The best historical fiction novels with a twist of myth and magic

Matthew Lucas Author Of Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock
By Matthew Lucas

Who am I?

A longtime traveler and lifelong fan of epic fantasy and historical fiction, I’m fascinated by the crossroads where these two genres meet. My novels and short stories always keep a foot (or two) in both of these realms. For anyone who has ever climbed the Pyramid of the Magician, or wandered the Black Forest, or gazed upon the Roman aqueducts (or maybe just thought about an old house on a forgotten hill) and wondered, “What would it have been like if?” I think you’ll enjoy the books on this list.


I wrote...

Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock

By Matthew Lucas,

Book cover of Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock

What is my book about?

Boston, 1798. John Yonder, Esquire and Captain John Far must enlist a fortuneteller named Mary Faulkner to help them chase down a fellow countryman from another world. Their pursuit takes them down the east coast—from smoke-filled taverns, to secret Masonic lodges, to pirates in the Atlantic, to a slave market in Virginia, where Yonder, Far, and Mary come to learn that the man they are chasing, the lock of hair he is carrying, and the client who hired them are not at all what they seem.

Mystery, fantasy, roiling action, and droll humor come together in what The Historical Fiction Company described as an “endearingly elegant” novel reminiscent of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

The books I picked & why

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke,

Book cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Why this book?

In a magisterial book that set the bar for historical fantasy, Susanna Clarke’s reimagining of the Napoleonic wars is seamlessly suffused with the rediscovery of working magic in England by an odd couple of gentlemen magicians. The tone, the prose, and the dialogue are pitch-perfect for the early nineteenth century. There are high stakes and wild faeries and plenty of class-bound foibles and intrigues. But what makes this story shine is the whole new stratum of British lore Ms. Clarke slowly builds (much of it through footnotes, of all things). By the end, Clarke’s mythical Raven King felt every bit as real—and familiar—as King Arthur. 


The Egyptian: A Novel

By Mika Waltari, Naomi Walford (translator),

Book cover of The Egyptian: A Novel

Why this book?

A traveling physician, Sinuhe, bears witness to a time of religious turmoil in ancient Egypt. The clash between the “mad” Pharaoh Akhenaten’s new monotheistic faith and the traditional pantheon of Egypt’s deities sweeps Sinuhe into the throes of war and politics. An epic in the truest sense, yet this sweeping story never spares on the granular details of everyday life under the pharaohs; one can almost feel the hot sun and smell the fertile banks of the Nile through the pages. The Egyptian might very well be the perfect historical fiction novel (one that was later turned into an academy award nominated movie). Though it is no longer in print, this book is well worth the effort to track down a copy.


Sarum: The Novel of England

By Edward Rutherfurd,

Book cover of Sarum: The Novel of England

Why this book?

No one pens a historical fiction saga as boldly, or as adroitly, as Edward Rutherfurd. Sarum is a multi-millennium epic of the lands around Salisbury Plain and the peoples who settled there, as told through the twining branches of five family trees. The stories (for that is what this book really is, a collection of tales woven around this ancient plateau) are chocked full of drama, tragedy, love, and pathos. But the strand running through the novel that I found most intriguing was the theme that new gods—whether they’re the sun god, the gods of the Celts, the pantheon of Rome, or Jesus of Nazareth—are constantly striving to replace the old… but never fully succeeding.


His Majesty's Dragon

By Naomi Novik,

Book cover of His Majesty's Dragon

Why this book?

Another take on the Napoleonic wars, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (named for the dragon first hatched in His Majesty’s Dragon) imagines how history might have unfolded if the fabled, talking creatures known as dragons had been real—and enlisted to fight for the nations at war. While Clarke’s fantastic insertion of magic into this period of history is perhaps more subtle, Ms. Novik’s is more thought through. The reader becomes familiar with a whole new department of the English armed forces, complete with its own uniforms, culture, and mores. I found that the level of detail Ms. Novik invested—coupled with a fun, action-filled adventure—made the twist of magic in this novel as believable as it was delightful.


Baudolino

By Umberto Eco, William Weaver (translator),

Book cover of Baudolino

Why this book?

I don’t know if I’ve ever run across a more endearing scamp than Baudolino, Italian peasant cum companion to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I. Professor Eco weaves a richly imagined tale where a group of young men finds themselves on a preposterous journey to find Prester John and far-off mythical lands. Told with erudition, peopled with dynamic characters (and more than a few mythical ones), and seasoned with an obvious relish for medieval trivialities, some will complain that the last quarter of the book has the feel of a story that got lost at sea. But in my opinion, the journey’s well worth the ending.


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