10 Historical Fantasy Reads to Sweep You Off Your Feet

October 20 2021
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There is a chill in the air and the scent of magic in the wind. Historical fantasy always makes me yearn for a time machine and a magic wand, and as the days grow colder and darker, I love nothing more than curling up with an enchanting read. The perfect mix of history and fantasy is guaranteed to transport you in any of these titles.  

Anticipation
by Melodie Winawer

Between the history, the magic, the romance, the setting, and the prose, ANTICIPATION is a sweeping, suspenseful saga that will truly captivate you. I loved the layers of this story and the author’s clear knowledge of medical fields mingled with the deep character moments. Helen, a recently widowed scientist, agrees to finally take her nine-year-old son on a vacation to Greece. While there, they stumble upon the ruins of the ancient city of Mystras with its single resident and tour guide, Elias. He lives out at the edge of the city ruins both physically and yet . . . not. In 1237, Elias’s mother promised him to the church of Profitis Ilias for eternal servitude in order to save him from a deadly illness. And so, for 800 years Elias has labored and served the church all while avoiding his great enemy, the Lusignan family. Their family line is cursed with a disease that only worsens with each generation. There is a prophecy that hints that Elias’s own blood might contain the cure. So when Helen and her son get closer to Elias, he unwittingly puts them all in danger. They’ll all have to choose: the city or each other.

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Anticipation
Melodie Winawer

From the author of the “engrossing historical epic” (Booklist) The Scribe of Siena comes a thrilling tale set in the crumbling city of Mystras, Greece, in which a scientist’s vacation with her young son quickly turns into a fight for their lives after they cross paths with a man out of time.

After the death of her beloved husband and becoming a single parent to her nine-year-old son Alexander, overworked scientist Helen desperately needs an escape. So when Alexander proposes a trip to Greece—somewhere he's always dreamed of visiting—Helen quickly agrees.

After spending several days exploring the tourist-filled streets, they stumble upon the ancient city of Mystras and are instantly drawn to it. Its only resident is Elias, a mysterious tour guide living on the city’s edges…both physically and temporally.

In 1237, Elias’s mother promised his eternal service to the Profitis Ilias in Mystras in exchange for surviving a terrible illness. But during his 800 years of labor, he’s had one common enemy: the noble Lusignan family. The Lusignan line is cursed by a deadly disease that worsens with each generation, and a prophecy hints that Elias’s blood is their only hope for a cure. He has managed to survive throughout the centuries, but the line has dwindled down to the last Lusignan and he is desperate to avert his family’s destiny.

When Elias runs into Helen, he meets his match for the first time—but he unwittingly puts both her and her young son in danger as a result. With time running out and an enemy after them, Elias and Helen are forced to choose between the city they love, and each other.

Blending the historical romance of Diana Gabaldon, the rich detail of Philippa Gregory’s novels, and Dan Brown’s fast-paced suspense, Anticipation is a thrilling and satisfying read like no other.

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A Criminal Magic
by Lee Kelly

A CRIMINAL MAGIC is a fantastic read. It’s basically Prohibition, but with magic, and it’s wonderful. Magic is like a drug, and after the 18th Amendment passed, it’s now illegal. Set in 1926, with gangsters, a seedy underworld, and all sorts of crime, this is one dark and fun read. Despite the prohibition of sorcery, the magical underworld in DC is flourishing with gangs. Joan Kendrick suddenly finds herself accepting a job with the notorious Shaw Gang while Alex Danfrey, a first-year federal trainee with his own secrets, is tasked with going undercover in the same gang. And after their paths cross, they can’t seem to stay away from each other. But soon allegiances begin to shift, and Joan and Alex are forced into a dangerous game of cat and mouse that will force them to come to terms with their loyalty.

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A Criminal Magic
Lee Kelly

In Lee Kelly’s “electric” (Publishers Weekly) fantasy novel, two young sorcerers experiment with magic and mobsters in 1920s Prohibition when a new elixir is created that turns their lives upside down.

Washington, DC, 1926. Sorcery opponents have succeeded in passing the 18th Amendment, but the Prohibition of magic has only invigorated the city’s underworld. Smuggling rings carry magic contraband in from the coast. Sorcerers cast illusions to aid mobsters’ crime sprees. Gangs have even established “magic havens,” secret venues where the public can lose themselves in immersive magic and consume a mind-bending, highly addictive elixir known as “the sorcerer’s shine.”

Joan Kendrick, a young sorcerer from the backwoods of Norfolk County, accepts an offer to work for DC’s most notorious crime syndicate, The Shaw Gang, when her family’s home is repossessed. Alex Danfrey, first-year Federal Prohibition Unit trainee with a complicated past and talents of his own, becomes tapped to go undercover and infiltrate the Shaws. When Joan meets Alex at the Shaws’ magic haven, she discovers a confidante in her fellow partner and he begins to fall under her spell. But when a new breed of the addictive sorcerer’s shine is created within the walls of the magic haven, Joan and Alex are forced to question their allegiances as they become pitted against one another in a dangerous, heady game of cat-and-mouse.

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She Who Became the Sun
by Shelley Parker-Chan

Take everything you know about fate and greatness and make it your own. This book is dark and thrilling and tragic, and I am obsessed. Author Shelley Parker-Chan weaves magic and history together in such an epic and engaging way that I couldn’t help but be transported. Under the harsh rule of the Mongols in 1345, the people in the Central Plains of China suffer through famine and strife. But when the Zhu family’s eighth son is born, and he receives a prophecy of greatness, everyone is anxious and hopeful to learn how it will come to pass. Of course, a prophecy of nothingness is all but expected for their second daughter. But when the two children become orphaned, it is the son who perishes. The daughter, determined to be much more than nothing, steals her brother’s name and pretends to be a young boy to enter a monastery as a novice, but after the monastery is destroyed, she realizes that she doesn’t just want to excel, she wants the greatness that her brother abandoned.

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She Who Became the Sun
Shelley Parker-Chan

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The Philosopher's Flight
by Tom Miller

The World War I era always feels underrepresented in historical fiction—and even more so in historical fantasy—but Tom Miller has done a truly wonderful and magical job at combing the two. I love the worldbuilding and magic systems at play here where everything is a combination of magic, science, and art. Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy, an arcane and female-dominated sector of magic that can summon wind, heal the injured, and fly. Robert dreams of joining The Great War as a flying medic, but after a deadly accident tests his abilities, he wins a scholarship to attend Radcliffe College, an all-women’s university. He must learn to hone his skills while winning the respect of his formidable and head-strong classmates. Soon, Robert finds himself falling for Danielle Hardin, a war hero and now activist. But her politics and Robert’s impulsive actions put them all at risk from the same anti-philosophical group that his mother fought against.

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The Philosopher's Flight
Tom Miller

The first book in a new series and a thrilling debut from ER doctor turned novelist Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight is an epic historical fantasy set in a World-War-I-era America that “[begins] with rollicking fierceness that grabs readers from its opening lines and doesn’t loosen its grip or lessen its hold all the way through. Miller’s writing is intoxicating” (Associated Press).

HE’S ALWAYS WANTED TO FLY LIKE A GIRL.

Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is one of the few men who practice empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, heal the injured, and even fly. He’s always dreamed of being the first man to join the US Sigilry Corps’ Rescue and Evacuation Department, an elite team of flying medics, but everyone knows that’s impossible: men can barely get off the ground. When a shocking tragedy puts Robert’s philosophical abilities to the test, he rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study philosophy at Radcliffe College—an all-women’s school. At Radcliffe, Robert hones his flying skills and strives to win the respect of his classmates, a host of formidable and unruly women. Robert falls hard for Danielle Hardin, a disillusioned young hero of the Great War turned political radical. But Danielle’s activism and Robert’s recklessness attract the attention of the same fanatical anti-philosophical group that Robert’s mother fought against decades before.

With their lives in mounting danger, Robert and Danielle band together with a team of unlikely heroes to fight for Robert’s place among the next generation of empirical philosophers—and for philosophy’s very survival against the men who would destroy it.

“Part thriller, part romance, part coming-of-age fantasy, The Philosopher’s Flight…is as fun a read as you’ll come across… Miller has already set a high bar for any book vying to be the most entertaining novel of [the year]” (BookPage). Tom Miller writes with unrivaled imagination, ambition, and humor. The Philosopher’s Flight is both a fantastical reimagining of American history and a beautifully composed coming-of-age tale for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.

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Map of Time
by Felix J. Palma

I am a huge fan of the Victorian period, and I love thrillers set there. So when you combine that passion with some time travel and H.G. Wells as a detective? I’m already sold. Félix J. Palma brings both historical and literary figures to life in THE MAP OF TIME as he whimsically intertwines multiple time travel plots together. This is a unique and fun read where, if I’m being honest, the less you know about the book, the better to truly live the spellbinding experience for yourself.

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Map of Time
Felix J. Palma

Set in Victorian London with characters real and imagined, The Map of Time boasts a triple-play of intertwined plots in which a skeptical H.G. Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and thereby save the lives of an aristocrat in love with a murdered prostitute from the past; of a woman bent on fleeing the strictures of Victorian society; and of his very own wife, who may have become a pawn in a fourth-dimensional plot to murder the authors of Dracula, The Time Machine, and The War of the Worlds, in order to alter their identities and steal their fictional creations. But what happens if we change history? Mingling fictional characters with real ones, Félix J. Palma weaves a historical fantasy as imaginative as it is exciting, a story full of love and adventure that also pays homage to the roots of science fiction while transporting its readers to a fascinating Victorian London for their own taste of time travel.

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Shallow Waters
by Anita Kopacz

Set in the 1800s, SHALLOW WATERS is a beautiful reimagining of the story of Yemaya, a deity of the Yoruba people. After a mysterious stranger named Obatala gives up his freedom to save her, Yemaya knows she must find and rescue him from a life of slavery in America. As she travels the Underground Railroad in search of the stranger who saved her, Yemaya matures as a woman, crosses paths with many historical figures, and grows into her own inner strength and power. Anita Kopacz blends history with mythology as Yemaya faces the horrors of Antebellum America.

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Shallow Waters
Anita Kopacz

In this stirring and lyrical debut novel—perfect for fans of The Water Dancer and the Legacy of Orïsha series—the Yoruba deity of the sea, Yemaya, is brought to vivid life as she discovers the power of Black resilience, love, and feminine strength in antebellum America.

Shallow Waters imagines Yemaya, an Orïsha—a deity in the religion of Africa’s Yoruba people—cast into mid-1800s America. We meet Yemaya as a young woman, still in the care of her mother and not yet fully aware of the spectacular power she possesses to protect herself and those she holds dear.

The journey laid out in Shallow Waters sees Yemaya confront the greatest evils of this era; transcend time and place in search of Obatala, a man who sacrifices his own freedom for the chance at hers; and grow into the powerful woman she was destined to become. We travel alongside Yemaya from her native Africa and on to the “New World,” with vivid pictures of life for those left on the outskirts of power in the nascent Americas.

Yemaya realizes the fighter within, travels the Underground Railroad in search of the mysterious stranger Obatala, and crosses paths with icons of our history on the road to freedom. Shallow Waters is a nourishing work of ritual storytelling from promising debut author Anita Kopacz.

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The Lost Queen
by Signe Pike

Whenever I think about historical fantasy, my mind immediately goes to THE LOST QUEEN. If you enjoy the enduring legends of Merlin and great wizards, then this book is worth a read as Signe Pike’s extensive historical research brings those stories to life. In ancient Scotland, Languoreth and her brother were raised on the old ways of superstition and magic. But the Anglo-Saxons, who are bent on colonization and the spread of Christianity, bring bloodshed to their doors. Languoreth and her brother join forces with the druid Myrddin, the inspiration for Merlin. But Langoureth has been promised to marry the High King’s son, Rhydderch. She must learn to adapt and preserve the ways of her people.

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The Lost Queen
Signe Pike

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She Would Be King
by Wayétu Moore

Wayétu Moore beautifully infuses the history of Liberia’s creation with myths and magic for a powerful read that brings in new supernatural elements. Exiled from Lai, bitten by snakes, and starving, Gbessa should be dead. And yet, she survives. June Dey has been hiding his gift of strength, but after a dangerous confrontation with an overseer, he has no choice but to run. Norman Aragon is the son of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave who can turn invisible. The three cross paths in the Monrovia settlement, where they each must use their gifts to ease tensions between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes. The magical realism elevates this story into something truly nuanced and breathtaking.

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She Would Be King
Wayétu Moore

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The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
by V.E. Schwab

I am a big fan of V. E. Schwab and have loved pretty much everything I’ve ever read by her, and this book haunts my dreams and memories in the best way possible. Addie LaRue always dreamed of a life bigger than the one her small village in France could give her. In 1714, in a moment of pure desperation, Addie makes a deal with a dark god. She wants to live forever so that she may experience everything the world has to offer. But this gift of immortality comes with a curse: Everyone she meets is doomed to forget her. And so, Addie lives three hundred years of adventures, alone. Until she meets a young man in a bookstore who remembers her name. This book is for anyone who wants to live a life worth remembering, for anyone who wants to cherish every moment as if it’s their last, or for those who just love art and music and writing and stories that span for years.

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The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
V.E. Schwab

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Mexican Gothic
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

When I first read MEXICAN GOTHIC, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. The twisted magic and dark family secrets swirled around in my head constantly. True to its title, it is a gothic novel, and there is no better time than now to pick this one up. It’s Mexico in the 1950s when Noemí travels to High Place, a house in the distant countryside, after receiving a strange and frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin. Noemí is determined to help her cousin and then return to her glamorous life in the city. And while she knows little about the region or her cousin’s English husband and his family, she isn’t afraid. But High Place is not a welcoming home, and soon fear creeps in, invading her dreams with horrors that something much, much darker is happening here than she ever could have imagined.

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Mexican Gothic
Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Photo credit: iStock / DmitriiSimakov

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