I’m a newbie to K-dramas. I haven’t watched that many — yet. But the ones I’ve finished, I have loved dearly. They tend to be well constructed and developed stories with a cast of characters you can’t help but fall in love with. And the best thing? There are so many genres that you can easily pick and choose what kind of stories you want to watch. I must say that based on what I can see, historical K-dramas are super popular — and I get it. They let you travel to another place and time to witness these beautiful and oftentimes swoony stories. Plus, I have to admit that the costumes and settings are to die for.
The main draw for historical K-dramas is their setting. Most of them seem to be set during the Joseon Dynasty— which showcases their beautiful traditional clothing called hanbok. But I’ve also stumbled upon the occasional historical K-drama set in the 1900s. So within the genre you also have plenty of stories and settings to choose from. But how does that translate into books? Well, there are also a ton of historical fiction books set in Korea that have similar themes of love, family and even war. So if you love watching Hwarang, Rookie Historian, or Mr. Sunshine, you can find a similar book on this list of books for fans of historical K-dramas.
One last thing, these are just eight of the best books for fans of historical K-dramas. There are plenty more out there! I also wanted to say that I chose books that were written by Korean or Korean American authors — seeing as these are their stories. But without further ado, let’s get right to it!
8 Books for Fans of Historical K-Dramas
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This is undoubtedly the most popular book on this list and I couldn’t not mention it! Especially since it’s an upcoming TV show by Apple — so in a way, it’s already a historical K-drama as well. Pachinko is a sweeping family saga set in the early 1900s. It all begins with Sunja, the daughter of a fisherman, who falls for a wealthy stranger. One day, she discovers that she’s pregnant and that her lover is married, so she refuses to be bought. Instead, she marries a gentle minister and the two of them move to Japan. Sunja’s choices have consequences though, ones that will echo for generations.
The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn
K-dramas have super complex and unique characters, and so does this book! It’s a story about love, loss, bravery, and magic set in the island of Jeju. The Mermaid from Jeju is set in post WWII Korea, and it follows a girl named Junja. She’s a great deep sea diver. So great, that she asks her mother to join the annual family trip to Mt. Halla. Her mother accepts, so Junja not only gets to see the mountains, but she also falls in love with a boy named Suwol. Sadly, as Junja returns home, she sees her mother take her last breath after a diving accident. Everything falls apart after that — Suwol is gone and her younger siblings are sent to live with their father. Junja only has her grandmother left, and she must learn to navigate a very tumultuous world by herself.
Human Acts by Han Kang
Let’s travel to an even more modern setting with Human Acts — a beautiful, heartbreaking, and brutally honest book inspired by a real-life event: the 1980s Gwangju Uprising and its subsequent massacre. The story follows a group of people who struggle with the aftermath of the murder of a young boy named Dong-ho. Through a series of interconnected chapters, we get to see people like Dong-ho’s family and his best friend as they grieve and suffer from the boy’s death. But we also see other people who struggle with the massacre as a whole — such as an editor who is being censored. It all comes together to tell an extremely difficult story about looking for your own voice after enduring so much trauma.
The Court Dancer by Shin Kyung-sook
If you love historical K-dramas set in the Joseon Dynasty, you can’t miss The Court Dancer! There’s political intrigue, romance, betrayal — and even books! The story follows a woman named Yi Jin who is known as a jewel in the Emperor’s court thanks to her connection with the Empress. One day, a French diplomat arrives at the palace and sees Yi Jin perform a traditional dance. He immediately falls for her, and after talking to the Emperor, he gains permission for Yi Jin to go back with him to France. There, Yi Jin lives a more independent life, and even finds work translating and publishing Korean literature. She quickly becomes homesick, so she decides to go back to Korea for a visit — and that’s when things start to fall apart.
Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz
Everything Belongs to Us is another historical fiction set in the late 1900s. While the setting is more modern it has all the romance, friendship, drama and even social commentary that you love from K-dramas! The book follows two women from vastly different backgrounds named Jisun and Namin. They study at South Korea’s top university, competing to join the elite that would lead to a life of wealth and privilege. For Jisun, the daughter of a business mogul, things would stay pretty much the same. But Namin, whose parents run a food cart, could change her life forever. Enter Sunam — a member of a very prestigious club named The Circle. Their lives will entangle, leading them to make choices that will change everything for all three of them.
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim
I think we can agree that one of the most exciting tropes in historical K-dramas is forbidden love — and it’s one of the best things about If You Leave Me. This book is set during the Korean War, in the 1950s. It follows a young woman named Haemi Lee, who is forced to escape to a refugee camp with her mother and brother. There, she constantly meets with her childhood friend Kyunghwan so they can forget their circumstances — at least for a few hours. The thing is, Kyunghwan’s cousin Jisoo has his sights on marrying Haemi. He’s older and wealthier, and could provide for her. So Haemi decides to marry Jisoo despite having feelings for her friend. What she doesn’t know yet is that this choice will have ripples that impact her family for generations to come.
The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim
Part of the beauty of K-dramas is following the characters we love on their journeys as they grow and change — which is what this book is all about! The Calligrapher’s Daughter follows a woman named Najin Han. She’s the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, and her father wishes to marry her into an aristocratic family. But Najin refuses, and with the help of her mother she goes to the king’s court as a companion to the princess. Soon, the king is murdered and their Dynasty comes to an end. The Japanese are also slowly taking over the country and their shadow of oppression is changing their culture. For the next 30 years, Najin will try to move forward despite the violence that surrounds her — because the one thing she won’t give up is her search for freedom.
Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim
Last but not least, Beasts of a Little Land is an epic saga set during the Korean independence movement. Which means there’s definitely love, war, redemption, and the idea that beasts can take many shapes. The story follows first a local hunter who saves a Japanese officer from a tiger. Years later, we follow Jade, a woman sold to Miss Silver’s courtesan school. There, she befriends a boy named JungHo. But fate drives them apart when they come of age as JungHo joins the fight for independence and Jade becomes a famous performer. Apart from them, there are more characters in the story — and their lives are all linked by the thread of fate. I can picture the beautiful costumes and the dramatic moments of this book as if it already were a K-drama!
Looking for more bookish content about Korea? Here are several excellent lists that range from books in translation to manhwa and light novels!