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I don’t know when I discovered that historical fantasy books a thing, exact. But as soon as I fell down that particular rabbit hole, I knew – this could become my new favorite genre! I’m happy to say I can now confirm that, which surprises no one. What I love about the genre is that it’s still a fantasy book, so naturally the stories are full of magic. But knowing that they are connected to the story in one way or another makes them even more intriguing. Considering I’ve fallen head over heels in love with the genre, it’s no surprise that I wanted to compile a list of some of the best historical fantasy books!
Well, I’ve broken this list into two sections. The first is full of fantasy books that reinvent history and add magical elements. This means they take direct inspiration from specific historical events to build a story. They rethink history. The second section is all about fantasy books that only have a historical background. As a kind of final disclaimer, I’d just like to say that this list is by no means definitive or complete – there are plenty of other historical fantasy books out there that are equally impressive and unbeatable!
So without further ado, let’s move on to nine of the best historical fantasy books.
Fantasy books that reinvent history
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
This is honestly one of my favorite releases of 2021! The Magic is more understated compared to some of the other books on this list. At least for now, considering it’s the first in a duology. She who became the sun re-imagines the rise of the Ming Dynasty in China, so you can expect plenty of action-packed battle scenes, political intrigue, and a cast of morally gray characters. It follows a girl who was destined for nothing while her brother was destined for greatness. When he, Zhu Chongba, died, the girl took his name. With a burning desire for greatness, Zhu learns that she is capable of anything: not just taking on her brother’s fate, but making it her own. So she finds herself in a monastery – and later in a rebellion.
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Fr. Djèlí Clark really said, let’s make the Ku Klux Klan real demons, and I’m here for that. This is the kind of novella that borders on sci-fi and horror territory – although it’s still fantasy. Discontinued in 1915, ring scream asks what if? What if The Birth of a Nation was a spell? What if DW Griffith was a magician? Well, then you get demons. But you also get a kickass demon slayer like Maryse Boudreaux. She is a sniper and a member of the resistance fighters. Hunting demons is commonplace for them. But things are heating up and the clan’s plan to bring about the end of the world is on the verge of fulfillment – and only Maryse can stop her.
The Poppy War by RF Kuang
Whenever people talk about it The poppy war, they also tend to talk about historical context. That’s probably because the war in the book contains scenes straight out of the history books on the second Sino-Japanese War — and they’re harrowing. The book follows Rin, a Southern war orphan who has passed with flying colors the Empire’s most difficult test. For this, she is allowed to study at the most renowned military academy in the country. Everything seems fine there for a while. She has a rivalry with a nobleman’s son, leading her to discover that she is a shaman and can summon power from the long-lost gods. But one day a war breaks out against her neighboring country and Rin’s powers may be the only way to save her.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
The last book in this category also borders on horror – after all, there are zombies in it! Terrible nation reimagines the civil war and asks what if the country was stalked by the living dead? The story follows Jane as she studies to become a companion. They are trained in weapons and etiquette. Both to kill zombies and protect the elite. However, that’s not what Jane wants for her life, and when she returns from the academy, she shuts down politics. Until several families go missing. Then Jane is forced to fight for her life, caught up in a conspiracy that makes fighting zombies seem like child’s play.
Fantasy books with a historical setting
Jade Gods and Shadows by Silvia Moreno-García
This is such a unique book – both for its setting and because it feels like reading a myth or a fairy tale. Gods of Jade and Shadow takes place in Mexico in the 1920s and follows a young woman named Casiopea Tun. She is almost like a maid in her grandfather’s house, where she is treated quite badly by her own family members. She dreams of another life and her wish is granted in the form of a Mayan god of death named Hun-Kamé. Casiopea is the one who accidentally frees him and by that they are bound to each other. So now she must help him in his quest to reclaim his throne from his treacherous brother. Unless she wants to die.
The Night Keeper by Kylie Lee Baker
The beauty of this genre is that it can take you to times and places you never thought you would see in books. For example, this book takes you to London in the 1890s and Japan! The night watchman also has a wonderfully complex world-building inspired by Japanese folklore. It follows the story of Ren Scarborough, who is half British Reaper and half Japanese Shinigami. She has lived in London for centuries, collecting the souls of the dead. But she doesn’t quite fit into the community because of her other powers. So she flees to Japan with her younger brother to find recognition there. There she enters the Japanese underworld to serve the goddess of death. To earn her spot, Ren is tasked with eliminating three Yokai Demons. It’s a dangerous mission that will show how far she’s willing to go for what she wants.
Flat Water by Anita Kopacz
We tend to imagine deities in their own ancient times. But since they live forever, it makes sense to use them to create more “modern” stories. Even if these stories take place in the 19th century. This is at shallow waters, a beautiful historical fantasy book that follows an Orïsha deity named Yemaya. She is on a mission to find Obatala, the man who sacrificed his own freedom for her own. He was captured by slave traders in Africa and taken to the “New World”. Yemaya won’t rest until she finds him, so she turns into a woman and follows him across the sea. Her journey will not be a pleasant one, and she will encounter the hatred and racism of the “New World”. But despite it all, Yemaya is a fighter and she will persevere.
Wizard of the Crown of Zen Cho
If you like your stories on the romantic side and with Regency flair, you won’t want to miss this one Wizard of the Crown! Set in Regency-era London, the story follows Zacharias Wythe, a freed slave and newest Sorcerer Royal. He belongs to the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, a group of men who uphold magic in the land. So it’s his job to find out why England’s magic is fading. Running out of options, he ventures to the frontier of fairytale land. But when this adventure brings him into contact with a very powerful witch named Prunella, things take a turn. Now Zechariah is on a path that will change the nature of magic not only in Britain but around the world.
The Conductors by Nicole Glover
Finally, another genre-bending book that’s not just magical, it’s also full of mystery. The kind you need to solve. The conductors is an engaging read that follows Hetty Rhodes and her husband. A former conductor on the Underground Railroad, she used her magic to help dozens of people cross the North. But that was some time ago, and now that the Civil War is over, she and Benjy live in Philadelphia. Now they solve mysteries that the authorities refuse to accept. Things take a turn when they find a friend dead in an alley. Of course, they decide to investigate, but they don’t know the danger that lies ahead. Because this case will pit her against the darkest corners of the city’s elites — and her own, too.
Want to find more amazing and magical books? Dive into our Sci-Fi/Fantasy archive! Or if you want to ride this historical highlight a little longer, we’ve got plenty more historical fiction for you too.