This third annual mega-list of what I’ve loosely defined* as “speculative historical” novels is our biggest list yet, partly because I’ve made a slight change to my rules: Where authors or publishers have specifically said an otherwise secondary-world story is directly inspired by an historical era, I’ve gone ahead and included it for the reasons discussed in my 2020 list. You can find the 2019 list here.
This really was a huge year for anyone who loves stories at the intersection of the historical and fantastical. There’s even a nice mix of sequels, conclusions to trilogies, and debuts! Overall, we’ve got a more balanced list than usual from the perspective of historical eras covered, and if you’ve been waiting for sapphic fantasy romances to have their time to shine, this is your year! While the Victorian era and its adjacent eras around the world remain as popular as ever, you’ll find books ranging from the Ming Dynasty (She Who Became the Sun) and Siege of Troy (Daughter of Sparta) to the 1990s and ’00s (Truth in the Divine).
Due to the sheer lovely weirdness that is 2021, we even have two books featuring badass girls piloting mechas in our historical/historically-inspired worlds—The Great Destroyers and Iron Widow!
It was nearly impossible to pick out one trend without feeling I was neglecting another, but here are some that especially caught my eye…
Court Intrigue. A wealth of stories on the list this year involve navigating royal courts and the treacheries of kings and queens—from Makiia Lucier’s Year of the Reaper and Aamna Qureshi’s The Lady or the Lion (which I had the immense pleasure of editing) to Aliette de Bodard’s tender novella Fireheart Tiger and Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart.
Gothic, gothic, GOTHIC. Call it the Mexican Gothic effect, or just assume we were all feeling moody back when these titles were being bought, but the dark and the sensual have stormed the spec-fic castle, replete with vampires and other urban monsters. I hope you’ll all take special note of the utterly haunting gay Jewish Gothic The City Beautiful by my longtime critique partner Aden Polydoros. Another not-to-be-missed choice: The Keeper of the Night by Kylie Lee Baker, set in 19th-century Japan, explores the dangerous world of yokai from the perspective of a girl who is Half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami.
The Roaring ’20s. While there aren’t as many as you may have been led to expect, at least not yet, the handful we have are too exciting to ignore, with standouts being Chloe Gong’s sequel Our Violent Ends and Nghi Vo’s Gatsby retelling The Chosen and the Beautiful. Please let this trend continue into 2022!
Punching Nazis and Overthrowing Empires. Cannot imagine why we all might be a little obsessed right now with World War II, fascism, postcolonialism, and the like. Of the many fascinating angles writers took, I’m especially looking forward to A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel, which gives me serious This Is How We Lose the Time War vibes. The worldbuilding and political stakes of the North Africa-inspired The Unbroken by C. L. Clark have outright wowed me, and I’m slowly savoring this read.
Time Travel Isn’t Finished With Us. The new books in this subgenre look as quirky as they are compelling, especially Annie and the Wolves by Andromeda Romano-Lax. Take me back to Annie Oakley!
Sing a Sea Shanty. I love this one. There are, quite simply, so many stories set in or alongside the ocean, especially in the cold northern reaches of the world. A Rush of Wings by master storyteller Laura Weymouth is a Wild Swans-inspired tale set in the Scottish Highlands. Another one that has my attention: Beyond the Blue Border by Dorit Linke (trans. Elisabeth Lauffer), with its characters daring a treacherous swim across the Baltic Sea.
If you cornered me into picking my single most anticipated book of the year, my heart is absolutely clenching for the conclusion to Fonda Lee’s extraordinary “Godfather meets wuxia and gangster films” Green Bone Saga, Jade Legacy, out in late November.
P. S. If you think I’m missing a title, please drop a comment or send me a quick note on Twitter! I really try hard to create a full list. Special thanks to Julie and Vicky & Rachel for their help earlier this year in compiling the first titles!
A Dowry of Blood by S. T. Gibson. A lyrical and dreamy reimagining of Dracula’s brides. Saved from the brink of death by a mysterious stranger, Constanta is transformed from a medieval peasant into a bride fit for an undying king.
The Brass Queen by Elizabeth Chatsworth. In 1897, a fiery British aristocrat and an inept US spy search for a stolen invisibility serum that could spark a global war.
The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell. As the age of the photograph dawns in Victorian Bath, silhouette artist Agnes is struggling to keep her business afloat. Desperately seeking help from a serial killer, Agnes approaches Pearl, a child spirit medium lodging in Bath, hoping that if Pearl can make contact with those who died, they might reveal who killed them.
Thirty Talks Weird Love by Alessandra Narváez Varela. Out of nowhere, a lady comes up to Anamaría and says she’s her, from the future. But Anamaría’s thirteen, she knows better than to talk to some weirdo stranger. Girls need to be careful, especially in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico—it’s the ’90s and fear is overtaking her beloved city as cases of kidnapped girls and women become alarmingly common.
On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu. Firuzeh and her brother Nour are children of fire, born in an Afghanistan fractured by war. When their parents, their Atay and Abay, decide to leave, they spin fairy tales of their destination, the mythical land and opportunities of Australia. Told partly in verse, a magical story of grief and resilience.
The Shadow War by Lindsey Smith. A WWII alternate history about a gang of queer teens who set out to destroy the Nazis by way of a parallel universe of dark energy that may contain an evil of its own.
A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel. A fast-moving, darkly satirical look at 1940s rocketry through the eyes of extra-terrestrial women who are dedicated to helping humans get into space.
The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance. A dreamy, atmospheric novel that follows sixteen-year-old Eli as she tries to remember what truly happened the night her mother disappeared off a glacier in Norway under the Northern Lights.
Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard. A Southeast Asian-inspired romantic fantasy. Quiet, thoughtful princess Thanh must navigate negotiations with the powerful, magnetic Eldris on behalf of her country, while surrounded by worrying magical echoes of the fire that once devastated Eldris’ palace and chased Thanh home.
Mortal Remains by Mary Ann Fraser. Morticia. Ghoul Girl. Freak. A YA gothic romance featuring a seventeen-year-old resident cosmetologist at her family’s funeral home, and the mysterious boy she rescues from certain death—who oddly reminds her of a long-dead childhood crush. [I’m not sure this is historical, but the gothic set-up and the dark history feels like something the hist-spec crowd would vibe with.]
Yesterday Is History by Kosoko Jackson. A man enters an experimental trial to cure his hemophilia, and as a side effect winds up slipping through time from present-day Boston to 1969 NYC on the eve of the Stonewall riots, delivering a story that is part romance, part gay history, and part time-travel drama, exploring how far we have and haven’t come.
What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo. A Lovecraftian gothic take on The Addams Family with a dash of Pan’s Labyrinth; a tale of one seemingly human girl’s attempt to reconnect with her inhuman family—to nightmarish results—while coming to understand that true monstrousness is much more than skin deep.
Muse by Brittany Cavallaro. American Royals meets The Winner’s Curse in an alternate history American monarchy where a girl grapples for control of her own life in the middle of a looming war. When her inventor father’s weapon fails to fire on the fair’s opening day, Claire is taken captive by Governor Remy Duchamp, St. Cloud’s young and untried ruler.
Annie and the Wolves by Andromeda Romano-Lax. A modern-day historian finds her life intertwined with Annie Oakley’s in an electrifying novel that explores female revenge an the allure of changing one’s past. Obsessed with Annie Oakley, she enlists the help of a tech-savvy teen to go back in time in a risky attempt to change events.
Everything That Burns by Gita Trelease. Camille lives for the rebellion. In the pamphlets she prints, she tells the stories of girls living at society’s margins. But as her writings captivate the public, she begins to suspect a dark magic she can’t control lies at the heart of her success. Then Louis XVI declares magic a crime and all magicians traitors to France.
The Bright and the Pale by Jessica Rubinkowski. A tale inspired by Russian folklore following an orphan, one of the only survivors of a magical happening that trapped her entire mining town in a sheet of unbreakable ice; when her best friend is kidnapped, she will lead a team of cutthroats and thieves on a perilous expedition to the very mountain that claimed her family, where something sinister slumbers.
Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft. Wren Southerland’s reckless use of magic has cost her everything: she’s been dismissed from the Queen’s Guard and separated from her best friend—the girl she loves. So when a letter arrives from a reclusive lord, asking Wren to come to his estate, Colwick Hall, to cure his servant from a mysterious illness, she seizes her chance to redeem herself.
The Unbroken by C. L. Clark. This North Africa-inspired queer epic fantasy follows a soldier accused of murder who is saved from execution when a dethroned princess decides to take her on as a spy, while grappling with a crumbling empire and their unexpected bond.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers. Paris, 1925: To enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder-a world where women tame magnificent beasts, carousels take you back in time, and trapeze artists float across the sky. But each daring feat has a cost.
Chain of Iron by Cassandra Clare. The Shadowhunters must catch a serial killer in Edwardian London while each tries to contain a dangerous, disastrous secret of their own.
Spellmaker by Charlie N. Holmberg. England, 1895. An unsolved series of magician murders and opus thefts isn’t a puzzle to Elsie Camden. But to reveal a master spellcaster as the culprit means incriminating herself as an unregistered spellbreaker.
A Still and Awful Red by Michael Howarth. A young seamstress accepts a position in the castle of the legendary and bloody Countess Elizabeth Bathory in 1609 Hungary.
Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart. Two witches from enemy castes—one seeking power, and one seeking revenge—will stop at nothing to overthrow the witch queen, even if it means forming an alliance with each other and unleashing chaos on their island nation. A Jamaican-inspired debut fantasy.
Poison Priestess by Lana Popović. In 17th-century Paris, 19-year-old Catherine Monvoisin is a well-heeled jeweler’s wife with a peculiar taste for the arcane. She lives a comfortable life, far removed from a childhood of abject destitution—until her kind spendthrift of a husband lands them both in debt. Hell-bent on avoiding a return to poverty, Catherine must rely on her prophetic visions and the grimoire gifted to her by a talented diviner to reinvent herself as a sorceress.
Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur. Years ago, Elsa’s now-catatonic mother had warned her that the women of their line were doomed to repeat the narrative lives of their ancestors from Korean myth and legend. But beyond these ghosts, Elsa also faces a more earthly fate: the mental illness and generational trauma that run in her immigrant family, a sickness no less ravenous than the ancestral curse hunting her.
Words Composed of Sea and Sky by Erica George with poetry by Jamie Gelman. A story told in alternating points of view between a teenage girl who uses poetry to escape her home life, and a girl who lived in the same quaint Cape Cod town during the height of Yankee whaling over a century before who also uses poetry to escape the social conformities of her time.
Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon. A genre-bending work of gothic fiction that wrestles with the tangled history of racism in America and the marginalization of society’s undesirables, about a black woman with albinism, the mother of infant twins, who is hunted after escaping a religious compound and then discovers that her body is metamorphosing and that she is developing extra-sensory powers.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark. Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
Beyond the Blue Border by Dorit Linke (trans. Elisabeth Lauffer). When Hanna and Andreas are expelled from school for activism directly challenging the socialist state in East Germany, they end up doing factory work. The choice to risk imprisonment or death by escaping to the democratic West seems like a risk worth taking. They set out to swim twenty-five hours across the choppy waters of the Baltic Sea.
Sixteen Scandals by Sophie Jordan. In this irreverent regency romp, newly minted sixteen-year-old Primrose Ainsworth finds herself on a wayward birthday adventure through London with a mysterious hero—perfect for fans of My Lady Jane.
Shadows Over London by Christian Klaver. The Faerie have invaded Victorian London, the Kasric siblings can’t stay neutral in the ensuing war when they find their parents on opposing sides.
The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley. Joe Tournier has a bad case of amnesia. His first memory is of stepping off a train in the nineteenth-century French colony of England. The only clue Joe has about his identity is a century-old postcard of a Scottish lighthouse that arrives in London the same month he does.
Illusionary by Zoraida Córdova. Set in a lushly drawn world inspired by Inquisition Spain, this sequel to Incendiary, Renata Convida reluctantly joins forces Prince Castian, her most infuriating and intriguing enemy, to find the fabled Knife of Memory, kill the ruthless King Fernando, and bring peace to the nation.
Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa. Set in a world inspired by the pre-colonial empires of West Africa, when Danso stumbles across a warrior wielding magic that shouldn’t exist, he’s put on a collision course with a discovery that threatens to destroy the empire.
Curse of the Specter Queen by Jenny Elder Moke. Indiana Jones gets a refresh with this female-driven mystery adventure, set in the 1920s Ireland, full of ciphers, ancient relics, and heart-stopping action.
Daughter of Sparta by Claire Heywood. A reimagining of the Siege of Troy, told through the perspectives of the infamous Helen and her sister Clytemnestra.
The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo. Immigrant. Socialite. Magician. Set in 1920s America, a magical reimagining of The Great Gatsby told through the eyes of a queer, Asian American Jordan Baker.
The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid. Inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology: a young pagan woman with hidden powers and a one-eyed captain of the Woodsmen form an unlikely alliance to thwart a tyrant.
A Sisterhood of Secret Ambitions by Sheena Boekweg. In 1926, seventeen-year-old Elsie is dropped off in a new city with four other teenage girls. All of them have trained together in the Society since childhood to become the Wife of a powerful man. But their next target is earmarked to become President, making this a chance at the most powerful position in the Society.
My Contrary Mary by “The Lady Janies” (Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows). Welcome to Renaissance France, a place of poison and plots, of beauties and beasts, of mice and . . . queens? Mary is the queen of Scotland and the jewel of the French court. Except when she’s a mouse. Yes, reader, Mary is an Eðian (shapeshifter) in a kingdom where Verities rule. It’s a secret that could cost her a head—or a tail.
The Lady or the Lion by Aamna Qureshi. Retells “The Lady or the Tiger?” against a Pakistan-inspired world of forbidden love and court intrigues. Once there was a princess forced to choose a fate for her lover—to a future in the arms of a beautiful lady, or to death in the mouth of a lion? But what came first was the fate she would choose for herself.
Stranger Things: Rebel Robin by Amy Rose Capetta. It’s the ’80s, and Robin has been hiding out with the band kids since middle school, hoping nobody would notice that she’s something even stranger than a French horn player who can speak four languages: she’s gay.
When You and I Collide by Kate Norris. Sliding Doors meets Code Name Verity in this 1940s story of a 16-year-old aspiring physicist witnesses a tragedy and is accidentally pulled into another universe—one that already has another version of herself in it.
Monstrous Design by Kat Dunn. 1794, London: Camille and Al are desperately hunting Olympe’s kidnapper. From the glamorous excesses of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens to the city’s seedy underbelly, they are caught in a dangerous game of lies and deceit.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan. Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in this bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.
Summer in the City of Roses by Michelle Ruiz Keil. Inspired by the Greek myth of Iphigenia and the Grimm fairy tale “Brother and Sister,” this follows two siblings torn apart and struggling to find each other in early ’90s Portland.
A Radical Act of Free Magic by H. G. Parry. The Concord has been broken, and a war of magic engulfs the world. In France, the brilliant young battle-mage Napoleon Bonaparte has summoned a kraken from the depths, and under his command the Army of the Dead have all but conquered Europe. But there is another, even darker war being fought beneath the surface: the first vampire war in hundreds of years.
Gods & Monsters by Shelby Mahurin. In this conclusion to the trilogy, after a heartbreaking loss, Lou, Reid, Beau, and Coco are bent on vengeance more than ever before—and none more so than Lou. But this is no longer the Lou that captured a chasseur’s heart. A darkness has settled over her, and this time it will take more than love to drive it out.
The Witch Haven by Sasha Peyton Smith. In New York City in 1911, a 17-year-old seamstress is whisked off to a school for witches disguised as a tuberculosis sanitarium, where she reckons with her growing powers and suspicions that the magical underworld of the city may be related to the mysterious death of her brother six months prior.
Your Life Has Been Delayed by Michelle Mason. A 17-year-old takes off on a flight from New York in 1995 and lands back home in St. Louis—25 years later. She grapples with her family, friends, and new boyfriend moving on without her, taking a crash-course in social media and viral news culture while she’s the biggest story to hit the internet.
Beyond the Mapped Stars by Rosalyn Eves. In this sweeping adventure set in the late 19th century, seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Bertelsen dreams of becoming an astronomer, complicated by her role in the Latter-day Saint community to which she belongs. Tempted to view a total eclipse of the sun in Colorado, Elizabeth must navigate a new world of familial duties, faith, and dreams.
Warriors of God by Andrzej Sapkowski. Book 2 of the Hussite Trilogy by the author of The Witcher takes Reynevan—scoundrel, magician, possibly a fool—into the depths of war as he attempts to navigate the religious fervors of the fifteenth century.
The Great Destroyers by Caroline Tung Richmond. The Hunger Games meets Pacific Rim, set in the 1960s Cold War. Raised in her father’s mecha repair shop, Jo knows more than anyone about the awesome machines and piloting. She’s also the most unlikely pick for Team USA since she’s a virtually unknown fighter. So when Jo is invited at the last minute to compete, she jumps at the chance.
Dagger Hill by Devon Taylor. In summer 1989, a plane crashes right on top of four friends. In the aftermath, three are plagued by eerie visions and messages from an unknown watcher. They soon realize that the plane crash was no accident, and now they are being hunted by a sinister presence. And everyone is still searching for Kimberly, who has been missing ever since they saw somebody wearing a gas mask carry her away…
The Nightland Express by J. M. Lee. In antebellum America, two teens bury their secrets and join the historic Pony Express, and soon discover the mortal world is not the only one on the brink of war.
Before We Disappear by Shaun David Hutchinson. The Prestige meets What If It’s Us in this queer “ahistorical” fantasy set during the 1909 Seattle Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition, where the two assistants of two ambitious magicians find themselves falling in love amidst a bitter rivalry designed to tear them apart.
Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery by Brom. A tale of bewitchery and a deal with the devil set against the backdrop of Puritan America.
For All Time by Shanna Miles. Two teens are fated to repeat their love story across hundreds of lifetimes, from 14th-century Mali to the distant future, as they struggle to break the cycle.
The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros. Set against the backdrop of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, this queer Jewish Gothic fantasy follows a young immigrant who is possessed by the dybbuk of his murdered best friend and is thrust into a deadly hunt for a serial killer.
The Bones of Ruin by Sarah Raughley. As an African tightrope dancer in Victorian London, Iris is used to being strange. She is certainly a strange sight for leering British audiences always eager for the spectacle of colonial curiosity. But Iris also has a secret that even “strange” doesn’t capture… She cannot die.
The Other Merlin by Robyn Schneider. Welcome to the great kingdom of Camelot. Prince Arthur’s a depressed botanist who would rather marry a library than a princess, Lancelot’s been demoted to castle guard after a terrible misunderstanding, and nothing is going according to plan. Then Arthur accidentally pulls the sword from the stone (in his defense, he was drunk and mostly kidding), and now everyone’s convinced he’s some prophesied hero.
The Corpse Queen by Heather Herrman. Molly arrives in 1850s Philadelphia to live with her estranged aunt Ava, who has secrets and wealth she intends to share–for a price. Ava has built her empire by robbing graves and selling the corpses to medical students who need bodies to practice surgical procedures. And she wants Molly to help her procure the corpses.
The Bronzed Beasts by Roshani Chokshi. After Séverin’s seeming betrayal, the crew is fractured. Armed with only a handful of hints, Enrique, Laila, Hypnos and Zofia must find their way through the snarled, haunted waterways of 19th-century Venice, Italy, to locate Séverin.
A Clash of Steel: A Treasure Island Remix by C. B. Lee. The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary Dragon Fleet, the scourge of the South China Sea, is no more. But Xiang is determined to find the fleet, and with it, what happened to her father, using the pendant he left behind.
Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff. It has been twenty-seven long years since the last sunrise. Gabriel de León is a silversaint: a member of a holy brotherhood dedicated to defending realm and church from the creatures of the night. But even the Silver Order couldn’t stem the tide once daylight failed us, and now, only Gabriel remains. [I’m not actually sure this is historical, but it was described in several places as “gothic” for obvious reasons.]
A Song of Flight by Juliet Marillier. The final book in the trilogy about an organization of elite operatives—MI6 in a medieval-style fantasy world—who use magic, song, poetry, weapons, and combat skills to solve crimes and protect the public.
Invisible Sun by Charles Stross. In this inter-timeline coup d’etat gone awry, a renegade British monarch is on the run through the streets of Berlin as robotic alien invaders from a distant timeline flood through a wormhole, wreaking havoc in the USA. Can disgraced worldwalker Rita and her intertemporal extraordaire agent of a mother neutralize the livewire contention between their respective timelines before it’s too late?
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao. In this novel inspired by historical figures from across Chinese history (the Tang dynasty & others), when Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
Daughters of a Dead Empire by Carolyn Tara O’Neil. A reimagining of the Anastasia legend, following two young women as they flee from the Red Army at the height of the Russian Revolution—one a peasant and proud member of the Bolshevik party and the other a battered, bourgeoisie girl who’s harboring a secret that could cost them their lives.
The Keeper of the Night by Kylie Lee Baker. A half-reaper, half-Shinigami girl, caught between two worlds and belonging to neither, fights monsters and struggles for acceptance in a 19th-century Japan that is haunted by the goddess of death.
Kingdom of the Cursed by Kerri Maniscalco. Set against the backdrop of late 1800s Sicily: After selling her soul to become Queen of the Wicked, Emilia travels to the Seven Circles with the enigmatic Prince of Wrath. She vows to do whatever it takes to avenge her beloved sister, Vittoria … even if that means accepting the hand of the Prince of Pride, the king of demons.
Bright Ruined Things by Samantha Cohoe. A glittering 1920s retelling of The Tempest, in which a teenage girl seizes her chance at magic over the course of one dramatic night.
Truth of the Divine by Lindsay Ellis. In this sequel to Axiom’s End, set in the early ’00s, the human race is at a crossroads. We know we are not alone, but don’t fully understand who has arrived.
Innate Magic by Shannon Fay. A fantasy adventure romp through an alternate 1950s England, where magic is real, but real power is reserved only for the top of society, featuring a magician who can charm nearly everyone, but trusts the wrong person with the secret of his illegal magic abilities—powers that could change the course of the postwar world.
A Rush of Wings by Laura Weymouth, set in the tumultuous 18th-century Scottish Highlands, inspired by The Wild Swans fairy tale, in which a girl with the strength of saltwater and the heart of a witch must master her forbidden craft in order to free her cursed brothers and prevent a charismatic tyrant from destroying all she holds dear.
Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood. An Ethopian-inspired Jane Eyre retelling in which an unlicensed debtera is hired to rid a castle of its dangerous curses, only to fall in love with a boy whose life hangs in the balance.
Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong. 1927 Shanghai is under siege in this captivating and searingly romantic sequel to These Violent Delights. After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir.
The Reckless Kind by Carly Heath. Set in 1904 Norway, a trio of queer teens, two boys and their best friend, defy the expectations of their rural Scandinavian village by leaving their families, living on their own, and challenging the town’s patriarch in the region’s annual horse race.
Under a Starlit Sky by E. M. Castellan. Spring 1662. In the wake of Fouquet’s defeat, Henriette is keeping her promise to the Sun King and helping him build the enchanted Palace of Versailles he’s always dreamed of. But when her poor health worsens, her magic wanes and her husband Philippe fears for her well being to such an extent that he forbids her to remain Louis’ Source.
The Undertakers by Nicole Glover. In this sequel to The Conductors, Hetty Rhodes and her husband, Benjy, magic practitioners and detectives living in post–Civil War Philadelphia, investigate a powerful Fire Company known to let homes in the Black community burn to the ground.
The Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier. Against an Iberian-inspired landscape, Lord Cassia was an engineer’s apprentice on a mission entrusted by the king until a plague swept over the land, leaving countless dead. Cas wants only to return to his home in the mountains and forget past horrors. But home is not what he remembers. His castle has become a refuge for the royal court. And they have brought their enemies with them.
Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee. In the conclusion to this “Godfather meets wuxia and gangster films” Green Bone Saga, the Kaul family faces intergenerational tensions within as their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether.
The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White. Vowing to unravel the truth of her past with or without Merlin’s help, Guinevere joins forces with the sorceress Morgana and her son, Mordred—and faces the confusing, forbidden feelings she still harbors for him. When Guinevere makes an agonizing discovery about who she is and how she came to be, she finds herself with an impossible choice: fix a terrible crime, or help prevent war.
Of Sea and Venom by Trinidad Escobar. A graphic novel set in the 1500s Pacific Islands and near-future Oakland, California, a teenage Priestess-in-training’s future in the divine sciences is challenged when unexpected conquistadors land on her tribe’s beach. [exact pub date unknown, book is still listed as “2021” without details]
*Author’s Note: By “speculative historical novels,” I mean novels with events set in particular historical eras with fantastical, fabulist, or magical realist elements woven into them. I am intentionally loose with my categories and include books based more on what I anticipate lovers of historical settings with fantastical elements are likely to gravitate toward. Genre fantasy, magical realism or fabulism, alt-history, and “literary” novels all count. Where authors or publishers have specifically said an otherwise secondary-world story is directly inspired by an historical era, I’ve included it as well. Spec fic celebrates whatever goes beyond the literal or “hyper-real” to lean into imagination, collective myths, mystery, and wonder. There’s no reason to be unnecessarily restrictive and miss out on excellent books.