Author Picks: 6 Historical Fiction Reads with a Magical Twist

Share Author Picks: 6 Historical Fiction Reads with a Magical Twist

Melodie Winawer is the author of The Scribe of Siena and Anticipation. A physician-scientist and associate professor of neurology at Columbia University, Melodie lives with her spouse and their three children in both Brooklyn, New York and Ludlow, Vermont.

My new book, Anticipation, is a dual timeline story set in the ruined city of Mystras, Greece. It tells the story of Helen, a recently widowed single mother and overworked scientist who, desperate for a vacation, travels with her son Alexander to Greece. There they are unexpectedly drawn to visit the ancient city of Mystras, where they cross paths with its only resident, Elias, a mysterious tour guide living on the city’s edges—both physically and temporally. Helen and Alexander’s vacation turns into a fight for their lives once they meet Elias, who is inextricably bound to the crumbling city he is sworn to protect.

I’ve loved historical fiction for as long as I can remember; my first childhood crush was Alexander the Great. But I am particularly drawn to historical novels that bend reality, those that blur the boundaries between past and present, dreams and reality, life and death. Here are six wonderful historical novels that combine well-researched history with just that sort of believable, entrancing magic.

The Bookseller
by Cynthia Swanson

Set in 1960s Denver, the story alternates between the life of 38-year-old Kitty Miller, an alone but not exactly lonely bookstore owner, and Katharyn Andersson, whose apparently perfect life is full of love for her husband and children, but also the hidden agonies of parenthood. Kitty and Katharyn are linked through dreams, but which of their lives is real and which is dreamed?  You’ll have to read this mesmerizing book to find out.

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The Bookseller
Cynthia Swanson

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Labyrinth
by Kate Mosse

This gripping novel connects two women: Alice, a twenty-first-century archeological volunteer in the Pyrenees mountains of France who discovers two skeletons and the pattern of a labyrinth in a cave; and Alaïs, a thirteenth-century Cathar woman branded as a heretic, fleeing attacking Crusaders while trying to keep the secret of the labyrinth safe.

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Labyrinth
Kate Mosse

July 2005. In the Pyrenees mountains near Carcassonne, Alice, a volunteer at an archaeological dig, stumbles into a cave and makes a startling discovery-two crumbling skeletons, strange writings on the walls, and the pattern of a labyrinth. Eight hundred years earlier, on the eve of a brutal crusade that will rip apart southern France, a young woman named Alais is given a ring and a mysterious book for safekeeping by her father. The book, he says, contains the secret of the true Grail, and the ring, inscribed with a labyrinth, will identify a guardian of the Grail. Now, as crusading armies gather outside the city walls of Carcassonne, it will take a tremendous sacrifice to keep the secret of the labyrinth safe.

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Author Picks: 6 Historical Fiction Reads with a Magical Twist

By Melodie Winawer | November 10, 2021

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The Lost History of Dreams
by Kris Waldherr

THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS is an eerie gothic ghost story, love story, and haunting mystery all in one. Waldherr spins the tale of a post-mortem photographer whose tragic wife remains at the periphery of his life as he learns and records the story of dead poet Hugh de Bonne and Hugh’s own lost love. The divisions between past and present and life and death blur as the mystery unfolds in a moody Victorian English landscape.

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The Lost History of Dreams
Kris Waldherr

THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS is an eerie gothic ghost story, love story, and haunting mystery all in one. Waldherr spins the tale of a post-mortem photographer whose tragic wife remains at the periphery of his life as he learns and records the story of dead poet Hugh de Bonne and Hugh’s own lost love. The divisions between past and present and life and death blur as the mystery unfolds in a moody Victorian English landscape.

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The Winter Sea
by Susanna Kearsley

THE WINTER SEA tells the captivating story of Carrie McClellan, a novelist inspired by her own Scottish heritage to write about the 1700s Jacobite rebellion. Carrie, haunted by ancestral memory, becomes immersed in the tumultuous history of Scotland’s struggle and is swept away by forces she cannot completely control in this beautifully crafted story of romance and danger that seamlessly merges past and present.

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The Winter Sea
Susanna Kearsley

Contemporary and eighteenth-century Scotland are interwoven in this gothic and romantic novel. A writer is startled to learn that a story she thinks has sprung from her imagination is actually a factual account of her ancestors during the Jacobite rebellion. Complex Scottish history with a hint of time travel and gorgeous simmering romance? Check!

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The Song of Achilles
by Madeline Miller

The tragic and powerful tale of the Iliad is millennia old, but in Madeline Miller’s hands it becomes startlingly new. Told from the perspective of Patroclus, warrior Achilles’ best friend, the love and anguish of their lives spent together is gorgeously portrayed, set on the backdrop of the years-long Trojan war.  Magic hums through the story—from the graceful and believable way Miller portrays the ancient Greek experience of  gods as a part of daily life, involving themselves (or meddling) in human struggles. Particularly wonderful is the portrayal of demigod Achilles’ nonmortal mother, Thetis, a powerful sea nymph whom poor Patroclus must suffer with as the disapproving, and often terrifying stand-in for a mother-in-law. 

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The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller

“I’ve always thought that a good book should be either the entry point inward, to learn about yourself, or a door outward, to open you up to new worlds. With THE SONG OF ACHILLES, Madeline Miller gave me both.”

Read the full review by Taylor Jenkins Reid here.

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All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

I am certainly not the first person to marvel at Doerr’s novel of World War II, told alternately from the intersecting perspectives of German cadet Werner Pfennig and blind, brave French Marie Laure LeBlanc whose father entrusts her with a dangerous secret as the war is brewing. Epic but intimate, every object in this spellbinding novel is deeply steeped in believable magic: a perfect miniature of the city of Saint-Malo, a priceless but dangerous jewel, a staticky hand-built radio. Doerr’s writing imbues life with shimmering enchantment that illuminates and connects his characters across the vast differences that divide them.

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All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Book Review Top Ten Book, National Book Award finalist, more than two and a half years on the New York Times bestseller list

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the stunningly beautiful instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

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Anticipation
by Melodie Winawer

ANTICIPATION by Melodie Winawer is out now!

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. 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.

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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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Photo credit: iStock / morrowlight

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