6 Historical Sagas Handpicked for Complete Immersion

November 22 2022
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There are few genres in fiction that lend themselves to getting lost in like historical fiction does. Putting a reader in a new era and a new setting, surrounded by characters uniquely of the period, historical sagas allow readers to enter a different world and explore its expansive corners. Add a truly talented author to that equation and you’re likely to get “lost” in an exceptional historical plot of epic proportions.

Here at Off the Shelf, we pride ourselves on being bookish guides, able (and eager) to point you in the direction of your next favorite book according to your personality and preferences. So if you’re seeking to disappear into an absorbing historical saga, take a look at these works we’ve handpicked for you.

City of Dreams
by Beverly Swerling

Let’s hit the ground running with a tale of two families, the Turners and the DeVreys, tracked through six generations from the 1630s to the 1780s. CITY OF DREAMS is a medical history as these households each participate in one of the two most commonly practiced professions. The Turners are surgeons, experimenting with blood transfusions, inoculations, in addition to operations to remove cancers and diseased limbs. The DeVreys are physicians, educated and respected, practicing methods like bleeding and purging. When two early descendants of the families embark on the Dutch settlement of Nieuw Amsterdam, it isn’t long before the two lines become enemies in an effort to survive. As a result, the choices made pit the two families against one another for generations, with readers following different descendants as they carry secrets and seek retribution. Prepare to get lost in the New World and choose a side, but more importantly, be entertained for five hundred full pages.

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City of Dreams
Beverly Swerling

Colonial Manhattan is full of drama, intrigue, and excitement in this beloved series of novels. Following the tale of an immigrant family that settles in Nieuw Amsterdam, these novels follow generations of doctors and traders, families and enemies, all of whom will have a place in the war that consumes their young country.

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Citizens Creek
by Lalita Tademy

Speaking of family legacies, Lalita Tademy’s CITIZENS CREEK follows a grandfather and granddaughter in different positions of leadership as they seek to improve their stations in life—assuming they can survive long enough to do so. Cow Tom, as he is known, was born into slavery and sold to a Creek Indian Chef. As he gets older though, it’s clear the young man has a gift for communication and is able to speak several languages and serve as a translator for Native Americans, settlers, slaves—even working for the US military. Cow Tom is able to earn his family’s freedom but is still forced to leave their native lands, eventually ending up as a chief among African Creeks. It is here that Tademy switches the perspective to that of Cow Tom’s granddaughter Rose as she struggles to lead her family in a society that continues to oppress African Americans and Native Americans. Exploring a little-known chapter of history, CITIZENS CREEK is a tale of identity and an individual’s will.

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Citizens Creek
Lalita Tademy

The New York Times bestselling author of the Oprah Book Club Pick Cane River brings us the evocative story of a once-enslaved man who buys his freedom after serving as a translator during the American Indian Wars, and his granddaughter, who sustains his legacy of courage.

Cow Tom, born into slavery in Alabama in 1810 and sold to a Creek Indian chief before his tenth birthday, possessed an extraordinary gift: the ability to master languages. As the new country developed westward, and Indians, settlers, and blacks came into constant contact, Cow Tom became a key translator for his Creek master and was hired out to US military generals. His talent earned him money—but would it also grant him freedom? And what would become of him and his family in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Indian Removal westward?

Cow Tom’s legacy lives on—especially in the courageous spirit of his granddaughter Rose. She rises to leadership of the family as they struggle against political and societal hostility intent on keeping blacks and Indians oppressed. But through it all, her grandfather’s indelible mark of courage inspires her—in mind, in spirit, and in a family legacy that never dies.

Written in two parts portraying the parallel lives of Cow Tom and Rose, Citizens Creek is a beautifully rendered novel that takes the reader deep into a little known chapter of American history. It is a breathtaking tale of identity, community, family—and above all, the power of an individual’s will to make a difference.

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The Sleeping Dictionary
by Sujata Massey

A historical saga doesn’t require a generational lens. It can just as well focus on an individual moving from location to location, experiencing life in each situation. Such is the case in Sujata Massey’s THE SLEEPING DICTIONARY, in which readers follow a young girl in a coming-of-age tale. As the sole survivor of her Bengali coastal village following a devastating tidal wave in the 1930s, ten-year-old Pom is saved by a carriage driver for an English boarding school near Calcutta. There she is renamed as Sarah and, after discovering a gift of languages, hired as a helper for a rich Indian girl, Bidushi. They quickly become close friends as Sarah assists Bidushi in writing love letters to her love, Pankaj—that is until Sarah falls for him. Quickly cast out from the boarding school, Sarah heads to Calcutta where she is, again, “saved,” but this time by an Anglo-Indian woman. This woman takes Sarah to a high-class brothel where she becomes a “sleeping dictionary,” an Indian mistress to British colonists who teaches them of Indian culture and their language. A sad saga written in rich detail, this work will captivate you and suck you in until the final sentence.

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The Sleeping Dictionary
Sujata Massey

From an award-winning novelist, a stunning portrait of late Raj India—a sweeping saga and a love story set against a background of huge political and cultural upheaval.

YOU ASK FOR MY NAME, THE REAL ONE, AND I CANNOT TELL. IT IS NOT FOR LACK OF EFFORT.

In 1930, a great ocean wave blots out a Bengali village, leaving only one survivor, a young girl. As a maidservant in a British boarding school, Pom is renamed Sarah and discovers her gift for languages. Her private dreams almost die when she arrives in Kharagpur and is recruited into a secretive, decadent world. Eventually, she lands in Calcutta, renames herself Kamala, and creates a new life rich in books and friends. But although success and even love seem within reach, she remains trapped by what she is . . . and is not. As India struggles to throw off imperial rule, Kamala uses her hard-won skills—for secrecy, languages, and reading the unspoken gestures of those around her—to fight for her country’s freedom and her own happiness.

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Bright and Distant Shores
by Dominic Smith

Sweeping historical fiction set in the metropolis of late-nineteenth-century Chicago and the exotic, far-off islands of the South Pacific, BRIGHT AND DISTANT SHORES captures the unstoppable greed of American industrialists. Owen Graves, son of a local demolition expert and lover of the artifacts left in the wake of such wreckage, has just returned from a prosperous expedition to Melanesia. The relics Owen returns with capture the eye of Hale Gray, president of an insurance company who just so happens to have constructed the tallest building in Chicago. Eager to decorate his tower with such rare treasures, Gray agrees to sponsor a trip to the South Seas, encouraging Owen to bring back both artifacts and several natives. The ethics of the latter request cause Owen much uncertainty even as he lands on a foreign island, unsure whether he can go through with becoming a captor. Including a subplot with characters on the island, Dominic Smith’s work is a well-researched saga filled with symbolism, which allows readers to get lost in two places: the streets of 1890s Chicago and the island culture of the South Seas.

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Bright and Distant Shores
Dominic Smith

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos comes a sweeping historical novel set amid the skyscrapers of 1890s Chicago and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific.

In the waning years of the nineteenth century there was a hunger for tribal artifacts, spawning collecting voyages from museums and collectors around the globe. In 1897, one such collector, a Chicago insurance magnate, sponsors an expedition into the South Seas to commemorate the completion of his company's new skyscraper—the world's tallest building. The ship is to bring back an array of Melanesian weaponry and handicrafts, but also several natives related by blood.

Caught up in this scheme are two orphans—Owen Graves, an itinerant trader from Chicago's South Side who has recently proposed to the girl he must leave behind, and Argus Niu, a mission houseboy in the New Hebrides who longs to be reunited with his sister. At the cusp of the twentieth century, the expedition forces a collision course between the tribal and the civilized, between two young men plagued by their respective and haunting pasts.

An epic and ambitious story that brings to mind E.L. Doctorow, with echoes of Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, Bright and Distant Shores is a wondrous achievement by a writer known for creating compelling fiction from the fabric of history.

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Tidelands
by Philippa Gregory

Few authors are as associated with “historical saga” as the great Philippa Gregory. And the first book in her latest series about ordinary people, TIDELANDS, takes readers back to the English Civil War as we’re introduced to Alinor. An herbalist and a midwife, Alinor is in the unfortunate circumstance of having lost a husband, literally, unsure whether he’s dead or alive—leaving her in limbo, under the watchful eye of a community suspicious of her healing witchlike powers. But everything changes when, wandering the graveyard in hopes of seeing her husband's ghost, Alinor meets James. James, disguised as a Catholic priest, is supposedly on the run but in reality has been tasked with rescuing King Charles. As the two begin to fall in love with one another, the town becomes even more weary of Alinor and her dangerous beauty. A powerful portrait of an ordinary woman during the English Civil Wars, Philippa Gregory’s latest series is the perfect historical saga to devour this holiday season. Thankfully, the newest book, DAWNLANDS, is out this fall.

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Tidelands
Philippa Gregory

This New York Times bestseller from “one of the great storytellers of our time” (San Francisco Book Review) turns from the glamour of the royal courts to tell the story of an ordinary woman, Alinor, living in a dangerous time for a woman to be different.

On Midsummer’s Eve, Alinor waits in the church graveyard, hoping to encounter the ghost of her missing husband and thus confirm his death. Until she can, she is neither maiden nor wife nor widow, living in a perilous limbo. Instead she meets James, a young man on the run. She shows him the secret ways across the treacherous marshy landscape of the Tidelands, not knowing she is leading a spy and an enemy into her life.

England is in the grip of a bloody civil war that reaches into the most remote parts of the kingdom. Alinor’s suspicious neighbors are watching each other for any sign that someone might be disloyal to the new parliament, and Alinor’s ambition and determination mark her as a woman who doesn’t follow the rules. They have always whispered about the sinister power of Alinor’s beauty, but the secrets they don’t know about her and James are far more damning. This is the time of witch-mania, and if the villagers discover the truth, they could take matters into their own hands.

“This is Gregory par excellence” (Kirkus Reviews). “Fans of Gregory’s works and of historicals in general will delight in this page-turning tale” (Library Journal, starred review) that is “superb… A searing portrait of a woman that resonates across the ages” (People).

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Tides of Honour
by Genevieve Graham

Let’s round out our list with a fiction novel that covers a lesser-known aspect of history, shall we? Genevieve Graham’s TIDES OF HONOR chronicles a love saga between a private in the Great War and an artist from the French countryside. Daniel Baker is as prepared for war as any young man can be. He’s done what he can to not be affected by the death and carnage found in war-torn France. In fact, he’s all but numbed himself to the situation when he suddenly meets Audrey Poulin. Love is instant, but a touching courtship captures any reader's tender heart right up to the moment that Danny loses his leg in the Battle of the Somme and, as a result, this lovestruck couple are sent reeling. When they try to create a life for themselves in Halifax, they are caught up in a devastating citywide grief. And as winter approaches and war winds down, Danny’s PTSD and Audrey’s loneliness threaten to tear them apart. TIDES OF HONOR is a touching historical saga for those looking to get lost in a beautiful love story—one that will make you believe in the power of second chances.

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Tides of Honour
Genevieve Graham

USA TODAY and #1 bestselling author Genevieve Graham brings to life a little-known chapter of history in this unforgettable story of survival and sacrifice about a young woman and a wounded soldier caught in the horrors of the Great War and its aftermath.

In the summer of 1916, Private Daniel Baker marches into battle with the boys of Nova Scotia’s 25th Battalion. Out of brutal necessity, Danny has steeled himself against the horrors of war, but he is completely unprepared to meet the love of his life in war-torn France.

Audrey Poulin has the soul of an artist. She lives alone with her grandmother in the quiet French countryside, where she finds joy in her brush and palette. By chance, she encounters Danny and the handsome young soldier captures her heart and inspires her painting.

But when Danny is gravely wounded at the Battle of the Somme mere months later, the couple’s future is thrown into uncertainty. Soon, he and Audrey find themselves struggling to build a new life in Halifax, a city grieving its lost men. As the grey winter of 1917 sets in, Danny’s shellshock and Audrey’s feelings of isolation continue to grow, pulling the two apart just as a new catastrophe threatens their existence.

From the battlefields of France to the shores of Halifax, Tides of Honour is a moving novel about love and loyalty—and a testament to the power of second chances.

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Photo credit: iStock / cyano66

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