Mixing fantastical elements into historical fiction, the best historical fantasy books magically bring history to life in surprising new ways.
One of the beauties of artistic expression is when you take two different styles and merge them, creating an entirely new work.
In historical fantasy, authors take the atmosphere of a historical setting and then add a fun twist, incorporating supernatural or magic elements from fantasy. It’s basically the best of two worlds.
Far from one narrow category, historical fantasy books run the gamut – from medieval fantasy full of mages and swords to magical realism in a more modern historical period. Maybe you want a horror historical fiction book or a retelling of a Greek myth.
With historical fantasy, there’s a little bit of something for everyone.
Best Historical Fantasy Books
The Bear and the Nightingale
In medieval Russia, Vasya and her family live in the far north, where winter lasts most of the year. She loves to hear tales of spirits who live that protect their home from evil, especially of the Frost Demon. When Vasya’s mother dies and her father remarries, her stepmother forbids the pagan practices, the weakened household spirits cannot protect them from a growing evil. Beautifully blending folklore with an unforgettable atmosphere, you’ll be completely drawn into this imaginative historical fantasy series.
The Poppy War
R. F. Kuang
A gorgeous grimdark historical fantasy inspired by the violence of modern Chinese history. Everyone is surprised when Rin, a war orphan, aces her test and is admitted to the elite military school in Nikan. Bullied by her classmates for her dark skin and peasant background, Rin realizes she has magical abilities others do not. With the Third Poppy War looming, Rin might be the Empire’s only chance for survival.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Reclusive Mr. Norrell has accumulated one of England’s largest book collections about magic. Working in forgotten magic, Mr. Norrell uses his abilities for England in the war with Napoleon. When he finds another practicing magician, he accepts the young man as his apprentice. But Jonathan Strange is the complete opposite of Mr. Norrell – handsome, charming, talkative, and attracted to the wildest forms of magic, including the shadowy figure of the Raven King.
Gods of Jade and Shadow
In a small town in 1920s Mexico, Casiopea Tun is too busy working as a maid to enjoy the Jazz Age. When she accidentally unleashes the Mayan god of death, she must accompany him on a cross-country adventure to help him reclaim his throne where failure will cause death and success will make her wildest dreams come true.
In this retelling of the Greek myth, Circe, the daughter of the sun god, feels out of place among the gods of Olympus. Yet, among the mortals, she has magical powers of witchcraft. Banished by Zeus, Circe must decide where she belongs – with the gods of her birth or the mortals she’s come to live among. An intriguing premise and the perfect book for anyone who loves stories that give a different take on classic tales.
Can’t Miss Historical Fantasy
The Night Circus
Without warning, Le Cirque de Rêves arrives in town, a circus that only operates at night. Within its walls are two competing magicians, Celia and Marco, bound together in a high stakes challenge. When they fall in love, a love so magical it affects the world around them, their dangerous game becomes even more precarious. From the first page to the last, Morgenstern’s historical fantasy book will captivate you with her seductive and mysterious prose.
R. F. Kuang
In 1828, Robin Swift, an orphan, is brought from Canton to London by the mysterious Dr. Lovell. For years he trains in different languages to be accepted to Oxford’s Royal Institute of Translation, known as Babel. Learning to translate, and the magic that comes with it, soon puts Swift on a collision course between loyalty to his homeland and his adopted company when Britain starts a war with China.
When Women Were Dragons
In her imaginative new historical fantasy, Kelly Barnhill details the Mass Dragoning of 1955. In a shocking event, hundreds of thousands of ordinary mothers and wives transform into dragons and fly away. Was it by choice and where did they go? Alex can’t stop wondering after her beloved aunt is involved, but the subject is taboo though the consequences to her family are far-reaching.
She Who Became the Sun
In 1345, two children of the Zhu family are given opposite destinies: for the boy, greatness; for the girl, nothingness. After her brother dies, the girl takes on his identity, joining the monastery and aiding in the rebellion against the Mongols. A bold queer reimagining of the rise of the Ming Dynasty perfect for fans of historical fantasy.
The Night Tiger
Eleven-year-old Ren is given one final task when his master dies: to find his master’s severed finger and return it, in the next 49 days, or his master’s soul will be doomed to wander the earth. From there, his story will mingle with that of dance hall girl Ji Lin who has found the finger, all while a tiger stalks the town. Mixing Chinese folklore and superstition with historical fiction, Choo brings the time period to life in this beautifully written and imaginative story.
Charlie N. Holmberg
In Victorian England, magic and spell making are prevalent but strictly controlled by the elite classes. For years, Elsie Camden has been like the Robin Hood of magic, breaking spells to help the poor. Until one mission she is caught by an expert magic user who won’t turn her in if she agrees to help him. Holmberg’s historical fantasy is a delight to read, with intriguing world-building, a cute love story, and plenty of adventure.
Magical Realism Books
The Water Dancer
With no memory of his mother after she is sold away as a slave, Hiram tries to win the love of his white plantation owner father. After escaping death, Hiram realizes his father will never love him as a son. After a failed attempt to escape, Hiram eventually joins the Underground – where he aims to rescue others with a mysterious power he has developed. If you don’t mind the slower pace or the magical realism, you love the powerful and lyrical writing of The Water Dancer.
At midnight on August 15, 1947, India celebrates its independence. Born at the midnight hours, Saleem Sinai finds himself endowed with special powers connecting him to his nation. His actions and health seem to mirror the state’s well-being. Yet, Saleem is not alone, connected to a thousand other children also born in that midnight hour, all gifted with magical abilities.
Things in Jars
In Victorian London, female detective Bridie Devine faces her hardest case yet – the kidnapping of a young girl. The hidden daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, Christabel is rumored to have supernatural powers. Along the way, Bridie teams up with a giantess housemaid and a tattooed ghost to solve the mystery.
The World That We Knew
During WWII, after her daughter is almost raped, Hanni Kohn decides that she must send her daughter Lea away from Germany. Because she must stay to protect her mother, Hanni decides to create a mystical Jewish creature, a golem, whose purpose in life will be to protect Ettie. With the help of Ettie, a rabbi’s daughter, they bring to life Ava, and Ava, Lea, and Ettie’s paths converge in France, which is not quite the haven for Jews they were hoping for.
Myths & Retellings
These Violent Delights
A clever retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Chloe Gong’s debut novel is one of the best historical fantasy books for young adults who don’t mind a little bit of horror mixed in. In 1920s Shanghai, a blood feud between two rival gangs causes chaos in the city. Eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai has returned home to embrace her place as heir to the Scarlet Gang. When a contagion starts sweeping the streets, Juliette must work with her first love, Roma Montagov from the rival gang, to solve the mystery.
A reimagining of the life of Kaikeyi, the vilified jealous queen from the Indian epic the Ramayana, who transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior. The only daughter of the kingdom of Kekaya, Kaikeyi wants to be more than just a pawn used for her marriage potential. Using magic, she transforms herself into a warrior and queen, but her plans clash with the destiny the gods have set for her family.
Half Sick of Shadows
Laura Sebastian’s feminist Arthurian retelling ponders how far a woman will go to change fate. Elaine of Shallot has been blessed (cursed?) with the ability to see the ancient prophecies surrounding her and her friends – most of them tragic. When Elaine, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Morgana accompany Arthur to Camelot at the start of his reign, the prophecies begin to come true and Elaine must decide how much stock to place in fate.
The Stardust Thief
In a fantasy inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, Loulie al-Nazari is a thief of illegal magic with the help of her jinn bodyguard. When Loulie saves the life of a cowardly prince, she catches the attention of his father, the Sultan. Now Loulie and the sultan’s oldest son must search for a magical lamp that will destroy the jinn or risk losing their own lives.
Horror Historical Fantasy Books
If a gothic thriller that blends historical fantasy and horror and is set in 1950s Mexico sounds intriguing, you need to read Mexican Gothic. Noemí Taboada receives a frantic letter from her cousin accusing her new husband of trying to poison her. To help, Noemí travels to their estate in the Mexican countryside. She doesn’t fear her cousin’s husband or father-in-law, or the creepy house that is giving her nightmares.
Alma Katsu tells a fictional account of the real-life Donner Party but with a supernatural twist. As the pioneer company makes its way across the Great Plains to California, they are plagued by hardships as a sinister force seems to be brewing. With supplies running low and members disappearing, the group begins to wonder if evil has been residing among them all along.
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
This dark retelling of the famous Frankenstein tale focuses on Elizabeth Lavenza, a woman who is taken in by the Frankenstein family and eventually becomes inseparable from the infamous Victor. As Victor descends into darkness, with an increasingly dangerous temper, Elizabeth must use all her cunning to survive. One of the best historical fantasy books if you are in the mood for a dark and intriguing premise.
During World War II, Meiko Briggs and her daughter Aiko are forced into a Japanese internment camp even though her husband is an Air Force pilot and Aiko is American-born. When a supernatural illness starts spreading throughout the camp, Meiko believes the disease is linked to a demon from her childhood stories.
J. M. Miro
In Victorian England, two detectives escort teenagers Charlie and Marlowe from the dangers of London to an Edinburgh estate for gifted children. For Charlie has the remarkable ability to heal himself and Marlowe can mend or melt flesh at will. Gathered with other gifted children, The Talents, Charlie and Marlowe begin to investigate their strange powers and eventually realize that those who appear the most innocent can be the most monstrous.
Time Travel Books
One of the best historical fantasy romance books, Gabaldon’s Outlander series creates a sweeping love triangle. Recently returned from serving as a WWII nurse, Claire Randall decides to take a second honeymoon with her husband. When she steps through a standing stone in the British Isles, she finds herself transported back to 1743 in war-torn Scotland. As Claire allies with the great warrior James Fraser, she must decide between the love of two completely men in two completely different times.
Octavia E. Butler
In 1976, Dana, a young African-American writer, finds herself inexplicably sent back through time to a pre-Civil War plantation in Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy, she finds herself back in Los Angeles. Over and over, Dana finds herself returning to the plantation, which she realizes is where her ancestors lived. As her stays in the past become longer, Dana becomes entangled in the plantation and is forced to make harder and harder choices to survive. Octavia Butler’s genre-bending novel is a must-read among time travel books.
In 11/22/63, English teacher Jake Epping discovers that his friend Al has a portal in his diner storeroom that leads back to 1958. As Jake emerges into the past, he starts by trying to change the life of one of his students and eventually concocts a plan to prevent President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But playing with time always has unintended consequences.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
V. E. Schwab
To escape a forced marriage, Addie LaRue makes a bargain with the devil in 1714. She gets to live forever, but the catch is she will be forgotten by everyone she meets. After 300 years, Addie has become resigned to her fate until she meets a young man who remembers her name. Although, not really a time-travel book per se, this historical fantasy book is an all-around joy of a read.
Historical Fantasy To Read
The Philosopher’s Flight
During World War I, women dominate the field of empirical philosophy, where they use science to summon the wind, shape clouds, heal wounds, and fly. Though he dreams of becoming the first male in the elite group of flying medics, Robert is resigned to doing the drudge work behind the scenes. When a deadly accident tests Robert’s abilities, an anti-philosophical group approaches Robert and his crush Danielle, a war hero turned activist, forcing the two to become very unlikely heroes.
My Lady Jane
Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, & Jodi Meadows
Hand, Ashton, and Meadows collaborate to write a snarky and not very historically accurate portrayal of Lady Jane Grey, who was the Queen of England. To secure the throne for Jane instead of his Catholic half-sister, a dying King Edward marries Jane off to a stranger, Gifford. But when Gifford turns into a horse, Lady Jane sets off with him on an epic adventure to save England.
In Agnieszka’s quiet village, life is peaceful though the shadow of the corrupt Wood surrounds the town. A powerful wizard known as the Dragon keeps the darkness at bay: for a price. Every ten years, the Dragon claims a young woman from the village as his servant. The next choosing is fast approaching and Agnieska is so terrified her beautiful best friend will be chosen that she is unprepared to be his selection in this imaginative medieval fantasy.
The Keeper of Night
Kylie Lee Baker
Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami, Ren Scarborough has been collecting souls in London for centuries. When her Shinigami ways get her kicked out of London by the Reapers, Ren seeks acceptance in Japan with the Goddess of Death. Hoping to finally belong, she accepts a task to kill three dangerous demons, desperate to prove her worth and earn a place at Death’s side.
What Are Your Thoughts on Historical Fantasy Books?
Do you prefer fantasy mixed with historical fiction or would you rather keep the genres separate? What historical fantasy books are missing from my list? As always, let me know in the comments!
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