Top 10 Historical fantasy / alternate history books

Historical fantasy takes a period of history from this world's past and introduces fantasy elements to it. Alternate history or alternative history is a genre of fiction consisting of stories that are set in worlds in which history has diverged from the actual history of the world.

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Recommended titles
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe's capitals, part swan... or all fake? Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney's circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

"There are so many facets to Angela Carter’s stories that it is hard to find a place to start discussing them. This is a book written about the cusp of the 20th century, where so many things were promised and hoped for and so many changes happened. This story focuses on two people, bound together because of a newspaper story: Jack Walser, the journalist sent to write a story on Sophie Fevvers the “aerialiste extraordinaire”, to find out whether she is fact or fiction, as instead of being a typical trapeze artist she has wings that allow her to fly through the air. Angela Carter has written a fantastical microcosm of life in this book." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Set in a beleaguered land caught in a web of tyranny, Tigana is the deeply moving story of a people struggling to be free. A people so cursed by the dark sorceries of the tyrant King Brandin that even the very name of their once beautiful land cannot be spoken or remembered.

But not everyone has forgotten. A handful of men and women, driven by love, hope and pride, set in motion the dangerous quest for freedom and bring back to the world the lost brightness of an obliterated name: Tigana.

"Tigana is so perfect I don’t think I could bear it if Kay wrote a sequel" Interzone

"I was 19 and fresh out of Fionavar when I snatched this book off the shelf. I was totally swept away by the grand scope of the adventure that the young singer Devin d’Asoli found himself in. How could any young person not become the character themselves to live the life of adventure?" Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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 another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very opposite of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms the one between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.

"An elegant and witty historical fantasy which deserves to be judged on its own (considerable) merit." Sunday Telegraph

"A genuinely original story, beautifully told." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Considered one of the finest creations of Russian literature in the 20th century, The Master and Margarita is an amazing work of fantasy, a love story, a biting satire on Soviet life, and a lot more. Mikhail Bulgakov's last book and crowning achievement, it has been written in secrecy, burned and restored, and banned for decades. Its author, who worked on it until his final days, never saw it in print. English-speaking audiences may fully enjoy Bulgakov's masterpiece.

"The book shows how easy it is to become greedy and cynical, to be unable to see what is happening around you... and if you see it not being able to believe it. The citizens of Moscow are a contrast between what they see and what they want, with Margarita, who in her own way, is a pure soul." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol was published in December 1843, at a time when medieval Christmas traditions were in steady decline. Indeed, Dickens’s heart-warming tale has been seen as a major turning point; the popularity of its lamp-lit setting and its diverse characters – from the wonderfully wicked Scrooge to the crippled but optimistic Tiny Tim – helped ensure that family unity and ‘goodwill to all men’ once more became the appropriate sentiments of the Christmas season. Dickens used the poverty-stricken Cratchit family’s dependence on hard-hearted Scrooge to highlight the Victorian working class’s daily struggle against the indifference of the greedy.

"The book’s importance was cemented at Christmas 1852, when Dickens undertook public readings of it before both educated and working-class audiences. The success of these events led to public readings becoming a major part of his later career, usually featuring A Christmas Carol. The novella’s short length and strong moral message have ensured that it has become one of Dickens most well-know classics." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

The Once And Future King by TH White

TH White's The Once and Future King is a serious work, delightful and witty, yet very sombre overall. The volume published as The Once and Future King is actually four works separately composed over about 20 years. The first, The Sword in the Stone, concerns the lost childhood of Arthur, future king of England, and his education by Merlyn. The second, The Queen of Air and Darkness, tells the story of adolescent sons of Orkney and their mother, Morgause. The third, The Ill-Made Knight, takes up the story of Sir Lancelot and his uneasy relation- ship with Queen Guenever and with Arthur. The fourth, The Candle in the Wind, concerns the end of the Round Table and Arthur's death.

"Magnificent and tragic, and irresistible mixture of gaiety and pathos" The Sunday Times

"This ambitious work will long remain a memorial to an author who is at once civilized, learned, witty and humane" Times Literary Supplement

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Handsome Dorian Gray has found the secret of eternal youth. As those around him age, Gray remains young and beautiful. Knowing his actions have no consequences he lives a wild life of pleasure, breaking heart after heart – including that of a young actress called Sybil Vane. Gray treats her so badly that she kills herself. But Gray has another secret – in his attic he hides a portrait of himself. While his own body remains fit and healthy, the image in the portrait becomes older and more disfigured with each debauched act he commits. When the portraits creator, Basil Hallward, discovers the horrific truth, Gray kills him in a fit of rage. While Hallward may no longer be a concern, Gray’s own life may be in danger from Sybil’s brother, James Vane, who still blames him for his sister’s suicide and begins vengefully stalking the young pleasure-seeker. Terrified that his life is spiralling out of control, Gray vows to give up his wanton ways, and especially not to mistreat his latest conquest, innocent Hetty Merton. As his behaviour improves Gray expects the painting to begin returning to its original state – so is horrified to find it even more grotesque. Can Gray find any way out of his nightmare?

"A key example of Gothic horror fiction, The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel and a classic of modern literature. It was originally published in a shorter version in Lippinscott’s Monthly Magazine, an American literary journal, in 1890, then revised and published in book form in 1891. Upon publication, its portrayal of moral decadence and its strong homoerotic undertones caused controversy and ensured that the book was poorly received by readers at the time." Fantasy Book Review

The Picture of Dorian Gray is available as a free ebook

Recommended for ages: Adult

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is set in a farmyard where the animals decide to seize the farmer's land and create a co-operative that reaps the benefits of their combined labours. However, some animals see a bigger share of the rewards than others, and the animals start to question their supposed utopia. Little by little, the rules begin to mysteriously change, and the pigs seem to gain power little by little, making the animals question what society they were striving for in the first place and whether their new-found freedom is as liberating as they might have hoped.

"Animal Farm by George Orwell was first published in 1945 and will be celebrating its seventieth birthday next year. It is still a keen area of debate whether it remains relevant for readers of this generation - I certainly believe it is, and the fact that it is still studied as part of the United Kingdom’s English Literature curriculum would add further credence to this opinion. I re-read the novella last night and found its themes and messages just as powerful, moving and relevant as they must have been seven decades ago." Floresiensis, Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

Dracula by Bram Stoker

When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to help Count Dracula with the purchase of a London house, he makes horrifying discoveries about his client and his castle. Soon afterwards, a number of disturbing incidents unfold in England: an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman's neck; and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the imminent arrival of his 'Master'.

"In the ensuing battle of wits between the sinister Count Dracula and a determined group of adversaries, Bram Stoker created a masterpiece of the horror genre. Dracula has been attributed to many literary genres including vampire literature, horror fiction, the gothic novel and invasion literature. Structurally it is an epistolary novel, that is, told as a series of diary entries and letters. Literary critics have examined many themes in the novel, such as the role of women in Victorian culture, conventional and conservative sexuality, immigration, colonialism, postcolonialism and folklore. Although Stoker did not invent the vampire, the novel's influence on the popularity of vampires has been singularly responsible for many theatrical and film interpretations throughout the 20th and 21st centuries." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

When Michael Crawford discovers his bride brutally murdered in their wedding bed, he is forced to flee not only to prove his innocence, but to avoid the deadly embrace of a vampire who has claimed him as her true bridegroom. Joining forces with Byron, Keats, and Shelley in a desperate journey that criss-crosses Europe, Crawford desperately seeks his freedom from this vengeful lover who haunts his dreams and will not rest until she destroys all that he cherishes. Told in the guise of a secret history, this long-awaited tale of passion and terror is finally back in print after over 20 years.

"This is an excellent novel and fully deserves the plaudits it already has, and it should enjoy new fans and a wider readership this second time around." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell

In 1944, as waves of German ninjas parachute into Kent, Britain’s best hopes for victory lie with a Spitfire pilot codenamed ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’. The trouble is, Ack-Ack Macaque is a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey, and he’s starting to doubt everything, including his own existence. A century later, in a world where France and Great Britain merged in the late 1950s and nuclear-powered Zeppelins encircle the globe, ex-journalist Victoria Valois finds herself drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the man who butchered her husband and stole her electronic soul. Meanwhile, in Paris, after taking part in an illegal break-in at a research laboratory, the heir to the British throne goes on the run. And all the while, the doomsday clock ticks towards Armageddon.

"Ack-Ack Macaque shows just what is possible by combining new idea and creating a unique world and a set of characters, a monkey, who would have guessed! Gareth L. Powell will be an author to look out for." Jasper de Joode, Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

Child of the revolution, maiden of myth, bride of darkness. A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and he is Marya's fate.Koschei leads Marya to his kingdom, where she becomes a warrior in his tireless battle against his own brother, the Tsar of Death.Years pass. Battle-hardened, scarred by love, and longing for respite, Marya returns to St Petersburg - only to discover a place as pitiful as the land she has just fled: a starveling city, haunted by death.

"Full of unique and fascinating characters, Valente weaves fairy-tale storytelling with a far more adult world of war, sex, love and will. The metaphor can get a bit overmuch now and again, slowing down the flow of the story in places, but Deathless is a really unusual and interesting book that was a joy to read." Cat Fitzpatrick, Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Rumored to be responsible for the ascension of the previous Emperor, his uncle, amid fire and blood, Valerius the Trakesian has himself now risen to the Golden Throne of the vast empire ruled by the fabled city, Sarantium. Valerius has a vision to match his ambition: a glittering dome that will proclaim his magnificence down through the ages. And so, in a ruined western city on the far distant edge of civilization, a not-so-humble artisan receives a call that will change his life forever. Crispin is a mosaicist, a layer of bright tiles. Still grieving for the family he lost to the plague, he lives only for his arcane craft, and cares little for ambition, less for money, and for intrigue not at all. But an imperial summons to the most magnificent city in the world is a difficult call to resist.

"Forming the first part of Guy Gavriel Kay’s duology The Sarantine Mosaic and inspired by ancient Byzantium, Sailing to Sarantium tells a magnificent, sweeping story of empire, conspiracies and journeys, both physical and spiritual. First published in 1998 it was followed by Lord of Emperors in 2000." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

In the winter of his eleventh year, Little Hawk goes deep into the forest, where he must endure a three-month test of solitude and survival which will turn him into a man. But outside the woods, the world is changing. English settlers are landing on the shores of the New World, and tensions between native tribes and the invaders are rising. Little Hawk's fate becomes irreversibly entwined with that of John, a young English boy who dares to question intolerance. He is witness to a secret murder - will he now be witness to bloodshed between nations?

"Indeed, in some ways it’s a book that rewards adult reading just as much as a child’s. I would recommend it for fluent readers of any age who love to be immersed in a no-holds-barred historical setting. If they also want to consider right and wrong, truth and tolerance, then so much the better. As C. S. Lewis said: "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." K. M. Lockwood, Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

The Oversight by Charlie Fletcher

Only five still guard the borders between the worlds. Only five hold back what waits on the other side. Once the Oversight, the secret society that polices the lines between the mundane and the magic, counted hundreds of brave souls among its members. Now their number can be tallied on a single hand. When a drunkard brings a screaming girl to the Oversight's London headquarters, it seems their hopes for a new recruit will be fulfilled - but the girl is a trap, her appearance a puzzle the five remaining guardians must solve or lose each other, and their society, for good. As the borders between the natural and the supernatural begin to break down, brutal murders erupt across the city, the Oversight are torn viciously apart, and their enemies close in for the final blow.

"The story is not about good versus evil as there are many shades of grey which give the novel depth and room for characters to grow and be surprised, not only by their discoveries but what they are unable to admit to each other. If you live in a world of secrets and magic it must be hard to trust what is right in front of you. I really loved the way The Oversight ended if there is a sequel to this then I shall be first in line to read it." Michelle Herbert, Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Murder and monstrosity on the streets of Victorian London. Nineteenth century London can be a very dangerous place. Beneath the prim and proper morals of Victorian society lurks a violent madman who emerges at night to commit the most cold-hearted of crimes. Nothing is known of him except his name: Mr Hyde. Just who is this evil man? A lawyer and a doctor beginning their own investigation are shocked to find that Mr Hyde is an acquaintance of their respectable friend Dr Henry Jekyll. Worse still, Dr Jekyll is unwilling to listen to stories of Hyde’s chilling behaviour, and retreats into his laboratory work when confronted. But as the months turn to years and the violence turns to ruthless murder on London’s streets, Dr Jekyll is finally forced to confront the chaos, and to admit that he can no longer hide from Mr Hyde.

"As would seem fitting for a tale as strange as this, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde comes with a number of literary legends attached. One states that gruesome scenes from the story first appeared to Stevenson as nightmares. Another suggests that the impetuous author torched the first full draft after criticism from his wife. Neither myth may be true. The only certainty is that Stevenson’s book very cleverly captured the clear contradictions of Victorian society, demonstrating the awful consequences of keeping man’s natural animal instincts locked away beneath the strict ideas of ‘decency’. Jekyll and Hyde is a terrifying glimpse into the dark depths of the mind."

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is available as a free ebook

Recommended for ages: Adult

Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman

It is 1888 and Queen Victoria has remarried, taking as her new consort Vlad Tepes, the Wallachian Prince infamously known as Count Dracula. Peppered with familiar characters from Victorian history and fiction, the novel tells the story of vampire Geneviève Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard of the Diogenes Club as they strive to solve the mystery of the Ripper murders.

"This edition not only comes with one of the best horror novels I have read but also extras such as an annotations section detailing Newman’s influences, an alternate ending, an Anno Dracula screenplay as well as articles and ideas. This is essential reading for all fans of the genre. This is essential reading for all fans of the genre. As fellow horror aficionado and writer Neil Gaiman says this is ‘compulsory reading... glorious." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan

Set in the 5th century AD, Azazeel is the tale of a Coptic monk's journey from Upper Egypt to Alexandria and then Syria during a time of massive upheaval in the early Church. Azazeel highlights how the history of our civilization has been warped by greed and avarice since its very beginnings and how one man's beliefs are challenged not only by the malice of the devil, but by the corruption with the early Church.

"One sentence leapt out as I read this novel, a question Azazeel asks of Hypa but also one that provokes uneasiness in any author: “Was your soul immaculate…before you began to write?”. The answer to that can only be glimpsed when the pages of any book come to their end and a reader is able to sit in judgement on a soliloquy by form, an imagination by desire, a skill by method. I found that Youssef Ziedan spoke to me on history, on early Christianity, on politics, on logical and madness. I read of fear and hope, of joy and sadness. Watched passion and rage both within a single person and inside an entire city. Out of it all comes the theme that life is what Azazeel craves to indulge in. For Azazeel death has no meaning. For Hypa life is a voyage with several stopping points, where solitude and calm are needed and craved as much as passion and fervour. It is a novel with something for everyone, a novel that lends to the personal knowledge of the author, a novel that is accessible by the intellectual and the dreamer." travelswithadiplomat, Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

Spiritwalker by Kate Elliott

As they approach adulthood, Cat Barahal and her cousin Bee think they understand the society they live in and their place within it. At a select academy they study new airship technologies and the dawning Industrial Revolution, but magical forces still rule. And the cousins are about to discover the full ruthlessness of this rule. Drawn into a labyrinth of politics involving blood and old feuds, Cat is betrayed by her family and forced to marry a powerful Cold Mage. As she is carried away to live a new life, fresh dangers threaten her every move and secrets form a language she cannot read. At least, not yet. But both cousins carry their own hidden gifts and these will shape great changes to come. For in the depths of this treacherous world, the Wild Hunt stirs in darkness and dragons are waking from their sleep.

"Cat and her cousin are key players in a drama of dragons and politics. Everyone wants something from them - including the warlord who's conquering all Europa and the Cold Mages who dare defy him. But the Master of the Wild Hunt is most dangerous of all. He will command Cat's loyalty using what she holds most dear. In a world where science and magic are at war, one girl must save those she loves, or lose everything." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N McIntyre

A winner of the 1997 Nebula award for best novel, Vonda N McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun is a sumptuous work of alternate history. Set in 17th century France, at the court of the Sun King, the book’s attention to detail and flowing narrative help create an absorbing tale of fantasy, romance, science and history.

"The Moon and the Sun successfully melds fantasy and alternate history to create a charming, well-written and meticulously-researched novel that will appeal to readers who enjoy history and romance with a fantasy element." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

Eona series by Alison Goodman

Under the harsh regime of an ambitious master, Eon is training to become a Dragoneye - a powerful Lord able to command wind and water to nurture and protect the land. But Eon also harbors a desperate secret - he is in fact a young woman living a dangerous masquerade that, if discovered, will mean certain death. Brought to the attention of the Emperor himself and summoned to the opulent court, Eon is thrust into the heart of a lethal struggle for the Imperial throne. In this new, treacherous world of hidden identities and uneasy alliances, Eon comes face-to-face with a vicious enemy who covets the young Dragoneye's astounding power, and will stop at nothing to make it his own.

"Addictive reading... the climax is gloriously tantalising. Exotic and delightfully compelling." SFX

"Well-written, well-structured and steadily paced, with Goodman deftly balancing the intimate character scenes with the heavier, action-laden ones." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

Dreamblood duology by NK Jemisin

In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe… and kill those judged corrupt. But when a conspiracy blooms within Gujaareh’s great temple, Ehiru – the most famous of the city’s Gatherers – must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is stalking its prey both in Gujaareh’s alleys and the realm of dreams. Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill – or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic.

"Powerful, enchanting and unlike anything else out there, The Killing Moon is a feast for the fantasy senses." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Adult

The Wardstone Chronicles by Joseph Delaney

Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son and has been apprenticed to the local Spook. The job is hard, the Spook is distant and many apprentices have failed before Thomas. Somehow Thomas must learn how to exorcise ghosts, contain witches and bind boggarts.

But when he is tricked into freeing Mother Malkin, the most evil witch in the County, the horror begins...

"Chilling, memorable, full of wonderful characters and written in a fluid style that makes the narrative accessible to all ages." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Child and up

The Feathered Man by Jeremy de Quidt

In a German town, long ago, lives a tooth-puller’s boy called Klaus. It isn’t Klaus’s fault that he sees his master steal a diamond from the mouth of a dead man in Frau Drecht’s lodging house, or that Frau Drecht and her murderous son want it for themselves. He has nothing to do with the Jesuit priest and his Aztec companion who turn up out of the blue looking for it, or the Professor of Anatomy who takes such a strange interest in it. No, Klaus doesn’t want any trouble. But when he finds himself with the diamond in his pocket, things really can’t get much worse – that is, until the feathered man appears. Then they become a matter of life… and death.

"The story is both terrifying and tender, it looks and the very best and worst of human nature and shows another plane of reality that is so frightening. There is so much plot crammed into this book and yet is flows so wonderfully that you don’t at anytime feel overloaded or like you’re being left behind, it just all works so beautifully. As for the characters, well there just isn’t a weak one amongst them. You look at the book in your hand, not a tome by any stretch of the imagination, just a nice hand sized book and think “how on earth does all that fit in there?” but it does and perfectly so." Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Child and up

A Tale of Langdon St. Ives by James P Blaylock

It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives – brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer – is at home in Aylesford with his family. However, a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay; the crew murdered and pitched overboard. In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives. When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race to London in pursuit...

"The Aylesford Skull is for me a piece of art. James P. Blaylock has created a truly magical story, where most authors who write steampunk go for a direction of a more bold and brash steampunk setting he takes on another route by writing a more or less common story but elevating it with hints of steampunk and a supernatural aspect into it. For me it is truly magnificent display of how to elevate a story to the next level. It is a great story fully accented by enough hints of steampunk and magic." Jasper de Joode, Fantasy Book Review

Recommended for ages: Young adult and up

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Reviews by sub-genre

Click on the links below to access reviews, interviews, latest news and the greatest books of all time in your chosen sub-genre.

Interviews

An image of Catherine CooperCatherine Cooper
2010-09-17

An image of David WhitleyDavid Whitley
2009-10-08

An image of Sarwat ChaddaSarwat Chadda
2009-05-01

An image of Peter WardPeter Ward
2009-03-23