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The Best Historical Fiction of 2020

THE COLD MILLIONS, by Jess Walter. (Harper, 352 pp., $28.99.) Walter sends two fictional brothers into the free speech riots that seized Spokane, Wash., in the early years of the last century. A labor struggle pitting workers against the powers that be, this confrontation also provided a platform for a charismatic historical figure named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora. (Random House, 416 pp., $27.) Ricocheting between the 1850s and the 1860s, this first novel shows how the legacy of bondage played out on an isolated plantation after the abolition of slavery. Its heroine is a midwife and healer adept at hoodoo, the “Black folks’ currency” of the antebellum South.

THE EVERLASTING, by Katy Simpson Smith. (Harper, 352 pp., $28.99.) An ambitious novel that peels back the layers of history, moving from modern-day Rome to the times of the Medicis and the Romans, with an intermediate stop among some ninth-century monks. The link is a possible religious relic. Also timeless questions about what constitutes a “good” life.

HAMNET, by Maggie O’Farrell. (Knopf, 305 pp., $26.95.) Little is known about Shakespeare’s marriage, but this allows O’Farrell to place his wife at the center of an eloquent novel about motherhood, passion and almost unbearable grief. Was the death of the family’s only son, 11-year-old Hamnet, the inspiration for one of literature’s greatest plays?

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT, by Hilary Mantel. (Holt, 757 pp., $30.) The final volume of Mantel’s trilogy will end as we knew it would, with the execution of Thomas Cromwell on the order of his sovereign, Henry VIII. But still we read intently onward, ensnared by her depiction of the personalities and politics of Tudor England.

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