I don’t read heaps of fantasy novels, but I do enjoy venturing outside my comfort zone and finding a book I absolutely love. The right fantasy novel for me is often grounded in reality, whether it’s a modern setting with fairytale elements, a story inspired by historical events, or a well-researched adaptation of cultural folklore.
Having that “real world” backbone somehow makes magic more accessible for this literary fiction lover. Plus, I love the opportunity to learn about an author’s inspiration and research process after I’ve read the book.
Today I’m sharing 15 fantasy novels that are rooted in reality. I’ve read a few of these, but consider this primarily a peek at my TBR list. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the following titles, plus, as always, I’d love to hear your fantasy recommendations in comments.
I waited far too long to read Kindred by Octavia Butler, and I was riveted from the first page. Time travel meets slave narrative in this modern science fiction classic. When Dana, a modern Black woman from 1976, gets transported to the antebellum south in order to save one of her white ancestors, she preserves her own history. But it doesn’t end there. As she keeps getting pulled back to the past, her trips grow more and more dangerous, and Dana must figure out how to survive in a reality far more terrifying than the history books ever suggested. If you still need a push to read Kindred, listen to Volume II Episode III of One Great Book. More info →
The Princess Bride meets The Other Boleyn Girl in this quirky spin on the true story of Lady Jane Grey. Sixteen-year-old King Edward has arranged a marriage for Jane in order to secure his line to the throne. He doesn't have much interest in ruling, and she doesn't have much interest in marriage. Duty is the least of their problems because, well...Jane's betrothed turns into a horse every night. Note: this sassy book is especially great on audio. More info →
I loved this so much I included it in the 2018 Summer Reading Guide. This dark fairytale takes place in modern day Manhattan. Alice and her mom have spent 17 years on the run, trying to dodge the persistent bad luck mysteriously connected to an unnerving book of stories penned by Alice's estranged grandmother. When Alice's grandmother dies, her mother thinks they're free—until the day Alice comes home from school to discover Ella has been kidnapped, leaving behind a page torn from her grandmother's book and a note: Stay away from the Hazel Wood. But Alice has to save her mom, so she enters what she slowly begins to see is her grandmother's book of stories-come-to-life—and they suddenly look a lot more like horror than fantasy. This seriously twisted and sometimes bloody fairy tale reminds me of The Thirteenth Tale, with a dash of The Matrix. More info →
I recommended this one to Keren on episode 193 of What Should I Read Next because of its clever twist on a familiar story. Harper, a modern day 17 year old girl, is going through a terrible time when she gets sucked into a fantasy world. Prince Rhen, heir to the throne of Emberfall, is cursed, turns into a beast, and destroys everything he holds dear (sound familiar?). This Beauty and the Beast retelling is delightfully modern, features a character with cerebral palsy, and straddles reality and fantasy in a refreshing way. More info →
This epic fantasy is rooted in 20th Century Chinese history and mythology. It features Rin, an orphaned peasant girl, who, against all odds, earns a place in an elite military academy. At school, Rin discovers that she possesses incredible powers and studies the mythical art of shamanism. As the Nikara Empire teeters on the brink of war, Rin answers the call to save her people. Kuang has spoken about her choice to write fictional accounts of historical events like the Nanjing Massacre with unflinching detail, not to glorify war, but to show the realities of trauma. (Content warnings for sexual violence, atrocious warcrimes, self-harm). More info →
In this alternate WWI history, the British use their top secret Spirit Corps, a group of mediums who communicate with dead soldiers in order to collect valuable information from the front. While working for the Spirit Corps, Ginger uncovers evidence of a traitor within its ranks. Because she is a woman in the early 1900s, no one believes her. To complicate things, the Spirit Corps is being targeted by German forces, and Ginger needs to stop them. If you enjoyed The Alice Network by Kate Quinn, this book is the perfect foray into the fantasy genre. More info →
Many readers have compared this historical fantasy novel to the works of Jane Austen, which OF COURSE intrigues me. When Britain's most respected magical organization falls into disgrace and disrepair, Zacharias Wythe sets out to discover why the magic is drying up. When he crosses paths with Prunella Gentlewoman, a spunky and powerful heroine, they team up to turn the world of magic on its head. More info →
Best friends Ada and Corinne are employed by Johnny Dervish and perform at his secret nightclub. Their "afflicted" blood gives them the ability to create beautiful illusions on stage together. It also spells danger, as they navigate Boston in 1919 as two young women with secret abilities. This book focuses on the central female friendship, rather than a romance plot, which many readers find refreshing. More info →
Chakraborty masterfully includes history and cultural symbolism in this fantasy novel (for a peek into her research process, check out Chakraborty's reading list). This book subverts expectations in the best way. Eighteen year old Nari makes her living as a con artist on the streets of Cairo. When a job goes horribly awry, she accidentally conjures a djinn warrior who transports her to the magical city of brass. If you love a feisty heroine and rich world-building, this is the book for you. More info →
Publishers call this "the fantasy novel you've always wished Jane Austen had written." Jane and Melody are on the hunt for eligible men (who are in possession of a good fortune and in want of a wife, naturally). However, in this version of Regency England, glamour—that is, the power to create visual illusions—is considered a ladylike skill (think pianoforte or painting). When Jane discovers a plot to take advantage of her sister's dowry, she pushes herself to the limits of glamouring. Will the sisters find their happily ever afters? More info →
This steampunk alternate WWI history makes a great family road trip book (Alan Cumming narrates the audiobook). Aleksandar is a Clanker, part of the Austro-Hungarian force of steam-driven machines and guns. Deryn is a Darwinist, part of the British force of genetically modified animals, including the Leviathan, a whale airship. When they cross paths, the two foes develop an unlikely friendship and travel the world on the adventure of a lifetime. More info →
I've been meaning to read Signe Pike for ages; feel free to convince me in comments! The "lost queen" is Languoreth, a real sixth century Scottish queen whose twin brother inspired the legend of Merlin. Ancient Scotland is the perfect setting for a fantasy novel. Ancient magic, complex politics, and clashing religions all conspire to create an intriguing story. Reminiscent of the Arthurian legends, this book is perfect for fans of Phillippa Gregory. More info →
When sea captain Will Laurence captures a French ship and finds an unhatched dragon egg among its cargo, his life changes. He develops an unexpected bond with the dragon, Temeraire, and joins the aerial corps to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Combining high fantasy with real 18th century military tactics, Novik weaves a beautiful story of friendship, love, and adventure in her first novel. More info →
When spunky, psychic Evie O’Neill is sent to her Uncle’s house in New York City, she is immediately enamored by the sparkle and glamour of the Jazz Age, but things get serious when her uncle is called to a crime scene to study occult symbols left behind by the murderer. Evie realizes that her unexplained powers could help catch a serial killer. With a unique cast of characters and snappy, witty dialogue, The Diviners qualifies as YA that adults will also love. Think City of Girls but with ghosts and evil lurking around every corner. More info →
Mr. Norrell, a recluse with an extensive library, agrees to use his magical efforts to help the British fight against Napoleon Bonaparte. When Jonathan Strange, an ambitious magician, arrives on the scene, Mr. Norrell eagerly agrees to teach him the ways of English magic. While Norrell is stuffy and rigid, Strange is wild and eager. Circumstances grow more and more dangerous as they uncover lost magic. If BBC miniseries are your cup of tea, then this vividly detailed novel might be for you. Fun/embarrassing fact: my brother loaned me this giant book four years ago and I still haven’t read it (because I keep meaning to!). And I still haven't returned it. More info →
Have you read any of these titles? Which books would you add to this list?