release Date: July 25 from Dutton Books

Why We’re Excited: A feminist retelling of the Trojan War that centers the often-ignored Andromache and puts the story into the larger historical context of the Bronze Age collapse is a book that is targeted like a laser straight at me.

Publisher’s Description: Andromache is cast as the doting wife of Prince Hector, yet her Amazonian name means “battler of men.” She must gather a band of outcasts and become the military commander she was born to be. Rhea is a war refugee and a horse whisperer who finally earns a place and sense of belonging in Hector’s stables. She must become an unlikely spy while facing a forbidden love that will test all her loyalties. Helen is blamed by all for starting the Trojan War, but no one knows her real story. To escape her abusive husband and foil a plot to undermine Hector, Helen must risk everything and reveal her true face to the one who despises her most.

A sweeping yet intricate story of an ancient, violent era, compelling women who navigate their circumstances to win the day, and an utterly immersive sense of time and place. This historically realistic Troy, set in the wider landscape of the late Bronze Age collapse, is a perilous battleground for soldiers and politicians alike, not a playground where the fate of men and women make sport for gods and goddesses. It’s a harrowing novel of ambition, the transcendent bond of female friendship, and the everyday bravery of civilians in war.


The Princess cover Summer 2023 Historical Fiction

The Princess by Wendy Holdon

Release Date: August 1 from Berkley

Why We’re Excited: This third installment in bestselling author Wendy Holdon’s “Royal Outsiders” series—which previously explored the lives of royal governess Marion Crawford and infamous Duchess Wallis Simpson—turns its attention to Diana Spencer. But because it focuses primarily on her childhood and young adulthood before she became Princess of Wales, its approach feels fresh and unexpected.

Publisher’s Description: Britain, 1961: A bouncing blond baby is born to Viscount Althorp, heir to the Spencer earldom, and his wife Frances. Diana grows up amid the fallout of her parents’ messy divorce. She struggles at school. Moving to London, she takes menial jobs as a cleaner and nanny. Her refuge throughout is romantic novels. She dreams of falling in love and being rescued by a handsome prince.

In royal circles, there is concern about the Prince of Wales. Nearly 30, Charles remains unmarried; the right girl needs to be found, and fast. She must be young, aristocratic and come to the royal family without any past liaisons.

The eighteen-year-old Diana Spencer is just about the only candidate. Her desperation to be loved dovetails perfectly with royal desperation for a bride. But as the ruthless Palace machine starts up, there are challenges for Diana to face plus mysteries she can’t fathom, from the strangeness of life within the palace walls to a certain Mrs. Parker Bowles. Can her romantic dream survive the forces that shape her into a global icon?


The African Samurai cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

The African Samurai by Craig Shreve

Release Date: August 1 from Simon & Schuster

Why We’re Excited: Allowing readers to explore the story of a real life figure like Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai and the only samurai of African descent is basically why the historical fiction genre exists

Publisher’s Description: In 1579, a Portuguese trade ship sails into port at Kuchinotsu, Japan, loaded with European wares and weapons. On board is Father Alessandro Valignano, an Italian priest and Jesuit missionary whose authority in central and east Asia is second only to the pope’s. Beside him is his protector, a large and imposing East African man. Taken from his village as a boy, sold as a slave to Portuguese mercenaries, and forced to fight in wars in India, the young but experienced soldier is haunted by memories of his past.

From Kuchinotsu, Father Valignano leads an expedition pushing inland toward the capital city of Kyoto. A riot brings his protector in front of the land’s most powerful warlord, Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga is preparing a campaign to complete the unification of a nation that’s been torn apart by over one hundred years of civil war. In exchange for permission to build a church, Valignano “gifts” his protector to Nobunaga, and the young East African man is reminded once again that he is less of a human and more of a thing to be traded and sold.

After pledging his allegiance to the Japanese warlord, the two men from vastly different worlds develop a trust and respect for one another. The young soldier is granted the role of samurai, a title that has never been given to a foreigner; he is also given a new name: Yasuke. Not all are happy with Yasuke’s ascension. There are whispers that he may soon be given his own fief, his own servants, his own samurai to command. But all of his dreams hinge on his ability to protect his new lord from threats both military and political, and from enemies both without and within.


Canary Girls cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

Canary Girls by Jennifer Chiaverini

Release Date: August 8 from William Morrow

Why We’re Excited: A charming story of unexpected friendship and found family in dark times, Canary Girls follows a group of female British munitions workers who become friends and soccer teammates during World War II.

Publisher’s Description: Early in the Great War, men left Britain’s factories in droves to enlist. Struggling to keep up production, arsenals hired women to build the weapons the military urgently needed. “Be the Girl Behind the Man Behind the Gun,” the recruitment posters beckoned.

Thousands of women—cooks, maids, shopgirls, and housewives—answered their nation’s call. These “munitionettes” worked grueling shifts often seven days a week, handling TNT and other explosives with little protective gear.

Among them is nineteen-year-old former housemaid April Tipton. Impressed by her friend Marjorie’s descriptions of higher wages, plentiful meals, and comfortable lodgings, she takes a job at Thornshire Arsenal near London, filling shells in the Danger Building—difficult, dangerous, and absolutely essential work.

Joining them is Lucy Dempsey, wife of Daniel Dempsey, Olympic gold medalist and star forward of Tottenham Hotspur. With Daniel away serving in the Footballers’ Battalion, Lucy resolves to do her bit to hasten the end of the war. When her coworkers learn she is a footballer’s wife, they invite her to join the arsenal ladies’ football club, the Thornshire Canaries.

The Canaries soon acquire an unexpected fan in the boss’s wife, Helen Purcell, who is deeply troubled by reports that Danger Building workers suffer from serious, unexplained illnesses. One common symptom, the lurid yellow hue of their skin, earns them the nickname “canary girls.” Suspecting a connection between the canary girls’ maladies and the chemicals they handle, Helen joins the arsenal administration as their staunchest, though often unappreciated, advocate.

The football pitch is the one place where class distinctions and fears for their men fall away. As the war grinds on and tragedy takes its toll, the Canary Girls persist despite the dangers, proud to serve, determined to outlive the war and rejoice in victory and peace.


The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store cover Historical Fiction Summer 2023

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

Release Date: August 8 from Riverhead Books

Why We’re Excited: The incomparable James McBride uses the discovery of a  skeleton from the 1930s in a local Pennsylvania well to explore the overlapping lives of the immigrant Jews and poor African Americans who coexisted together and found community on the margins of white, Christian America during the Great Depression. I’m already emotional just reading the description.

Publisher’s Description: In 1972, when workers in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, were digging the foundations for a new development, the last thing they expected to find was a skeleton at the bottom of a well. Who the skeleton was and how it got there were two of the long-held secrets kept by the residents of Chicken Hill, the dilapidated neighborhood where immigrant Jews and African Americans lived side by side and shared ambitions and sorrows. Chicken Hill was where Moshe and Chona Ludlow lived when Moshe integrated his theater and where Chona ran the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. When the state came looking for a deaf boy to institutionalize him, it was Chona and Nate Timblin, the Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of the Black community on Chicken Hill, who worked together to keep the boy safe.

As these characters’ stories overlap and deepen, it becomes clear how much the people who live on the margins of white, Christian America struggle and what they must do to survive.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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