If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you will know that fantasy and historical fiction are my two favorite genres. Books that combine both elements, however, make me absolutely giddy. Well done historical fantasy, as I’ve dubbed this genre, is much more difficult to find than you might expect (with the industry riddled with time-traveling romances like Outlander), so today I’ve drawn up a list of my top ten books for lovers of well done historical fantasy.
Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Fairy Tale Retelling
There is no one who does this genre as well as Juliet Marillier. With a career spanning multiple decades, Marillier has delved into medieval cultures and mythologies from across Europe. None is more heart wrenching than her Celtic retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Six Swan Brothers.” Set in a pre-medieval Ireland where nations live in fear of Viking raids and ancient spirits linger in the woods and waters, this tale chronicles Sorcha’s hellish struggle against the curse laid upon her family by an enchantress. Spanning from Ireland to medieval Britain, Marillier deftly weaves together elements of folklore and details of historical accuracy to solidify this story out of the mists of time.
Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Fairy Tale Retelling, YA
This list is going to be riddled with Juliet Marillier books, but reasons mentioned above. While Wildwood Dancing is written for a younger audience, this makes it no less beautiful. This time, Marillier turns to medieval Romania to retell the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, drawing on more eastern folklore and employing the singular use of vampires that I have not only tolerated but loved in a book. Jena encounters the folk from the Other Kingdom as well as more human threats to the existence of the way of life she has always known.
Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier
Genre: Historical Fantasy, YA
Unashamedly, another Juliet Marillier novel. The companion novel to Wildwood Dancing, Cybele’s Secret can be read as a standalone, but is so much better when read in conjunction with Wildwood Dancing as old characters return in the second installment. This time, Marillier turns toward medieval Turkey and Anatolian folklore from the eyes of a Romanian protagonist. The story doesn’t follow a specific fairy-tale, but the folklore and adventure as well as the detailed account of a flourishing, byzantine Istanbul make for a phenomenal, unconventional story.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Genre: Magical Realism, Historical Fantasy
I have never in my life bestowed 5 stars upon abook as fast as I did when I finished The Night Circus a few months ago. Set in a late-Victorian, early-Edwardian England, The Night Circus deftly melds magic and illusion, reality and fantasy as characters are caught in the web of secrecy and deceit surrounding the unparalleled Night Circus.
Veneficas Americana series by MK Hobson
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Steam Punk, Western, YA
MK Hobson is a master of adventure and world-building in this fantastic genre-melding series. The first two books are a duology, following Emily Edwards in an 1870’s United States where magic is real, as she finds herself thrown into events beyond her control with a dry-witted warlock for company. Part western adventure, part steam punk, part zombie thriller, part fantasy, Hobson draws on Native American, South American, and Pioneer folklore as well as straight American history to create an insane, laugh-out-loud adventure story.
Sorcery & Cecelia: of The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede
Genre: Historical Fantasy, YA
Dedicated to Jane Austen, this book is a hilarious adventure of manners set in a regency England where magic is a real and integrated part of society. Told via letters written between two cousins, the novel is pure, unadulterated fun. It is everything I never knew I wanted in a story, but Stevermer and Wrede are masters of character and world-building, drawing on an old fantasy of Wizards and Warlocks and seamlessly weaving aspects of history and fantasy together.
The Gold Seer Trilogy by Rae Carson
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Western, YA
Containing far less elements of fantasy than any of the previous books on this list, The Gold Seer trilogy delves into a 19th century America as gold fever and the California Gold Rush take hold of a generation. Leah Westfall’s world is turned upside down by the greed of others. As she flees westward with a wagon train, she must fight to hide her secret–that she can sense gold lingering beneath the earth.
Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox
Genre: Fantasy, Thriller, Alternate History
This book caught me by surprise. Set in a made-up island nation (with loose ties to Britain), Mortal Fire delves into the role the nation and its inhabitants played in WWII. While not the main focus of the book, I loved the elements of realism that were brought in before it really stepped into the realms of fantasy. I think it is the characters, however, and Knox’s handling of topics such as racism and sexism that truly set this book apart.
Mistwalker by Saundra Mitchell
Set in a rural fishing village in New England, Mistwalker weaves together elements of fantasy, family drama, and ghost stories. While perhaps lacking a distinct historical setting, the entrenched old ways of the families in the village give it a flavor of history stretching back for generations, as well as the presence of Gray, a ghost boy bound to the lighthouse that no one remembers. Haunting and lyrical, Mistwalker captures a poignant tale of longing and loss.
East by Edith Pattou
Genre: Fantasy, fairy tale retelling
A moving retelling of East of the Moon, West of the Sun, Pattou combines historical elements of medieval Scaninavia with the folklore of its people to create a haunting tale.
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Genre: Fantasy, fairy tale retelling, YA
One of Robin McKinley’s finest, Beauty was a pioneer in the fairy tale retelling genre. Obviously a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, McKinley integrates the French medieval feel with fantastical elements to create one of my favorite books.