Is This Just Fantasy?: Highlights of Early 20th Century Historical Fantasy

Just Fantasy Hist FantasyHistorical and fantasy fiction have been two of my absolutely favorite genres to read since I was a child.  So it follows that historical fantasy–fiction that combines elements of both genres–is one of my greatest literary weaknesses.  I’m completely incapable of resisting a good historical fantasy novel!

There are already some excellent guides exploring this growing subgenre available online.  Over at their fabulous blog Stacked, Kelly Jensen & Kimberly Francisco have created a number of great genre guides including this one focused on historical fantasy.  Additionally, on her blog By Singing Light,  Maureen Eichner has an entire page devoted to historical fantasies with middle grade, young adult, and adult titles organized by their chronological settings.

So instead of offering an overview of historical fantasy, I’m going to highlight a few titles that fit into a recent trend.  Over the last couple years, I’ve noticed something of an uptick in historical fantasy exploring the first few decades of the 20th century–time periods that have sometimes been underrepresented in this particular subgenre, especially when compared to the medieval and Victorian eras.  But if these recent novels are anything to go by, the years between 1900 and 1940 are especially well-suited to the creation of rich, genre-blending stories.

cure for dreamingThe Cure for Dreaming – Cat Winters (2015 Amelia Bloomer Project List)
 It may be the dawn of the 20th century but for an intelligent and independent young woman like Olivia, living life on her own terms still feels like a distant dream.  She sneaks to suffragist protests and reads literature challenging the traditional vision of docile & subservient womanhood.  But her domineering father, convinced that she’s heading for trouble, hires famed stage mesmerist Henri Reverie to hypnotize Olivia into forgetting her rebellious ways.  But the hypnosis instead leaves Olivia both gifted and cursed; she can now see people’s inner darkness or goodness clearly–and she cannot speak her mind without feeling ill.  But her new vision makes Olivia even more determined to work for her independence and the rights of women.

In the Shadow of the Blackbirds by Cat WintersIn The Shadow of Blackbirds – Cat Winters (2014 William C. Morris Award Finalist, 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults)
In 1918, the United States has become a country besieged by death and fear as a virulent influenza epidemic rages at home and a global war rages across the Ocean. Even a scientifically minded young woman like Mary Shelley Black can’t completely resist the aura of paranoia—especially since her father has been arrested for treason and her sweetheart Stephen is trapped somewhere in the European trenches. Living in San Diego with her young widowed aunt, Mary Shelley can’t escape the surgical masks, the pervasive scent of onions, or the preoccupation with séances and spirits, particularly after news of Stephen’s death arrives—only to be followed by the appearance of his ghost.

cuckoo songCuckoo Song – Frances Hardinge
 Since her mysterious accident on their family vacation, Triss has been horribly aware that something is wrong.  Her little sister seems afraid of her, she’s suddenly developed an insatiable appetite, and inanimate objects like dolls not only speak–they scream.  It soon become more and more clear that Triss is truly not herself and she must journey into strange and bizarre worlds within, beyond, and beneath her world in order to discover what’s happened to her and her broken family.  Set in Great Britain during the years immediately following the end of World War I, this creepy tale incorporates changelings, fairies, and other supernatural creatures into a story about grief and war.
divinersThe Diviners – Libba Bray (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults)
It’s 1926 and glamorous New York City is simply the only place to be—at least that’s small town flapper Evie O’Neill’s opinion. So when her parents finally become fed up with Evie’s rebellious way and ship off to stay with her uncle in the Big Apple for summer, Evie welcomes the opportunity to explore speakeasies, Ziegfield girls, and Harlem jazz clubs. However, the trip also means staying with strange Uncle Will in his highly creepy Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult and Evie can’t help but worry that Uncle Will’s occult obsession will lead him to figure out her own supernatural secret. Then, within days of her arrival, a young woman is found murdered and branded with strange occult symbols. Uncle Will is asked to consult on the case and soon Evie is in the middle of murder investigation—and perhaps something even more sinister.  Evie’s story will continue in Lair of Dreams this fall!

the game of love and deathThe Game of Love and Death – Martha Brockenbrough
Down through the centuries, Love and Death have plotted and played their fatal game, choosing the players and watching as the destined couples move through obstacles and face their final decision: will they choose each other over everything–even Death?  And Death has always won.  Now, the two immortals have brought their game to 1930s Seattle and a new fate pair of unknowing players.  Flora Saudade is a talented African American singer and pilot who splits her time between the nightclub inherited from her parents and the cockpit of her borrowed airplane.  Henry Bishop is a poor but privileged white boy with music in his heart and a secure future.  Are Flora & Henry destined to be pair that finally win the game for Love?

razorhurstRazorhurst – Justine Larbalestier
The streets of Sydney, Australia in 1932 are filled with dangers as the fragile truce between rival mob bosses Gloriana Nelson and Mr. Davidson totters on a knife’s edge.  Street-wise orphan Kelpie has managed to avoid serious trouble with the help of the city’s ghosts.  Meanwhile, the beautiful Dymphna Campbell has found her own way to survive in the city’s brutal criminal underworld as Gloriana’s best girl.  But Dymphna’s boyfriends have a terrible habit of dying, earning her the title of Angel of Death–a nickname that even more appropriate than people realize as Dymphna secretly shares Kelpie’s ability to see ghosts.  When Kelpie and Dymphna’s paths intersect over the dead body of her latest boyfriend, they suddenly find themselves depending on each other for survival as loyalties and powers shift and buckle with violent results.
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading Cuckoo Song – Frances Hardinge  and Kissing in America – Margo Rabb

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Kelly Dickinson

I am a librarian at an independent girls' school in the DC-Metro area. I am a compulsive baker, book addict, and genre fiction fan with passion for social justice. Find me on Twitter as @onesmartcupcake.

2 thoughts on “Is This Just Fantasy?: Highlights of Early 20th Century Historical Fantasy”

  1. Great list Kelley! Thank you for the additions to my “to-read” list. I just finished Martha Brockenbrough’s The Game of Love and Death and loved it.

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