This list of historical fiction novels was originally published in our historical fiction newsletter, Past Tense. Sign up for it here to get historical fiction recs straight to your inbox!
When I think about historical fiction and historical fantasy, I usually think of them as entirely separate genres. But really historical fantasy is a subgenre of both fantasy and historical fiction. It’s a perfectly valid and a fun confluence of genres!
Lately, I’ve been exploring historical fiction that fits in with the themes of witches and horror and magic, because historical fiction is so much more than just books on WWII. (Not to say that some of those books aren’t great, too.) So historical fiction with a hint of magic seems like just the thing. These five examples explore different periods and settings in history, but a slight touch of magic woven in makes them a little less plausible and all the more fantastic.
The Witches of New York by Ami McKay
In New York’s Gilded Age, three women come together to use their magic to stand strong in a time when society was hell-bent on keeping them down. When Beatrice Dunn responds to a strange ad — “Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shop Girl. Those averse to magic need not apply” — she’s not sure what to expect. What she gets is Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair, proprietors of a teashop that deals in more than just tea leaves.
The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia
Found under a bridge covered in a blanket of bees, Simonopio seems to some the stuff of superstition, cursed by the devil. But Simonopio loves his adopted family, who see him as simply a boy in need of a home, dearly. And he is determined to use his gifts of premonition and his herd of protective bees to keep them safe from anything that threatens them.
The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
In a world reminiscent of Parisian society where manners and reputation are everything, a young woman is swept up in the torrid love affair of a famed showman and her uncle’s unforgiving wife. Nina is dazzled when Hector Auvray arrives in town, hoping to learn more about the telekinetic powers he is known for, powers which she herself possesses. Hector helps Nina hone her gifts, but his affections are secretly withheld, already sworn to another: Nina’s aunt Valerie, his first love. But in spite of her strangeness, in spite of the powers society shuns in a woman, in spite of her love for beetles and the innocence she is soon to lose to an older man toying with her heart, Nina has greater potential that any of them realize.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
When Hiram’s mother is sold away, he’s robbed of all his memories of her. But he’s also left with a rare power, one that, years later, saves him from drowning. He’s left with a determination to escape enslavement, traveling from the plantations of Virginia to the dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he becomes involved in the underground moment to free people from slavery, he never forgets his resolve to save the family he left behind.
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova
Though half of this beautiful magical realism novel take place in present day, the other half explores Orquídea Divina’s past as part of a traveling circus in Ecuador, slowly revealing the answers her grandchildren seek in the present. The subtle magic weaved throughout makes this book even more poignant, with the gifts and curses of a family’s past stretching out into the present.
If you liked these historical fiction meets fantasy books, you might also like 10 Genre-Blending Fantasy Books.