The best fantasy books with magic, romance, and a dash of subversion

Colleen Cowley Author Of Subversive
By Colleen Cowley

Who am I?

I write romantic fantasy set in twisted versions of the United States because half of me wishes magic were real. (The wiser half thinks that would be a disaster.) Typical contents of my books: banter, antagonist love interests, dramatically billowing coats, twisty plots, and oppressive systems in need of taking down... by bantering antagonists in magnificent coats. I consume books like they’re as necessary as food—and aren’t they, really? 

I wrote...


By Colleen Cowley,

Book cover of Subversive

What is my book about?

In an America controlled by wizards and 100 years behind on women's rights, Beatrix Harper counts herself among the resistance—the Women's League for the Prohibition of Magic. Then Peter Blackwell, the only wizard her town has ever produced, unexpectedly returns home and presses her into service as his assistant.

Beatrix fears he wants to undermine the League. His real purpose is far more dangerous for them both.

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The books I picked & why

The Lord of Stariel

By A.J. Lancaster,

Book cover of The Lord of Stariel

Why did I love this book?

Imagine if Downton Abbey neighbored Faerie. Then make the idea ten times more awesome, and you have The Lord of Stariel. I discovered it right before the final book in the quartet came out and binged them all.

The premise—a family’s magical estate will choose its next lord after the old one passes on—is intriguing enough. But what really sold me on this book is Hetta, the prodigal daughter. She’s level-headed, sharp-witted, and unwilling to be limited by society’s (or her family’s) ideas about the proper role of a lady. 

I don’t want to tell you too much about her counterpart—the book should unfold its secrets. But he’d make a strong showing in a Best Hero contest.

By A.J. Lancaster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lord of Stariel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Lord of Stariel is dead. Long live the Lord of Stariel. Whoever that is.

Everyone knows who the magical estate will choose for its next ruler. Or do they?

Will it be the lord’s eldest son, who he despised?

His favourite nephew, with the strongest magical land-sense?

His scandalous daughter, who ran away from home years ago to study illusion?

Hetta knows it won’t be her, and she’s glad of it. Returning home for her father’s funeral, all Hetta has to do is survive the family drama and avoid entanglements with irritatingly attractive local men until the Choosing. Then…

Song of Blood & Stone

By L. Penelope,

Book cover of Song of Blood & Stone

Why did I love this book?

This bookand the entire Earthsinger Chroniclesis a must-read. It’s the story of Jasminda the outcast and Jack the spy, but it’s also a cinematic, immersive tale about two neighboring lands—one ruled by a terrifying autocrat and the other filled with fear and hate for the refugees who escaped him. From folktale excerpts at the start of each chapter to powerfully drawn secondary characters, L. Penelope’s world never gives you a chance to recollect that it doesn’t really exist.

You also get deeply romantic moments like this: “I don’t know what to do with you," she whispered, stroking his face, her lips a breath from his own. "I cannot keep you, but I cannot turn you away." Be still my heart.

By L. Penelope,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Song of Blood & Stone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Orphaned and alone, Jasminda lives in a land where cold whispers of invasion and war linger on the wind. Jasminda herself is an outcast in her homeland of Elsira, where her gift of Earthsong is feared. When ruthless soldiers seek refuge in her isolated cabin, they bring with them a captive - an injured spy who threatens to steal her heart.

Jack's mission behind enemy lines to prove that the Mantle between Elsira and Lagamiri is about to fall nearly cost him his life, but he is saved by the healing Song of a mysterious young woman. Now he must…


By Stephanie Burgis,

Book cover of Snowspelled

Why did I love this book?

In the nineteenth-century setting of Snowpelled, the proper role of a lady is politics, and magic is the domain of men. Cassandra Harwood is the one scandalous exception—but something’s gone wrong. At the start of the story, all we know is that even the simplest spell is now out of her reach.

The mystery unfolds as Cassandra attempts to outsmart an elf lord and avoid her (absolutely delightful) ex-fiancé, the latter task no less difficult than the former. 

I love third-person point of view, but one of the joys of this book is getting the story directly from Cassandra—a woman who became a magician by “utterly refusing to give up on my great plans until the world around me finally saw sense and accepted them.” 

By Stephanie Burgis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Snowspelled as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In nineteenth-century Angland, magic is reserved for gentlemen while ladies attend to the more practical business of politics. But Cassandra Harwood has never followed the rules...

Four months ago, Cassandra Harwood was the first woman magician in Angland, and she was betrothed to the brilliant, intense love of her life.

Now Cassandra is trapped in a snowbound house party deep in the elven dales, surrounded by bickering gentleman magicians, manipulative lady politicians, her own interfering family members, and, worst of all, her infuriatingly stubborn ex-fiancé, who refuses to understand that she’s given him up for his own good.

But the…

Street Witch

By S. L. Prater,

Book cover of Street Witch

Why did I love this book?

What if a society blessed one form of magic use while all but criminalizing the other? Marnie Becker was born a witch in this world, which puts her forever at the margins. She tries to stay (mostly) out of trouble—until it finds her in a big way.

I absolutely love that magic here has a scent, from a hint of maple syrup to a reek of burnt meat. And that her love interest, Bran, declares, “You are never more beautiful to me than when you fix my math.” And that Marnie starts to believe she could help change her country for the better.

By S. L. Prater,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Street Witch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Recipe for Disaster: Malicious Magic, Shifting Political Powers, and a Forbidden Love

Marnie is a gifted witch—but magic has a mind of its own. Left unrestrained, it will always misbehave. When a demonic curse threatens Lord Bran, a man she’s loved since childhood, Marnie uses her abilities to save him.

After years of suppressing their feelings—knowing the relationship is prohibited by the Church of the Cloth—the two succumb to their passion. Her growing power triggers a dangerous political war—and their relationship is doomed before it begins.

Now the couple must decide whether to keep their love a secret or…

Book cover of Sorcerer to the Crown

Why did I love this book?

It’s probably clear by this point that I love books whose characters wrestle with injustice. Sorcerer to the Crown does that—taking on racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism—with a page-turning, witty comedy-of-manners plot. 

Zacharias Wythe, the first Black sorcerer to lead the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, is in a bind. England’s magic is fading for reasons unknown, his racist colleagues are trying to push him out, the ghost of his predecessor keeps offering unwanted advice and he has to give a speech to a girls’ school because a friend fobbed it off on him. What he finds there increases his troubles—and might save his life.

Oh, the characters. You will not forget them. Especially Prunella Gentleman, who has nothing to her name but “her magic and her absurd effrontery,” as Zacharias puts it… as he’s falling for her, of course.

By Zen Cho,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Sorcerer to the Crown as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of NPR's 50 Favorite Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books of the Past Decade

Magic and mayhem clash with the British elite in this whimsical and sparkling debut.

The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers maintains the magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman as their Sorcerer Royal and allowing England’s  stores of magic to bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…
At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers, ventures…

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