Fun Lists

Fantasy Books That Feel Historical But Aren’t

“I didn’t know how long I had been in the king’s prison.”

First line in The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Welcome to this post for Wyrd and Wonder where I’m looking at Fantasy books that kind of make you believe they take place in a historical version of our own world. They don’t actually, but the authors have taken a great deal of inspiration from historical settings to build their Fantasy world. This is quite common for Fantasy books, but I have found some that take it just a step further than your vague Medieval Europe setting.

Books Set in the Grishaverse by Leigh Bardugo

The Grishaverse is made up of three series so far that all take place in the same world. The nations within this world are heavily inspired by real-world countries such as Russia and The Netherlands. Bardugo has taken several cultural aspects such as the languages and architecture of these countries and given them a tiny twist to fit into her fantasy world. However, it’s still very clear where she got the inspiration from, almost making it feel like these books take place in the real world.

Gentleman Bastard by Scott Lynch

The historical feel from these books comes from Lynch’s incredible attention to detail in his world-building. He spends a lot of time describing the cities our con artists find themselves in, and it gives the reader a sense of familiarity. Inspiration has been drawn from Italy in particular, but there’s also some French in there, and it generally feels like you’re following scheming nobles from 18th century Europe.

Serpent and Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Even though I DNF’d this book, it was still obvious to me that this book is basically set in a historical version of France. Not really though, because it’s still a Fantasy world, but finding parts of the world-building that isn’t French-inspired would be difficult.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

A quartet of books set in an Ancient-Rome-like world that will make you feel like you’re about to step into the gladiator arena. You can feel the Roman inspiration in everything from weapons and clothes to power structures and politics, and Tahir even included Augurs which were real-life “characters”, although she did give them a Fantasy makeover. Later on in the series, she also adds some Middle Eastern influence into the mix.

The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Witcher has one of the most Medieval-Europe-inspired settings out there but has added some fantastical creatures and magic to make it Fantasy. It still leaves a lot of the culture including how the common folk lived their lives and what they valued.

The Queen’s Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

We’re staying in Europe but moving south to the countries near the Mediterranean, but particularly Ancient Greece. The nations in The Queen’s Thief are small and reminiscent of old Greek city-states such as Sparta and Athens, and the Greek inspiration is also obvious in the names of the characters such as Eugenides.

Those were some Fantasy books that feel historical even though they aren’t, but they still might be of interest to readers who like both Fantasy and Historical Fiction. As I can only really talk about books I’ve already read, please feel free to share some books you feel are missing from this list in the comments.

8 thoughts on “Fantasy Books That Feel Historical But Aren’t

  1. I basically agree with you on all of these, except for The Witcher, which I haven’t read 😉 In The Lies of Locke Lamora in particular, everything I pictured pretty much looked like a dirtier and more dangerous version of Venice 😁 But I guess when you really think about it, most fantasy settings take inspiration from some real historical place. I think the “medieval Europe” one is probably the most prevalent among the books I’ve read, which is why I always love finding books inspired by different cultures, such as in The Poppy War (which has countries that are very obviously based on China, Japan, and Europe). And Tamora Pierce also draws upon several different places – like Japan or North African countries for some of the settings in her books 😊 Overall, I think I’ve probably seen almost everything except Aboriginal folklore inspire fantasy settings, so should you ever come across some Australian vibes, definitely let me know!

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    1. Yeah, I also think most fantasy settings are inspired by real places, but I often tend to love the ones that are very obvious about it. And I also really love the Europe-inspired ones so that’s also the ones I’ve read the most of.
      I haven’t read any Tamora Pierce and actually didn’t know that about her books. They were never the ones I picked up when I was younger because I didn’t like their covers (yes, that’s how 11-year-old me picked what books to read 😅). I also haven’t read any fantasy books about Aboriginals but I feel they must exist. I’ll keep an eye out 😉 I’m currently reading Gods of Jade and Shadow which is about Mayan folklore, so now I have a big interest in anything related to that, but also anything Aztec and Incan inspired which I’ll definitely be looking out for 😊

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      1. Luckily, eleven-year-old me devoured pretty much every book ever given to her, so I fell in love with Tamora Pierce’s books before I ever considered the covers 🥰 They’re still among my favorite books today!
        And as to the Aztec-, Mayan-, and Incan-inspired fantasy, I could use more of that, too! I vaguely remember loving this Mayan-inspired series as a child that I think had one POV from the perspective of a bat, but even though I’ve been trying to find it again for years, I haven’t been able to 😪 But surely I didn’t just imagine its existence, right?? And some of Isabel Allende’s books also have Latin American folkloric elements, although at least the ones I’ve read are actually set in our world despite having fantasy elements… But I wasn’t blown away, either, so I’m still on the lookout!

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    1. Oh that’s right! I actually read the first book in that series when it first came out but then never got around to the rest of it. But yes, it definitely has that old-school Hollywood vibe.

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  2. I love Italian-inspired fantasy so I loved The Lies of Locke Lamora – I really need to get to the rest of the series! The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta also feels like it’s set in historical Italy. An Ember in the Ashes is one I keep meaning to read; I’m surprised there isn’t more fantasy based on the Ancient Roman empire.

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