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The Best Historical Fantasy Books

recommended by P. Djèlí Clark

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark


A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark


Historical fantasy books intermingle real history with counterfactual and speculative elements. P. Djèlí Clark, historian and Nebula Award-winning novelist, talks us through his top five magical re-imaginings of past eras, taking us from fourteenth century Russia into the Washington D.C. of the Roaring Twenties.

Interview by Sylvia Bishop

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark


A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark

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In historical fantasy, we are invited to see how the past might have looked if a given magical element existed. What is the appeal of this reimagining?

I think everyone is a bit interested in the past. As a historian, certainly I am. I like to think that everyone likes the past in some way, even if they may not like the discipline of history. They like the idea of history. They watch movies about it, they read tons of books, they watch documentaries. And I think adding a bit of magic is just always interesting.

When it’s the past that we know, but magic has been found, it may take the place of technology, or it may enhance it. Or it may just change the dynamics. And I think it’s always interesting to see what happens when we throw those bits of folklore in.

Could you introduce your first historical fantasy recommendation, Babel by R. F. Kuang?

A great book! I always say that when I finished it, I felt smarter. It is set in a real-world city, Oxford, and what’s supposed to be Oxford University. But in this Oxford University, there’s magic involved – so you don’t just learn the arts and Classics and everything else, you also learn the art of magic. But it’s being used to prop up England’s colonial power. It’s like something right out of Edward Saïd’s Orientalism: institutional centres of learning being used to prop up colonialism—quite literally here with power.

“In historical fantasy, magic may take the place of technology, or it may enhance it”

It follows the story of a young man who is brought to Oxford from China. He is brought there to learn this magic, along with several other people from various backgrounds from around the British Empire, all brought in to use their powers to further the Empire. Over time, he begins to turn against this.

It turns into this beautifully written anti-colonial narrative that’s also imbued heavily with magic, as well as people’s interpersonal relationships, and then the history of the time – the British in China and the Opium Wars and everything else. It’s really well done.

Was the magic a direct analogy for the resource extraction of the Empire? Or did it change the dynamic?

A bit of both! In colonial resource extraction, they would go into places in Africa and the Empire, and they would build roads and only use them to take things out. Here, we have them literally using the power of peoples from those empires. It gives them a small stake within it, even though they’re furthering the power of the empire. And it was interesting to see what happens when someone turns against that.

It’s not a romantic notion of revolution, either. It’s the real gritty this-is-what-could-happen version. Not our dreamy idea that revolution will just happen and then everything will be fine. It’s all the unintended consequences and the sacrifices that have to be made, and the uncertainty at the end that anyone has won. I think the book really captures so much of that very well. And so clearly! I felt like I’d been to Oxford when I finished it.

Kuang is really thinking about these issues of colonialism in history, and then finding ways to talk about it through the lens of this fantasy, which I think draws in a lot of people who may not have known about this history before.

The magical element of your next choice is very different. Could you tell us about the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik? The first book in the sequence is His Majesty’s Dragon.

It’s our world. England and France are at war, but there are dragons – intelligent dragons, and they are taking part in battles. Napoleon is conquering, and he has dragons, and so does England; the two are competing with each other. It’s the story of this one dragon, Temeraire, who becomes… well, I don’t want to say ‘the property’ of William Laurence, because they’re supposed to be much more linked, the dragon and the rider. It’s about him, as much as the dragon – and the way dragons are used in this world.

I thought the book was amazing. I love dragons, so if you throw dragons into a history, I am immediately fascinated. There’s the way dragons battle, there are people who try to capture other people’s dragons, and you lose your dragon if someone succeeds… I just thought it was really intelligently done, and still rooted in so much of the history of the 18th century.

Later books show that there are dragons elsewhere, like China – and there is an entirely different way that slavery and the slave trade are taking place because of dragons in South Africa. So, as the series builds it really intensifies. I was interested every time – what are we going to see next? How has the world changed because of these dragons in these different parts of the world?

So the dragons aren’t just really big weapons – they change the dynamic.

Yeah! And they have their own thoughts. Some of them will be very loyal to the places where they’re from – for example, dragons from China see themselves as part of Chinese civilisation and culture. They’re trying to protect it. And the dragons from Africa are really angry at the slave trade. They’re burning slave ships and trying to destroy them. The dragons from France are very pro-Napoleon! So, you have these dragons who take on in many ways the national or social persona or politics of the age, but they also have their own stake. I thought that was fascinating.

We go back to a much earlier historical time period with your next choice… Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, the first book in the Winternight trilogy. Could you tell us about it?

I was actually at a book signing in Boston with Katherine Arden. It was the first time I’d seen her book, and I’m just a sucker for fairy tales. I saw the cover of the book and said to myself, ‘Oh, Russian fairy tales? I’m into this, let’s check it out!’ And I read it, and it was absolutely delightful.

The book is set in a Russia that is still under the yoke of various other powers and has not fully established itself yet – a Russia before Peter the Great. It’s very much in a more Eastern world, and it is filled with aspects of Russian folklore and Slavic fairy tales – which are interwoven among all of these other things that are going on at the time, where Russia is trying to assert its independence from other Central Asian powers.

It follows Vasya, a young woman from the countryside, who becomes embroiled in various forces that are taking shape in this early Russian society. She finds herself at the heart of it as the trilogy goes on. I liked the story because it was so heavily magical. There are spirits of a type, folklore beings that represent the winter and the summer and night – but they also are tied into so much of the politics. You have everything from the domovoy, the little helpers in the kitchens, all the way up to the much more powerful beings within folklore. I thought that was really well done.

I was struck by seeing Babel and The Bear and the Nightingale on the same list. They feel like such different books. I think because Arden uses folklore that belongs to the time and place?

Yeah, I think what’s interesting about the Winternight trilogy. It gives us the history of Russia that we already know, and then it throws in Russian and Slavic folklore. The way it does this, it speaks to how someone in the time period may perhaps have viewed their reality – where this folklore was not something that was considered ‘folklore’, but was part of the natural world. The supernatural and natural world here remain blurred.

You also have the coming of Christianity, which is taking away from that world, and there’s a competition. I thought it was fascinating to set it during this time period, where you’re going to have competing forces; where that old world feels as if it’s falling away, but people still remember it, and it’s trying to assert itself within this changing society.

Your own book A Master of Djinn also draws on the existing folklore of a particular place – or rather of many particular places, since you set it in Egypt, at a cultural crossroads. Could you tell us a little about the book, and how you used those stories?

A Master of Djinn grew out of a short story I’d written called ‘A Dead Djinn in Cairo,’ which itself came out of my time in grad school – somewhere between showing Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers and reading Edward Saïd, and looking at the anti-colonial era. I was thinking about the power of the Maxim gun in creating colonialism around the world, and I was teaching this as a grad student. Somewhere along the way, I guess the science fiction part of me thought, ‘Well, what would stop a Maxim gun? Oh – magic.’

I was looking for a place to set it, and I actually had several… Cairo ended up being the place, because like you said it’s a crossroads of places – from the Near East, the Mediterranean, and other parts of Africa. And it’s an ancient city. It’s great when you’ve decided where to set a story, then you get to dig into the history – and sometimes it’s more history than you can ever use! I think so many times when people do write speculative fiction about Egypt, they go immediately back to ancient Egypt – as if that’s where Egypt begins and ends. I still draw on aspects of ancient Egypt, but I really wanted to focus on other aspects of the culture that come after, that still exist.

So, I created a 1912 alternate Cairo – a Cairo that we are kind of familiar with, where we know some of these histories, and some of the political power players involved. But djinn have made themselves much more known in the world. They’re not just something that people may say, ‘Oh, that cat might a be a djinn.’ They’re walking around, they have jobs – some are lawyers, or architects, and what have you. Magic itself has returned, and altered this Cairo, made it this phenomenal power with a lot of steampunk technology.

It’s also altered the shape of the world and dynamics of power. Like in our history, you have a Berlin Conference in the late nineteenth century to decide what to do with the scramble for Africa. But in this alternate telling, this is because there’s magic in Cairo! European powers need to figure out how to stop that! It was interesting to pull on some of those things I knew from history and then imagine with magic. What happens then? How does it keep some of the similar trajectory of our world, and yet alter it at the same time? And how do humans react to these other beings that are going to now compete with us and live alongside us?

That’s why I created the Ministry. I figured, if something like that did happen, the first thing people would do is create a bureaucracy, a ministry to try to figure out how to tamp it all down, or at least keep it in check. And the books show that as a work in progress.

We’re back in nineteenth century England in your next historical fantasy book recommendation: Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho.

I was blown away immediately with this story. And I guess in some ways, this is like a bit like Babel. Again, here we are in a world that we recognise, a history that we recognise, the England we know, but in this version a royal society of magic exists. We are again at these intersections of colonialism and empire that I always find interesting, and looking at how magic is being used here—I suppose as a substitute for the other powers of empire.

The head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, linked to the king, is the first person of African descent in the position. This is causing a stir – ‘what is he doing here?’ There are women who might become involved too. So, you have an old society locked in its own rigid orthodoxy, now being challenged by marginalised people who are also, we find, using magic from other systems, different to what the English are used to.

I found the book fascinating because I’m a historian – this is a little earlier than my time period, but it’s in my wheelhouse – and I just thought it was well done. And there’s a dragon in here called Georgiana-without-Ruth, which was just hilarious to me. It’s a really matriarchal dragon.

I love that not only is this linked to what’s happening in the Metropole, in London, but it’s also linked to these larger forces happening, for instance, in Malaysia – and it brings in these other bits of Malaysian folklore. I do that in A Master of Djinn where, while everything is centred around Cairo, I make sure magic is everywhere in the world: Germanic goblins, West African deities and what have you – a little bit of everything going on. Zen Cho is doing something similar in her world-building. I really, really liked this book. It was part of a duology. I’m still hoping that there’ll be more.

Your final historical fantasy book recommendation takes us to Washington D.C. and the Roaring Twenties. This is The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope.

It’s set in 1920s Washington DC, in the United States, within an African American community where there’s magic. It’s really dealing with issues of race, issues of gender, issues of sexuality – and what happens with magic in this mix, when the crime bosses have their own magical wizards and so forth to help them out.

The Roaring Twenties: imagine that with magic, and it makes it a lot richer. I love the title, taken from a Jamaica-born poet, Claude McKay, who writes this poem, ‘If We Must Die’ during the infamous Red Summer of 1919. It’s a rebuttal to lynchings and anti-Black race riots that he’s seeing happening in the United States, when he moves to Harlem. One of the lines from his poem is “The monsters we defy” – I love that Penelope takes that line from this Harlem Renaissance era poem for her title.

We follow a young woman, Clara, and her friends, as she is navigating these many worlds. She is trying to simply go about her life, working with scholars. She’s not part of this other criminal world – but she becomes more and more embroiled in it. And we have magical beings; we have bits of folk magic that people are doing; we get a fairy ball, which I was hoping had real fairies. But even better, it’s a ball for queer and cross-dressing Black men. And this is based on actual drag balls of the era! I loved it! Often people erroneously think such events are more modern aspects of society. But Penelope reminds us these drag balls and what-have-you were quite early.

Maybe that’s how you know the author is making great choices: when you can’t decide whether the real history or the magic system would be cooler to see!


Interview by Sylvia Bishop

March 8, 2024

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P. Djèlí Clark

P. Djèlí Clark

P. Djèlí Clark is author of Abeni’s song and A Master of Djinn, and the winner of the Nebula and Locus awards. When not writing historical fantasy books, he works as an assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut.

P. Djèlí Clark

P. Djèlí Clark

P. Djèlí Clark is author of Abeni’s song and A Master of Djinn, and the winner of the Nebula and Locus awards. When not writing historical fantasy books, he works as an assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut.