There are few things more interesting to me than the many stories we tell ourselves—our history, our propaganda, and our folklore. The historical fantasy genre, the intersection of the above layers, is rich with explorations of those stories.
The Lights of Prague, my debut novel, is set in an 1868 Prague where the quiet cobblestone streets are hiding dark, hungry creatures. It was an exciting challenge to weave my research of the time period—an unsettled one for Prague, which was newly under Austro-Hungarian rule—with my research into Czech folklore.
As we all daydream about travel plans for once pandemic restrictions lift, historical fantasy provides a unique window into another time and place, giving us a magical escape while letting us explore destinations easier to book a flight to than Narnia! Here are five brilliant historical fantasy novels exploring a range of locales—all with their own dose of magic.
Crossings by Alex Landragin
Alex Landragin’s debut is a journey from start to end—wherever that end might be for you. There are three parts, along with an intriguing frame story, and two ways to read—straight through, or following guidelines that send you jumping around the different parts. Through the different stories we are introduced to a strange ability called crossing which allows certain people to swap bodies with another after sustained eye contact. The mystery of this power—where it comes from, how it works, and the murders that seem to follow in its wake—are woven through a variety of historical moments and places, including 1940s France and Spain, antebellum Louisiana, and the fictional Pacific island Oaeetee.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If you haven’t already picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel, you are in for a true treat. An Oprah’s Book Club selection and star of “Best of” lists throughout 2019, this stunning book starts at a plantation in Antebellum Virginia. Hiram Walker, the mixed-race son of a white plantation owner and a black mother, has a powerful ability—through water, he can transport himself and others across the country. This power, called Conduction, is key to Hiram’s freedom and priceless to the Underground Railroad movement. However, it is tied to the power of memories, so he must confront the tragedy of his lost mother before he can unlock his true potential.
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
I couldn’t write a list about historical fantasy and not talk about The City of Brass. This complex whirlwind of a series opens in a vibrant, visceral 18th-century Cairo with a clever con-woman named Nahri. From there, Nahri is swept into the desert by a mysterious djinn who takes her to the titular city of brass, Daevabad, a politically tumultuous city filled with magic and history Nahri has to fight to understand. Though the series primarily takes place in this hidden magical city, Cairo has its role to play in later books as well, and grounds the reader before we launch into the unknown. This series has unforgettable characters, political intrigue for miles, and a fascinating cast of creatures from Middle Eastern folklore.
The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Natasha Pulley is a prolific historical fantasy writer. This series, set in the late 1800s, subtly weaves history in with the story of a watchmaker who can remember and shape the future, creating a magical reality that feels like a natural extension of the setting Pulley has established. The standalone prequel, The Bedlam Stacks, follows a new character, ex-East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne, as he travels deep into the mountains of Peru in pursuit of quinine, and reaches a mysterious village, a cursed forest, and an unexpectedly personal mystery.
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
Set in 1930s colonial Malaya, The Night Tiger follows two people whose lives are destined to intertwine: Ren, an eleven-year-old houseboy visited by dreams of his dead twin, and Ji Lin, an apprentice dressmaker with dreams of being a nurse who stumbles upon a mysterious severed finger. The lush setting, which infuses every line from the jungle to the food to the transportation, is captivating, enriched by a compelling array of ghosts, mummified fingers, and lurking tigers. The audiobook, read by the author, is a special delight.
Nicole Jarvis has been writing stories as long as she can remember. After graduating with degrees in English and Italian from Emory University, Nicole moved to New York City to pursue a career in publishing. She currently works in marketing at Bloomsbury Publishing and lives in Manhattan with two cats named after children’s book characters. She loves listening to musicals, thinking about the inner lives of superheroes, and learning strange and delightful history. The Lights of Prague is her first novel.