Celebrate a subgenre: historical fantasy

Wyrd & Wonder - Celebrate The Fantastic (1-31 May 2023)

It’s been a busy few days, but this morning I’m grabbing a few minutes to join in the #WyrdAndWonder prompt of the day and celebrate one of my favourite subgenres: historical fantasy.

Historical fantasy is hot property at the moment. A good friend pointed out that the notion is complete nonsense – if you’ve inserted magic into the past, you’re no longer being historical – but the phrase ‘alternate history fantasy’ makes me twitch so I’m sticking with it. But is there a line between historical fantasy and alternate history (fantastical or otherwise)? Maybe. Purely subjectively, I tend to think an alternate history is grounded in how and why a timeline has diverged and interested in the consequences of that divergence, while a historical fantasy borrows history as set dressing, but I haven’t kicked the tyres on that distinction at all though, as I’m not very invested in the distinction – I like both flavours. Instead, let’s glance at some examples:


My current read is set in the art world of Renaissance Florence, where ambitious Artemisia is determined to spite the patriarchal, misogynistic culture that would rather marry her off or send her to a convent in spite of her talent. In this world, magical art can heal – or harm – and the rich live longer lives thanks to their access to it. Beyond the art and the griffons and drakes attracted to it, the world seems broadly the same; this is Artemisia’s story, rather than a rewriting of history (so far – I’m still reading!) – in spite of the magical flourishes.

Book cover: A Portrait In Shadow - Nicole Jarvis


Book cover: Romanitas - Sophia McDougall (a line of crucifixes)

Alternate history, then? Sophia McDougall took the notion of an empire on which the sun never sets and ran with it in Romanitas, a modern-day imagining of an unending Roman Empire. This is a thrilling adventure of runaway British slaves – one with a magical gift – teaming up with an Imperial heir on the run, which I thoroughly enjoyed in spite of the questionable world-building (there would surely have been some changes over 2000 years).


What do I do with the author who I immediately think of when you say historical fantasy, but whose books are set in secondary worlds? I roll my eyes at subgenre definitions and cheer him on. The Lions of Al-Rassan and Sailing to Sarantium are recognisably retellings of historical events and The Last Light Of The Sun is closely-adjacent. Apparently plot is my boundary here – I’d class Tigana and A Song For Arbonne as pure fantasy as only the world-building borrows from a recognisable place and time.

Book cover: Sailing to Sarantium - Guy Gavriel Kay (a fiery chariot against a purple mosaic tiled background)


Book cover: She Who Became The Sun - Shelley Parker-Chan

Is She Who Became The Sun the source of publishers current enthusiasm for historical fantasy or riding the wave? No idea, but it’s one of my favourite books of recent years – a re-imagining of Chinese history with a huge central what if (…is it alternate history if it doesn’t change outcomes? What even are definitions I don’t care) and a delicate dusting of ghosts and divinity that make it fantasy for me. Slow, sweeping, introspective, relentless, tragic, and profoundly cinematic. Read in widescreen.


I love history and I love fantasy, so pitch me history with dragons and you know I’m there for it. Enter Naomi Novik’s reimagining of the Napoleonic Wars, where dragons – and their crews – fight in the skies and have strong opinions on politics and mathematics (whilst also remaining acquisitive and possessive of their humans). It’s worth noting I don’t enjoy military fiction – but this list shows I have a huge tolerance for it when it’s told in a certain way. Say, with dragons.

Book cover: Temeraire by Naomi Novik


Book cover: Ring Shout - P Djèlí Clark

I could go on all morning, but I’ll close with P Djèlí Clark’s multi-award winning novella Ring Shout, which takes a dark slice of American history and illuminates it with a fierce history of resistance, friendship, and the magic of music and folklore. Hate is a choice and I appreciated the way Clark examines that through the lenses of both prejudice and vengeance. A dark, powerful fantasy that I really should revisit.

Do you have any favourite historical fantasies or fantastical alternate histories?


Flying witch artwork by astromoali

Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

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