9 New Historical Fiction Releases Making Waves This Summer

May 15 2023
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What makes a good summer read? For those who want to be completely absorbed in another time and place, these historical fiction books will take you far away. The most anticipated summer 2023 historical fiction books we’ve rounded up here are particularly epic, complete with stellar storytelling and meticulously detailed accounts of historical figures and events. This compilation includes books that’ll let you uncover hidden facts and discover distant places around the world from the comfort of your beach towel.

Next, check out these 10 Historical Fiction Gems Perfect for a Summer Day!

The East Indian
by Brinda Charry

Chris’s Pick #1: Tony is just eleven when his mother dies in their native India in the 1600s. Since he’s left alone, a family friend secures him passage to London, where he finds work on the docks and spends his free time watching performances of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That is, until he’s kidnapped and taken to colonial Virginia, where he’s forced into indentured servitude, working tobacco fields for a series of cruel masters. Despite his position in life (and what makes this book such a delight), Tony maintains an ever-optimistic attitude that wins over everyone he meets while on the plantation—not to mention readers like me. A life rich with hilarious hijinks balances out the tragedy of it all, and I had tears in my eyes throughout . . . but in the best possible way, while reading this incandescent story.

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The East Indian
Brinda Charry

Inspired by a historical figure, an exhilarating debut novel about the first native of the Indian subcontinent to arrive in Colonial America—for readers of Esi Edugyan and Yaa Gyasi.

Meet Tony: insatiably curious, deeply compassionate, with a unique perspective on every scene he encounters. Kidnapped and transported to the New World after traveling from the British East India Company’s outpost on the Coromandel Coast to the teeming streets of London, young Tony finds himself in Jamestown, Virginia, where he and his fellow indentured servants—boys like himself, men from Africa, a mad woman from London—must work the tobacco plantations. Orphaned and afraid, Tony initially longs for home. But as he adjusts to his new environment, finding companionship and even love, he can envision a life for himself after servitude. His dream: to become a medicine man, or a physician’s assistant, an expert on roots and herbs, a dispenser of healing compounds.

Like the play that captivates him—Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—Tony’s life is rich with oddities and hijinks, humor and tragedy. Set during the early days of English colonization in Jamestown, before servitude calcified into racialized slavery, The East Indian gives authentic voice to an otherwise unknown historic figure and brings the world he would have encountered to vivid life. In this coming-of-age tale, narrated by a most memorable literary rascal, Charry conjures a young character sure to be beloved by readers for years to come.

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A Right Worthy Woman
by Ruth P. Watson

Chris’s Pick #2: So often my favorite historical fiction is the kind that delves deep into a little-known story—especially one about a remarkable lady. Such is the case in A RIGHT WORTHY WOMAN, the chronicle of the first Black woman to establish and preside over a United States bank. But Maggie Lena Walker is too great a figure to remain a footnote in history, as we come to learn. She grew up in 19th-century Virginia, suffered the loss of her father at age twelve, and became self-sufficient early on, helping her mother and her community. I readily got caught up in the rich detail that Ruth P. Watson provides in depicting Maggie’s dedication to improving her Black community. With intriguing family dynamics thrown in for good measure, this work of historical fiction blew me away and made me wonder why I had never heard of Maggie Lena Walker before. Though, now, I surely won’t forget her.

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A Right Worthy Woman
Ruth P. Watson

In the vein of The Engineer’s Wife and Carolina Built, an inspiring novel based on the remarkable true story of Virginia’s Black Wall Street and the indomitable Maggie Lena Walker, the daughter of a formerly enslaved woman who became the first Black woman to establish and preside over a bank in the United States.

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. Now, her rich, full story is revealed in this stirring and intimate novel.

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The Covenant of Water
by Abraham Verghese

Chris’s Pick #3: Abraham Verghese’s THE COVENANT OF WATER is the kind of novel that, if it weren’t 700-plus pages, I promise you would be spellbound enough to finish in one sitting. Following generations of a South Indian family and the “curse” that connects them all, this work is a master class of intricate storytelling. Beginning in the early 1900s, we meet twelve-year-old Big Ammachi Parambil, who is being married off to a 40-year-old widow, who also has a son. And with that, the traumatic and dramatic events begin. Readers come to find out that one person in each of the last three generations of the Parambil family has suffered a death by drowning. Sadly, this trend continues with Ammachi’s stepson. As Ammachi moves into adulthood and builds a family of her own, we see not only that a deadly curse does indeed inflict itself upon her family with burnings, impalings, and other maladies, but that her children are often given the gifts of intellect, artistic ability, and even prophecy. An epic work of storytelling that explores 20th-century India like few could ever even imagine, let alone write. Put this book on your TBR list immediately.

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The Covenant of Water
Abraham Verghese

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Lost Believers
by Irina Zhorov

Sara’s Pick: In Russia, in the 1970s, Galina and Agafia could not be more different. Galina is an ambitious young geologist, while Agafia is a member of the Old Believers, a small sect that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church, and she lives in the middle of nowhere Siberia. But in spite of that, when Galina, on assignment, visits Agafia’s homestead, the two become fast friends. The only problem is that Galina’s work could lead to the destruction of Agafia’s homeland, and to the irrevocable changing of both their worlds. A touching story of friendship and faith, LOST BELIEVERS is perfect for lovers of the unspoiled wild (until it’s not) and of a history that's gone underexplored.

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Lost Believers
Irina Zhorov

A rich, immersive debut novel, inspired by true events, about a meeting between two women in 1970s Soviet Russia—a deeply religious homesteader living in isolation with her family on the Siberian taiga and an ambitious scientist—that irrevocably changes the course of both of their lives.

Galina, a promising young geologist from Moscow, is falling in love with her pilot, Snow Crane, on a trip exploring for minerals in Siberia. As their helicopter hovers over what should be a stretch of uninhabited forest, they see a small hut and a garden—and, the following day, when they hike from their field camp to the hut, they find a family.

Agafia was born in Siberia into a family of Old Believers, a small sect of Christians who rejected the reforms that shaped the modern Russian Orthodox church. Her parents fled religious persecution four decades earlier, hiking deep into the snowy wilderness and eventually building a home far away from the dangerous and sinful world. Galina and Snow Crane are the first people she has ever met outside of her immediate family. As the two women develop a friendship, each becomes conflicted about futures that once seemed certain—and each is hindered by the immovable forces shaping their lives: Galina can’t shake the confines of her Soviet upbringing, and Agafia’s focus drifts from her faith to the beauty of the relentlessly harsh taiga. Even worse, Galina begins to see her work opening mines as a threat to Agafia and her home, mirroring the exploitation of the natural world happening all across the Soviet Union.

A vivid and eye-opening story about fate, ambition, and Soviet politics, Lost Believers is an unforgettable journey.

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The African Samurai
by Craig Shreve

Mel’s Pick: THE AFRICAN SAMURAI by Craig Shreve is a powerful historical novel based on the true story of Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai (and the only one of African heritage). Yasuke’s journey is propulsive and epic. Stolen from his African village when he was a young boy, he was then sold into slavery, forced to fight wars in India, serve as protector of a powerful Italian priest, and more. He eventually finds himself in Kyoto, being sold (once again) to a powerful Japanese warlord, Nobunaga, who needs help unifying his nation. Thus begins a beautiful, respectful friendship as the two learn from each other. With a cinematic setting and intricate, moving characters, I would recommend this book for readers of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Colson Whitehead, and for anyone who loved The Woman King movie.

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The African Samurai
Craig Shreve

Set in late 16th-century Africa, India, Portugal, and Japan, The African Samurai is a powerful historical novel based on the true story of Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai and the only samurai of African descent—for readers of Esi Edugyan and Lawrence Hill.

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.

A magnificent reconstruction and moving study of a lost historical figure, The African Samurai is an enthralling narrative about the tensions between the East and the West and the making of modern Japan, from which rises the most unlikely hero.

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The Paris Daughter
by Kristin Harmel

Abi’s Pick: As a huge fan of historical dramas, including those of Kristin Harmel, this was a must-read for me. Set in 1939, Paris, the story begins with a pair of young women—one, Juliette, a mother of two sons with a third child on the way, and the other, Elise, pregnant with her first child. Soon after becoming fast friends (and each giving birth to a daughter) they bond in a bookstore that Juliette’s family owns. When Elise becomes a target of the German occupation, she makes the hasty, reluctant, and heartbreaking decision to leave her child with Juliette and her family, who live in the same cozy place that houses their beloved bookstore. A year later, with the war winding down, Elise returns to find the world she left behind destroyed by a bomb, and Juliette and both of their daughters nowhere to be found. The only thing Elise concretely learns is that her friend and one of the girls got out alive.

Against all odds, and in the aftermath of a war that’s upended their lives, Elise is determined to find out what happened to her child. THE PARIS DAUGHTER will take you on a heartrending journey of friendship, tragic loss, and finding your way back to the people you love. Don’t miss out on what I believe is Kristin Harmel’s best book yet.

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The Paris Daughter
Kristin Harmel

From the bestselling author of the “heart-stopping tale of survival and heroism” (People) The Book of Lost Names comes a gripping historical novel about two mothers who must make unthinkable choices in the face of the Nazi occupation.

Paris, 1939: Young mothers Elise and Juliette become fast friends the day they meet in the beautiful Bois de Boulogne. Though there is a shadow of war creeping across Europe, neither woman suspects that their lives are about to irrevocably change.

When Elise becomes a target of the German occupation, she entrusts Juliette with the most precious thing in her life—her young daughter, playmate to Juliette’s own little girl. But nowhere is safe in war, not even a quiet little bookshop like Juliette’s Librairie des Rêves, and, when a bomb falls on their neighborhood, Juliette’s world is destroyed along with it.

More than a year later, with the war finally ending, Elise returns to reunite with her daughter, only to find her friend’s bookstore reduced to rubble. Surviving neighbors tell her that Juliette and a little girl survived. But which little girl—and what happened in the bookstore’s final moments? Juliette has seemingly vanished without a trace, taking all the answers with her. Elise’s desperate quest to find out what happened to her daughter ultimately leads her to New York—and to Juliette—one final, fateful time.

An “exquisite and gut-wrenching novel” (Lisa Barr, New York Times bestselling author) you won’t soon forget, The Paris Daughter is also a sweeping celebration of resilience, motherhood, and love.

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The Spectacular
by Fiona Davis

Emily’s Pick #1: I’m a sucker for a NYC-set story, especially one connected to a landmark that’s directly across the street from my office building, so I’m especially excited for this one, which takes place in Radio City Music Hall in the 1950s. In the story, Marion Brooks has just gone through the rigorous audition process to become a Rockette. She’s still getting into the swing of things when a bomb explodes in the enchanting theater while the dancers are performing. Marion decides to work with the police to catch the culprit, the “Big Apple Bomber” (based on the true figure of the Mad Bomber), who’s responsible for a string of similar crimes. But when it puts her dancing career and friendships at stake, she begins to wonder if it’s all worth it. Fiona Davis has a way of bringing NYC landmarks to life with well-researched details, so don’t miss out on this one!

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The Spectacular
Fiona Davis

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Lady Tan's Circle of Women
by Lisa See

Emily’s Pick #2: Shockingly, I’ve never read Lisa See before (though I’ve always meant to), and in my desire to add more high-quality historical fiction books to my TBR, I’ve decided that this gifted author’s newest release is a great place to start. Based on deeply researched stories about the first female physicians from 15th-century China, LADY TAN’S CIRCLE OF WOMEN takes us back to the Ming Dynasty, where a young Tan Yunxian grows up under the caring, upper-class tutelage of her grandmother, who shares her knowledge about Chinese medicine with her. Over the years, Yunxian befriends a poor apprenticing midwife, and together they practice medicine focused on pregnancy and childbirth, as well as puzzle their way through medical emergencies and mysteries, despite the many restrictions that society places on them. When Yunxian is forced into an arranged marriage, it breaks her away from a circle of female friendships and into a space where she fears being confined. That Yunxian finds a way to continue practicing as a physician—in healing arts that continue to influence medicine today—is inspiring.

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Lady Tan's Circle of Women
Lisa See

The latest historical novel from New York Times bestselling author Lisa See, inspired by the true story of a woman physician from 15th-century China—perfect for fans of See’s classic Snowflower and the Secret Fan and The Island of Sea Women.

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? Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a captivating story of women helping other women. It is also a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.

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Alchemy of a Blackbird
by Claire McMillan

Emily’s Pick #3: Remedios Varo is living in Paris in the fall of 1939, dabbling in the occult arts, and just starting to hone her painting techniques with fellow creators, when WWII breaks out. As Varo, along with her poet lover and fellow artistic friends, wait for their exit papers, they struggle with both surviving and creating their works of art as the city turns dangerous and terrifying around them. Varo eventually makes it to Mexico, where she rekindles a deep friendship with fellow surreal painter Leonora Carrington, and comes into her own as an artist. Centered on themes of philosophy, creativity, feminism, art, and politics, this historical work of fiction is a masterpiece.

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Alchemy of a Blackbird
Claire McMillan

For fans of The Age of Light and Z, a mystical, historical novel based on the true story of the 20th-century painters and occultists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, each beginning as the muse of a famous lover and then breaking away to become an icon in her own right through a powerful friendship that springs from their connection to the tarot.

Desperate to escape the Nazis, painter Remedios Varo and her lover, poet Benjamin Peret, flee Paris for Villa Air Bel, a safe house for artists on the Riviera. Along with Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim, and others, the two anxiously wait for exit papers. As the months pass, Remedios begins to sense that the others don’t see her as a fellow artist; they have cast her in the stifling role of a surrealist ideal: the beautiful innocent. She finds refuge in a mysterious bookshop, where she stumbles into a world of occult learning and intensifies an esoteric practice in the tarot that helps her light the bright fire of her creative genius.

When travel documents come through, Remedios and Benjamin flee to Mexico where she is reunited with friend and fellow painter Leonora Carrington. Together, the women tap into their creativity, stake their independence, and each find their true loves. But it is the tarot that enables them to access the transcendent that lies on the other side of consciousness, to become the truest Surrealists of all.

From an author with “an enchanting, intoxicating voice” (Cristina Alger, author of The Darlings), Alchemy of a Blackbird is about a dynamic female friendship that became a historic artistic collaboration between two giants of the art world.

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