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I don’t know when I discovered historical fantasy books were a thing, exactly. But as soon as I fell down that particular rabbit hole, I knew — this might be my new favorite genre! I’m pleased to say that I can now confirm that, to no one’s surprise. What I love about the genre is that it’s still a fantasy book, so of course the stories are full of magic. But knowing they have a tie to history in one way or another makes them even more fascinating. Considering I fell head over heels for the genre, it’s no surprise that I wanted to put together a list of some of the best historical fantasy books!
Now, I’ve divided this list into two sections. The first one is full of fantasy books that reimagine history and add magical elements. This means that they take inspiration directly from certain historical events to build a story. They reimagine history. The second section is all about fantasy books that just have a historical fiction setting. As a last disclaimer of sorts I just want to say that this list is by no means definitive or exhaustive — there are plenty of other historical fantasy books out there that are equally impressive and unputdownable!
So without further ado, let’s get into nine of the best historical fantasy books.
Fantasy Books That Reimagine History
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
This is honestly one of my favorite releases of 2021! The magic is more low-key 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 reimagines the rise of the Ming Dynasty in China. So you can expect plenty of action-packed fight scenes, political intrigue, and a cast of morally grey characters too. It follows a girl who was destined for nothingness, while her brother was destined for greatness. So when he, Zhu Chongba, dies the girl takes his name. With a burning desire for greatness, Zhu learns she is capable of anything: to not only take her brother’s fate, but make it her own. Which is how she finds herself in a monastery — and later on, in a rebellion.
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Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
P. Djèlí Clark really said let’s make the Ku Klux Klan actual demons, and I am here for it. This is the kind of novella that borders into sci-fi and horror territories — even though it’s still a fantasy. Set in 1915, Ring Shout asks, what if? What if The Birth of a Nation was a spell? What if D.W. Griffith was a sorcerer? Well, then you get demons. But you also get a kickass demon hunter like Maryse Boudreaux. She’s a sharpshooter and a member of the resistance fighters. Hunting demons is business as usual for her. But things are heating up, and the Klan’s plan to bring forth the end of the world is close to being fulfilled — and only Maryse can stop them.
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Whenever people talk about The Poppy War, they also tend to talk about the historical context. That’s probably because the war in the book has scenes directly out of history books about the Second Sino-Japanese war — and they are harrowing. The book follows Rin, a war orphan from the south who aced the Empire’s most difficult test. Because of it, she’s allowed to study at the most prestigious military academy in the country. For a while things seem okay there. She has a rivalry with a nobleman’s son, which leads her to discover that she’s a shaman and can summon power from the long lost gods. But one day, war breaks out against their neighboring country and Rin’s powers might be the only way to save them.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
The last book in this category also borders on horror — there are zombies in it, after all! Dread Nation reimagines the Civil War and asks, what if the country was plagued by the living dead? The story follows Jane, who’s studying to become an Attendant. They are trained in weaponry and etiquette. Both to kill zombies and protect the elite. That isn’t what Jane wants for her life though, and when she returns from the academy she turns a blind eye to politics. Until several families start to go missing, that is. Then, Jane is forced to fight for her life, trapped in a conspiracy that makes fighting zombies seem like a piece of cake.
Fantasy Books With a Historical Setting
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-García
This is such a unique book — both because of its setting and because it feels like you’re reading a myth or a fairytale. Gods of Jade and Shadow is set in 1920s Mexico, and it follows a young woman named Casiopea Tun. She’s almost like a maid in her grandfather’s home, where she’s treated rather poorly by her own family members. She dreams of a different life, and her wish is answered in the form of a Mayan god of death named Hun-Kamé. Casiopea is the one who accidentally sets him free and because of it, they’re tied together. So now, she must help him on his quest to recover his throne from his treacherous brother. Unless she wants to die.
The Keeper of Night by Kylie Lee Baker
The beauty of this genre is that it can take you to times and places you never thought you’d see in books. This book, for example, takes you to the 1890s London and Japan! The Keeper of Night has a wonderfully complex world-building inspired by Japanese folklore too. It follows the story of Ren Scarborough, who is half British Reaper and half Japanese Shinigami. She’s lived in London for centuries, collecting the souls of the dead. But she doesn’t quite fit in with the community because of her other powers. So she flees to Japan with her younger brother, seeking acceptance. There, she enters the Japanese underworld to serve the Goddess of Death. To earn her place, Ren is tasked with eliminating three Yokai demons. It’s a dangerous mission, one that will reveal how far she’s willing to go for what she wants.
Shallow Waters by Anita Kopacz
We tend to imagine deities in their own ancient times. But as they live forever, it makes sense to write more “modern” stories with them. Even if those stories are set in the 1800s. That’s the case with Shallow Waters, a beautiful historical fantasy book that follows an Orïsha deity named Yemaya. She’s on a mission to find Obatala, the man who sacrificed his own freedom for her own. He was captured by slavers in Africa and taken to the “New World”. Yemaya will not rest until she finds him, so she transforms herself into a woman and follows him across the sea. Her journey won’t be a pleasant one, and she will face the hatred and racism of the “New World.” But despite it all, Yemaya is a fighter and she will persevere.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
If you like your stories more on the romantic side and with Regency flair, you can’t miss Sorcerer to the Crown! Set in Regency era London, the story follows Zacharias Wythe, who’s a freed slave and the latest Sorcerer Royal. He belongs to the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, a group of men who maintain the magic within the land. So it’s his job to figure out why England’s magic is fading. Running out of options, he ventures to the border of Fairyland. But when this adventure brings him in contact with a very powerful witch named Prunella, things take a turn. Now, Zacharias is set on a path that will alter the nature of sorcery not only in Britain, but in the whole world.
The Conductors by Nicole Glover
Last but not least, another genre-blending book that has not only magic, but a ton of mystery as well. The kind you have to solve. The Conductors is an exciting read that follows Hetty Rhodes and her husband. She used to be a conductor on the Underground Railroad — using her magic to help dozens of people cross 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 take. Things take a turn when they find a friend of theirs dead in an alley. Of course they decide to investigate, but they don’t know the danger that lies ahead. For this case will put them face to face with the darkest corners of the city’s elites — as well as their own.