When done well, historical fantasy can change the way you think about events and stories you’ve heard of a hundred times before.
But doing it really well—a process that involves an incredible amount of background research and a dedication to authenticity (except for, you know, the fantasy parts)—makes it one of the more exhaustive genres of fantasy to write.
My recent read of The Shards of Heaven, a book that works so well in part because author Michael Livingston is first and foremost a historian, reminded me exactly how deep this particular subgenre can go, prompting me to share five more standout historical fantasy novels that are among my favorites.
On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers
Tim Powers is something of a titan when it comes to historical fantasy. All of his books have a strong grounding in research, but then spiral off into esoterica, occult history, and mad fantasy as the plots unspool. If you’ve never read him, On Stranger Tides is a good one to start with, as elements of it have popped up in the Monkey Island series of PC games and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The novel follows a young puppeteer who, while trying to get revenge on his devious uncle, is kidnapped by pirates and drawn into an odd conflict involving Blackbeard, voodoo, body-jumping, rival mages, and the Fountain of Youth. While lighter on history than most of the books below, Powers stays true to the folk history of the era and the myths surrounding his true-life subjects, nailing what actual events he does incorporate.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (recently adapted into a miniseries by the BBC) takes the opposite approach of much historical fantasy. Instead of laying a scrim of fantasy over existing history, Susanna Clarke creates a rich invented history for a world in which magic has always existed. The result is a novel that presents itself as a historical text on the resurgence of English magic, centered around the taciturn magician Mr. Norrell and his outgoing romantic apprentice, Jonathan Strange. The novel’s strength is how it creates a rich setting through allusions to other texts and references to history within the world. Clarke even makes sure historical events, such as the Napoleonic War, in which both magicians play a key role, fit into her imagined history in logical ways.
Paperback $17.09 | $18.99
Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Glamourist Histories are set during England’s Regency period, with a magic system that, in Kowal’s words, “won’t break history.” The magic they use, known as “glamour,” involves weaving “folds” of illusory magic together to create sensations—sights, sounds, smells, and the like—usually at the cost of immense amounts of energy for the user. With this groundwork, Shades of Milk and Honey embarks on a smaller-scale romantic fantasy similar to the works of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters, but with the “artistic” discipline of glamour added to the list of talents a young women of the Regency should master. Shades is the first of a five-book sequence following the adventures of Jane Ellsworth and her husband, the Glamourist Vincent; the final volume, Of Noble Family, was published earlier this year.
Paperback $7.54 | $7.99
Servant of the Underworld, by Aliette de Bodard
This inspired ancient-world fantasy-mystery by Aliette de Bodard (whose The House of Shattered Wings is probably a bit too fantastical to fit on this list, but is nevertheless pretty brilliant) follows Acatl, High Priest for the Dead, as he investigates a strange locked-room murder in the ancient Mexica Empire. The world is fascinating, with a richly developed culture, and it’s clear de Bodard has done her research, creating a deeply involving story of court intrigue, demons, the realm of the dead, and shifting court politics. Even the magic system, wherein every spell involves either some kind of sacrifice or bloodletting, is presented in a way that rings true with what we known of these ancient cultures.
Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, by Cherie Priest
Using one of the most atrocious (and disputed) murders of early America as its backdrop, Maplecroft blends Lovecraft-style cosmic horror into the story of the young woman who—guilty or not—was blamed for brutally murdering her parents with “forty whacks” an axe. In Priest’s version, Lizzie kills her parents, but only in self-defense, as they transform into horrible monstrosities. Acquitted of the murder, but with her reputation in Fall River tarnished, Lizzie and her sister Emma move to a remote mansion by the sea to figure out a way to stop the epidemic that really killed their parents. Told in a series of first-person accounts, Maplecroft shines most in its narrative voice and slow-building atmosphere of dread, with such standout lines as, “I dumped it into the jar of acid to let science sort it out.”
What’s your choice historical fantasy?