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Historical Fiction

That Old Back Magic: 9 Must-Read Historical Fantasy Books

Liberty Hardy

Senior Contributing Editor

Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading. Twitter: @MissLiberty

Flatiron Books, publisher of The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo

Set in the Spanish Golden Age, during a time of high‑stakes political intrigue and glittering wealth, The Familiar follows Luzia, a servant in the household of an impoverished Spanish nobleman, who reveals a talent for little miracles. Her social‑climbing mistress demands Luzia use her gifts to win over Madrid’s most powerful players, but what begins as simple amusement takes a dangerous turn. Luzia will need to use every bit of her wit and will to survive — even the help of Guillén Santángel, an immortal familiar whose own secrets could prove deadly for them both. The Familiar by Leigh Bardugo is on sale now.

We as humans tend to romanticize the past, but these books fantasize the past by giving history speculative elements! Who doesn’t wish the past had more magic? Or at least more dragons. Er, any dragons, really. (Do dinosaurs count as kinda-dragons?) After all, a lot more people from centuries ago believed in magic and supernatural creatures than we do today. (Silly science, ruining all our fun.) But it’s still exciting to imagine these things were possible. So why not add a little extra something to stories from days of yore? Give history the old razzle dazzle and add a touch of magic to your historical fiction reading with this list of nine must-read historical fantasy books!

In these pages, you’ll find women spontaneously turning into dragons and getting the heck out of Dodge; a sister searching for her brother lost on the battlefield (who may have had a little supernatural help); fox gods at the turn of the 20th-century in Manchuria; a boy with an unusual talent in Singapore during the Japanese invasion; a fantastical reimagining of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor; and more! Whether you’re looking to add magic to your reading life, or you just love good books, there’s something here for everyone!

cover of The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden; illustration of hands holding a rose

The Warm Hands of Ghosts by Katherine Arden

This is an amazing novel of literal and figurative hauntings set during World War I. After field nurse Laura Iven was wounded in action, she is sent home to Halifax. But shortly after, she loses her parents in the munitions explosion and receives a strange package indicating her brother Freddie has died in battle. With no date of death, explanation, or a body, Laura holds out hope that the missive is incorrect and returns to Belgium to look for Freddie. Meanwhile, the book goes back in time in alternating chapters to show readers what happened to Freddie on the battlefield, some of which involve a mysterious figure he meets. Even with the speculative elements, it’s one of the most harrowing, powerful portrayals of war in fiction in recent years.

cover of When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill; illustration of green foliage with purple flowers and the hint of a dragon

When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

Barnhill’s first novel for adults is a fun feminist fantasy! In 1955, in what is now called the Mass Dragoning, hundreds of thousands of women turned into dragons. As in scaly, fire-breathing, flying dragons. Then they took off, because, hello, they’re dragons now and can fly. But, the dragon women left behind a lot of loved ones and a lot of questions. Why did it happen? Why didn’t all women turn into dragons? And, young Alex wants to know, why aren’t they allowed to talk about what happened?

cover of The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo; illustration of an Asian woman in red walking on the snowy banks by a river. Her reflection in the water is a white fox.

The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo

And this is a fantastical mystery, set in Manchuria in the early 1900s. When a woman is found frozen outside, it is said she may have been lured by a fox god, who has the ability to change into a beautiful human. Bao is the detective charged with discovering the woman’s identity, which is intriguing for him because the case also involves his fascination with the fox gods. Meanwhile, Snow is a mother bent on revenge, chasing a murderer, and soon, Bao will be following in her footsteps. And all the while, the world of mortals and spirits weaves in and out of their stories. It’s a quietly beautiful mystery that pulls from mythology and history.

cover of The Conductors ; illustration of a young Black woman in old-fashioned dress holding a lantern

The Conductors by Nicole Glover

In a world where magic is real, Hetty and her husband are conductors for the Underground Railroad, using their abilities to help enslaved people to freedom. After the Civil War, they wind up in Philadelphia, working as detectives to help solve cases for Black people that the white police ignore. When an old friend is found dead, the unusual case will uncover old secrets and new dangers that could cost them their lives.

cover of The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng; painting of blue waves crashing on rocks

The Great Reclamation by Rachel Heng

Heng has taken a period of history and added a dash of magic in this sad, lovely story of family, war, and love. Ah Boon has grown up in Singapore in the time of British rule, and has been in love with his neighbor Siok Mei for years. He is not interested in being a fisherman like the other men in his village, but he does have a unique gift for finding and moving islands. (What, you can’t do that?) When the Japanese army invades and occupies their village, Ah Boon and Siok Mei will have to make hard choices about their future and their family, before all is lost.

cover of The Sun and the Void by Gabriela Romero Lacruz; illustration of jungle foliage, antlers, and cheetahs

The Sun and the Void by Gabriela Romero Lacruz

Two women are on a collision course with magic and danger in this exciting debut fantasy inspired by the history and stories of colonial South America! Eva wants nothing more than to be accepted by her family, but, being an “illegitimate” child, she is an outcast. Her secret doesn’t help matters: Eva has magic in her — magic she can’t use, under punishment of death. Reina is a young woman who is almost killed in an attack until she is saved by her grandmother, a dark sorceress. But to keep her life, Reina must do her grandmother’s bidding, no matter the cost. Even if it involves ancient gods.

Book cover of She Who Became the Sun: Radiant Emperor by Shelley Parker-Chan; yellow with an orange sun and the outline of many soldier on horses at the bottom

She Who Became the Sun (The Radiant Emperor Duology) by Shelley Parker-Chan

The Ming Dynasty, but make it speculative! In 14th-century China, it is said a young boy named Zhu is destined for greatness. Unfortunately, he dies, leaving behind his sister. Refusing to believe it is her destiny to be a quiet, servile woman, she takes her brother’s destiny as her own, disguising herself as a boy and joining a monastery. As this new Zhu grows, she learns the ways of the harsh, unforgiving world, and decides she wants to take as much of the future for herself as she can, eventually rising up to be a great leader.

cover of The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope AOC; illustration of the profile of a black woman wearing a blue hat with a pink ribbon and flower, in front of green plants

The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope

And how about a Jazz Age heist novel, with a side of spirits? Magic almost always comes with a cost. Clara can talk to ghosts, but in return, she is indebted to them. But then a spirit gives her a chance to get out of her obligation. All she has to do is steal a magic ring from the richest woman in the city. A little breaking and entering — easy, right? To pull off the robbery, Clara calls on other friends with unusual abilities. But, as they get their plans together, it turns out that the trickster spirit may not have been very forthcoming with all the details of the job. And the threats growing in the real world have Clara and her friends rushing to find a solution.

cover of Ours by Phillip B. Williams; paiting of two young Black people, one in a pink jacket and one in a blue jacket

Ours by Phillip B. Williams

And, last but not least, this amazing speculative novel of history and sanctuary. In the 1830s, just outside St. Louis is a town called Ours. But it’s not on any map, and outsiders can’t find it. It’s a town specifically created by a conjuror named Saint, who rescues enslaved people and hides them away in Ours. But as the years go by, Saint’s powers start to wane, making the special town vulnerable to the outside world that Saint wanted to keep out, as well as powerful people with motives of their own. Can the sanctuary be saved? Or was it too good to be true? Ours is a fantastical reimagining of American history, a magical epic infused with imagination and pain and joy.

If you want to learn about more great fantasy and/or historical fiction books, check out New Historical Fiction for Your Book Club, 10 of the Best Historical Fiction Books About Books, and 12 Perfect Dragon Books to Read During the Year of the Dragon. And be sure to sign up for our nonfiction newsletter, True Story, our SFF newsletter, Swords and Spaceships, and listen to our SFF podcast, SFF Yeah!

Finally, you can also find a full list of new releases in the magical New Release Index, carefully curated by your favorite Book Riot editors, organized by genre and release date.