Top 10 historical fantasy 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.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

A genuinely original story, beautifully told. Susanna Clarke shows amazing intellect and imagination in creating this new world and it is a joy for the reader to immerse himself or herself in. This book is highly recommended and mainly for adults. It is a genuinely original and arresting story and will establish Susanna Clarke as one of the finest new authors of our generation.

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

Read our full review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Under Heaven

For two years Shen Tai has mourned his father, living like a hermit beyond the borders of the Kitan Empire, by a mountain lake where terrible battles have long been fought between the Kitai and the neighbouring Tagurans, including one for which his father - a great general - was honoured. But Tai's father never forgot the brutal slaughter involved. The bones of 100,000 soldiers still lie unburied by the lake and their wailing ghosts at night strike terror in the living, leaving the lake and meadow abandoned in its ring of mountains.

To honour and redress his father's sorrow, Tai has journeyed west to the lake and has laboured, alone, to bury the dead of both empires. His supplies are replenished by his own people from the nearest fort, and also - since peace has been bought with the bartering of an imperial princess - by the Tagurans, for his solitary honouring of their dead.

The Tagurans soldiers one day bring an unexpected letter. It is from the bartered Kitan Princess Cheng-wan, and it contains a poisoned chalice: she has gifted Tai with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, to reward him for his courage. The Sardians are legendary steeds from the far west, famed, highly-prized, long-coveted by the Kitans.

"Under Heaven, inspired by the Tang Dynasty of Ancient China, is as beautiful and enriching a novel as you could possibly wish for. " Fantasy Book Review

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The Poppy War by R F Kuang

The Poppy War

Simply put, R.F. Kuang’s “The Poppy War” is a towering achievement of modern fantasy. Kuang writes in a descriptive and narrative style that presents many sides of an issue without trying to persuade the reader into thinking which path is the “correct” one, if one such exists. As the book descends into its bleak final act, the connection we’ve built with Rin and her companions is put to the test. It is a testament to Kuang’s skill as a writer to establish such a strong connection with her protagonists that the impact of the events in third act hit as hard as they do. There aren’t any real complaints I have about this book, which is wholly impressive considering how early it is in the author’s young career. This story weaves recent Chinese history into an emotionally chaotic, brilliantly-told grimdark fantasy that is impossible to forget. Read it.

When Rin aced the Keju - the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies - 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 believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard - the most elite military school in Nikan - was even more surprising. But surprises aren’t always good. Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power - an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive - and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school. For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away... Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

Read our full review of The Poppy War

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Djinni

The Golem and the Djinni is first rate historical fantasy fiction which makes you care deeply about the characters and instils and eagerness and a need to find how it will all end. It is a wonderful debut novel that brings to life a 1899 New York every bit as atmospheric as the London Conan Doyle created for Holmes. This is a book that consistently delights, a charming love story with pleasing emotional depth.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899. Ahmad is a djinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world.

"By far my favourite book of of the year." The Guardian

"Original and fresh... A fascinating blend of historical fiction and Jewish and Arab folklore." Library Journal

"Wecker deftly layers their story over those of the people they encounter... [A] spellbinding blend of fantasy and historical fiction." Publishers Weekly

"The premise is so fresh...A mystical and highly original stroll through the sidewalks of New York." Booklist

Read our full review of The Golem and the Djinni

The Deverry Cycle by Katharine Kerr

The Deverry Cycle

Celtic Fantasy. In a world outside reality, a young girl's spirit hovers between incarnations, knowing neither her past nor her future. In the temporal world lives Nevyn, who long ago vanquished the maiden's hand in marriage and forged a terrible bond between three souls. Now he must atone the wrong of his youth.

"Published over the past two and a half decades, I was surprised to find no mention on FBR of this epic fantasy saga that has been so much a part of my life and that I hold in such high regard. From the first novel (which I must have read more than 10 years ago) I was hooked and my enthusiasm for this series carried me through to the very last and then moved me to tears." Fantasy Book Review

Read our full review of The Deverry Cycle

Blood Of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Blood Of Elves

For more than a hundred years humans, dwarves, gnomes and elves lived together in relative peace. But times have changes, and now the races once again fight each other - and themselves. In this tumultuous time a child is born - Ciri has strange powers and a stranger destiny, for a prophecy names her as one with the power to change the world, for good or for evil. The witcher Geralt has taken Ciri to the relative safety of the Witchers' Settlement, but it soon becomes clear that Ciri is not like the other witchers. As the threat of war hangs almost palpably over the land, Geralt and Ciri are pursued by someone who understands exactly what the prophecy means - and exactly what Ciri's power is capable of. This time Geralt may have met his match.

"If, like me, you’ve never heard of Andrzej Sapkowski before, it’s about time that was rectified. Combining traditional fantasy with Polish folklore, Sapkowski’s Witcher series has been translated into seven languages, made into a TV series and most recently converted into a computer game. This is clearly not to be taken lightly. Blood of Elves is only the second book by the author to hit British shelves (The Last Wish was published in 2007) – it’s a pity it didn’t arrive sooner."

Read our full review of Blood Of Elves

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus

You have to ask yourself… Wouldn’t it be great to believe in magic? I found this book extraordinary, with so much thought put into not only the story – which unfolds like a carefully constructed maze – but also into the presentation of the hardback edition, which fits perfectly within the spectacle of the story.

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway - a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love - a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

"Playful and intensely imaginative, Erin Morgenstern has created the circus I have always longed for. This is a marvellous book." Audrey Niffenegger

"Lush, evocative, dreamlike... a magical, coming-of-age story." Sunday Times

Read our full review of The Night Circus

Trojan War Trilogy by David Gemmell

Trojan War Trilogy

A compelling tapestry of action, adventure, deceit and jealousy. A must for all fans of historical fiction and epic adventure.

Read our full review of Trojan War Trilogy

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale

When I finished the last page of The Bear and the Nightingale, I was exhausted. Not in a bad way, but it really is an emotionally draining novel. So much of the story is very personal and Ms. Arden does an excellent job of making you emotionally invested in the characters. It is truly a testament to Ms. Arden’s skill in her craft that she can create such a wonderful reading experience.

In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes presents a new father with a gift - a precious jewel on a delicate chain, intended for his young daughter. Uncertain of its meaning, the father hides the gift away and his daughter, Vasya, grows up a wild, wilful girl, to the chagrin of her family. But when mysterious forces threaten the happiness of their village, Vasya discovers that, armed only with the necklace, she may be the only one who can keep the darkness at bay.

"Arden's debut novel has the cadence of a beautiful fairy tale but is darker and more lyrical." The Washington Post

"Stunning... will enchant readers from the first page... with an irresistible heroine who wants only to be free of the bonds placed on her gender and claim her own fate." Publishers Weekly

"A beautiful deep-winter story, full of magic and monsters and the sharp edges of growing up." Naomi Novik

Read our full review of The Bear and the Nightingale

Age of Myth by Michael J Sullivan

Age of Myth

Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between humans and those they thought were gods changes forever. Now only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer; Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom; and Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over. The time of rebellion has begun.

"Age of Myth left me spellbound from the moment I got past the first chapter having actually read the bloody words on the page. (I’m not going to quickly forgive myself for that one.) I missed out on reading a great book for a couple of months while it sat on my shelf. Michael J. Sullivan satisfies my desire for intimate, character-driven stories, and regularly manages to keep me reading well into the wee-hours of the morning."

Read our full review of Age of Myth

Recommended reads by sub-genre

Select a sub-genre below to see which books we highly recommend.

High / Epic fantasy books
High / Epic fantasy

Secondary world with epic characters, themes, and plot
Heroic / Sword and Sorcery fantasy books
Heroic / Sword and Sorcery

Fantasy with heroic adventures
Contemporary / Urban fantasy books
Urban fantasy

Fantasy narrative with an urban setting
Historical fiction / Alternate history books
Historical fantasy / fiction

Historical fiction with fantasy elements
Grimdark fantasy fiction
Grimdark

Bleak subject matter and a dystopian setting
Parallel worlds.
Parallel universe

Fantasy set in parallel worlds
Science fantasy / Speculative fiction books
Science / Speculative

Draws elements from both science fiction and fantasy
Children's fantasy books
Children's Fantasy

Fantasy for ages up to 12
Young adult fantasy books
Young Adult

Fantasy for ages 12+
Adult fantasy books
Adult Fantasy

Fantasy for ages 18+
Dystopian fiction
Dystopian / Post-Apocalyptic

Fiction set in dark, nightmarish worlds
Image derived from Mark Lawrence's Emperor of Thorns book cover
Monarchy / Empire

Fantasy books with empires at their core
Gothic fiction books
Gothic Fiction

Fiction with elements of fear, horror, death, gloom and romance
Vampire fiction
Vampire Fiction

Fiction with vampiric characters
Werewolf fiction
Werewolf Fiction

Fiction with werewolf characters
Steampunk books
Steampunk

Fiction with steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology
Dragon fiction
Dragon Fiction

Fiction with the legendary, scaled, fire-breathing creatures
Fantasy books featuring dragons
Wizards / Magicians

Fantasy with wizards, witches, magicians, sorceresses...
Lore, Legend and Mythology
Lore, Legend and Mythology

Inspired by ancient folklore and mythology
Fantasy books featuring dragons
Military Fantasy

Fantasy books focusing on mailtary life
Praetorian cover image
Roman historical fiction

Explore the ancient Roman Empire
An image of Darth Bane, taken from the cover of a Star Wars book
Star Wars

Books exploring the galaxy of the ever-popular franchise
An image taken from the front cover of The Wind in the Willows
Animal fantasy books

Fantasy with sentient animals
An image taken from the front cover of Giant Thief.
The Thief / Assassin

Fantasy books starring the thief or the assassin
An image taken from the front of hush, hush.
Supernatural

Fiction exploring beyond the laws of nature
An image portraying manga art.
Manga

Japanese comic books and graphic novels
House of Small Shadows
Horror

Liked to be scared? These books will do that...
An image portraying comic fantasy.
Comic Fantasy

For the reader who loves to laugh
An image of J. R. R. Tolkien
Inspired by Tolkien

Love Lord of the Rings? Now try these...
The Time Traveller's Almanac
Anthologies

The best science fiction and fantasy anthlogies