The best historical fantasies for transporting yourself to an alternate reality

Nick Wisseman Author Of Witch in the White City
By Nick Wisseman

Who am I?

Fantasy has long been one of my go-to genres. I also studied history in college and grad school. And while my academic focus was 20th-century America, I’ve always enjoyed studying other regions and eras. So if you can boil a book down to the equation History + Fantasy = Magical Learning Experience, I’m in. Those are also the types of novels I love to write.


I wrote...

Witch in the White City

By Nick Wisseman,

Book cover of Witch in the White City

What is my book about?

Thousands of exhibits. Millions of visitors. One fiendish killer. Neva's goals at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago are simple. Enjoy the spectacle—perhaps the greatest the United States has ever put on (the world’s fair to end all world’s fairs!). Perform in the exposition’s Algerian Theatre to the best of her abilities. And don't be found out as a witch. Easy enough… until the morning she looks up in the theatre and sees strangely marked insects swarming a severed hand in the rafters. Before she can scream, the bugs drop and swarm her. And every one of them seems to have a stinger.

"... a wild ride sure to please lovers of supernatural historical mysteries." – Publishers Weekly

The books I picked & why

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Spinning Silver

By Naomi Novik,

Book cover of Spinning Silver

Why this book?

Spinning Silver is a riff on Rumpelstiltskin set in medieval Russia. Naomi Novik goes lighter on the history here than she did in her Napoleonic-era Temeraire series, but Spinning Silver is still threaded with authentic details. The prejudice the Jewish protagonist and her family experience feels particularly real—and relevant. I also liked that she and the other female leads aren’t beauties (a common trope in fantasy). Instead, they’re resourceful and brave, facing down men and demons alike.

I’m less high on the rotating first-person point of view. But I loved Spinning Silver anyway. If you like historical fantasy, you probably will too. Novik is one of the best in the business.

Spinning Silver

By Naomi Novik,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Spinning Silver as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Following her award-winning novel Uprooted, Naomi Novik has once again been influenced by classic folktales. Taking Rumpelstiltskin as her starting point, Spinning Silver is rich, original and a joy to read.

Will dark magic claim their home?
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father's too kind-hearted to collect his debts. They face poverty, until Miryem hardens her own heart and takes up his work in their village. Her success creates rumours she can turn silver into gold, which attract the fairy king of winter himself. He sets her an impossible challenge - and if she fails,…


Gods of Jade and Shadow

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia,

Book cover of Gods of Jade and Shadow

Why this book?

Gods of Jade and Shadow starts as a Mexican Cinderella story, except that the fairy godmother is a Mayan god of death.

Not sold yet? What if I told you the god of death is also Prince Charming?

It’s an awesome premise.

I also enjoyed the setting. The story takes place in Jazz Age Mexico, shortly after the Mexican Revolution and at a time when pop culture was “all about the United States” and “reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace.” Yet there’s far more old than new here. Mayan mythology threads throughout.

I didn’t always love the pace, but the book has an irresistible style. If you like fresh takes on classic fairy tales, Gods of Jade and Shadow is definitely worth a look.

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Gods of Jade and Shadow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'This is historical fantasy at its best' S.A. Chakraborty, author of The City of Brass

Inspired by Mexican folklore, Gods of Jade and Shadow is a magical, wildly imaginative coming-of-age tale for fans of Katherine Arden, Naomi Novik and Helene Wecker.

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but it's passing Casiopea Tun by. She's too busy scrubbing floors in her wealthy grandfather's house to do anything more than dream of a life far from her dusty, small town in southern Mexico. A life she could call her own.

This dream is impossible, distant as the stars - until the…


The Poppy War

By R. F. Kuang,

Book cover of The Poppy War

Why this book?

At first, The Poppy War seems like an edgier version of Harry Potter: an outcast-at-the-academy story with a slightly older protagonist, drugs, and a few incidents of self-harm. Then the book veers into Hell.

The setting has a lot to do with it. The Poppy War takes place in a fantasy version of 20th-century China; the eventual focus is a magic-infused retelling of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which included a slaughter sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten Holocaust.”

So, yeah: not a bedtime story to enjoy with your kids. I also wouldn’t start The Poppy War if you’re not in a good headspace. But you shouldn’t ignore the history here either (altered as it is). This is a read that lingers.

As it should.

The Poppy War

By R. F. Kuang,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Poppy War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Reddit Fantasy Award for Best Debut 2018

'The best fantasy debut of 2018' - WIRED

A brilliantly imaginative epic fantasy debut, inspired by the bloody history of China's twentieth century and filled with treachery and magic.

When Rin aced the Keju - the test to find the most talented students in the Empire - it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn't believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin's guardians, who had hoped to get rich by marrying her off; and to Rin herself, who realized she…


Black Leopard, Red Wolf

By Marlon James,

Book cover of Black Leopard, Red Wolf

Why this book?

This one gets a content warning too: Black Leopard, Red Wolf is decidedly not a children’s book. It contains graphic depictions of violence, sex, and rape. 

But the worldbuilding—my god, the worldbuilding. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an African fantasy set before Europeans intrude, and there’s very little that feels “Western” about the story. The monsters are distinct (roof-walkers who stalk you from the ceiling, lightning vampires whose thralls crave their master’s charged blood, men who mutated themselves into spiders, and many more). The societies function according to different rules. The magic works in intriguing ways.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf also offers an unorthodox mystery to unravel. And while the voice lost me on occasion, there’s a messy genius here I’m glad I engaged with.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

By Marlon James,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Black Leopard, Red Wolf as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of TIME’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time

Winner of the L.A. Times Ray Bradbury Prize 

Finalist for the 2019 National Book Award

The New York Times Bestseller

Named a Best Book of 2019 by The Wall Street Journal, TIME, NPR, GQ, Vogue, and The Washington Post

"A fantasy world as well-realized as anything Tolkien made." --Neil Gaiman

"Gripping, action-packed....The literary equivalent of a Marvel Comics universe." --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

The epic novel from the Man Booker Prize-winning author of A Brief History of Seven Killings

In the stunning first novel in Marlon James's Dark…


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke,

Book cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Why this book?

As you probably gathered from my notes above, when it comes to reading historical fantasy, I think there are tons of great options. But if you only try one of the books I’m highlighting, make it Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Susanna Clarke’s masterpiece has whimsy for days and is set in one of my favorite eras (Napoleonic Europe). And even when I laid the book down during some of the slower bits, I never doubted I’d pick it back up; Clarke’s stewardship was too amusing, too inventive, and ultimately too trustworthy—I always had faith she was shepherding me to a satisfying conclusion. And she did: in the end, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell proved itself more than worthy of the time it took to read.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

By Susanna Clarke,

Why should I read it?

18 authors picked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation's past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains: the reclusive Mr Norrell whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French. Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of…


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