10 Lovely Historical Romance Novels

When I started reading romance, I had no clue I’d find so many historical romances to love. Turns out I like escaping to another time just fine, especially if fancy clothes are involved. So here’s a roundup of my so-far favorite historical romance novels, novellas, and short stories. It’s probably a little more queer and diverse than if you grabbed a handful of historical romances off the library or bookstore shelf, but if you’ve read my blog or social media, that’s not much of a surprise! Hope you find something to enjoy in the following list.

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A Summer for Scandal by Lydia San Andres (Amazon / Goodreads)

Attraction, secrets, and delicious banter are the main ingredients in this historical romance set on a fictional Hispanic Caribbean island circa 1910. Emilia Cruz supports her sister and their alcoholic father by secretly writing a racy serial under a pen name. Ruben Torres is a serious novelist who writes a gossip rag on the side, also under a pseudonym, in which he writes scathing takedowns of Emilia’s serial and threatens to unmask the author’s identity. This isn’t quite enemies-to-lovers, but it’s close, because these two get off on a very wrong foot. Two people with such a passionate interest in literature can’t stay apart for long, though…

Unfortunately, people with secrets are vulnerable, which means the growing relationship between Emilia and Ruben is on shaky ground. I loved the setting, both main characters, Emilia’s unapologetic passion for her writing, the many distinct and interesting secondary characters, and as previously mentioned, the clever banter between Emilia and Ruben. The plot gets a little wander-y later in the book, but it all gets tied up in the end, and I enjoyed the dialogue and setting enough to make up for it.

I’d read San Andres’s novella The Infamous Miss Rodriguez before I read this, and the cameo by Graciela Rodriguez here was a delightful surprise. Here’s hoping that San Andres keeps writing, because the romance genre needs more diverse stories like this.

Diversity note: San Andres lives in the Hispanic Caribbean, so I suspect this is #ownvoices.

Imperial Hotel by Diane Marina (Amazon / Goodreads)

A quiet, nostalgic short story about how Lily and Joan, two young socialites in 1948 New York City, met, fell in love, and began an affair within the relatively safe confines of rooms at the Imperial Hotel. It’s told by Joan many years later, and the narration really nails the “I’m telling you a story” vibe. Joan tried to forget Lily is engaged, not wanting to believe Lily will go through with it, but both women have to go through heartbreak before their HEA. The ending was possibly a bit unrealistic for the time, but I really appreciated how it hinged on Joan learning to make her own happiness rather than depending on someone else to provide it.

(I do wish it had a less disorganized cover, but covers are hard.)

A Dream Defiant by Susanna Fraser (Carina Press / Amazon / Goodreads)

Though I wished it had been a full-length novel to give some events more breathing room, I really enjoyed this interracial M/F novella set during the Napoleonic wars, specifically in 1813 Spain in a British Army camp. Elijah Cameron is the black son of runaway slaves who has worked his way up in the Army as best he can given racial prejudice. Rose Merrifield is widowed suddenly, and must re-marry immediately if she wishes to stay safe, since there’s a (true) rumor that her dead husband left her something valuable. Elijah and Rose already know and admire each other. That allows the author to create what I thought was the strongest part of this story: the thoughtful discussion and negotiation they both go through – with each other and themselves – to ensure their sudden marriage will succeed.

The novella follows them back home to England, where it’s maybe a bit rushed getting them settled into an HEA, but I didn’t mind (much) because I so enjoyed the characters. This was my first read by Fraser, and now I’m looking forward to digging into her backlist.

Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole (Amazon / Goodreads)

A satisfyingly political romance set in 1917 Harlem between Bertha Hines, a determined African-American woman who owns a cabaret called The Cashmere and organizes for women’s suffrage, and Amir Chowdhury, a Muslim Bengali immigrant to the U.S. who’s hired at The Cashmere as a chef after discovering that the “American dream” isn’t really open to people like him. Bertha is So Over Men, for good reasons, and both she and Amir are extremely prickly people, also for good reasons, but they somehow manage to fumble towards mutual respect and then affection.

I love how smart and quietly funny Bertha and Amir both are, and how Cole doesn’t throw out either their smarts or Bertha’s reservations about relationships when they both start having feelings. The historical setting comes alive through both events and distinctive secondary characters – in fact, so much happens to so many people that in retrospect I can’t figure out how Cole fit all this into a novella. It never feels rushed or cramped, just rich and interesting. It’s a feminist social justice anti-racist multicultural romance that opens up part of the past we often see only through white people’s eyes.

Diversity note: Alyssa Cole is African-American.

The Duke of Olympia Meets His Match by Juliana Gray (Amazon / Goodreads)

Ever wonder what happens to those alpha-soldier-secret-agent heroes in romance novels when they get older? If it’s 1893, they become like the snooty Duke of Olympia, in his 70s and wishing he could be done with all this faffing about, but also bemoaning the lack of skills in the current generation of operatives, since it requires his presence on the SS Majestic during a cross-Atlantic voyage to find a dangerous anarchist and retrieve stolen information that mustn’t fall into the wrong hands.

On said ship, the Duke makes the acquaintance of 50 year old American Mrs. Penelope Schuyler, a clever widow who lives on the not-quite-kindness of relatives, and sparks fly. Well, conversational sparks anyway. The Duke would like more than that, but Penelope is unconvinced that she wants to be anyone’s mistress, no matter how drab and uninspiring her penniless future appears. Also, she may have a secret or two that she has zero desire to reveal to His Grace.

Watching these two smartypants characters verbally fence was absolutely delightful. The Duke’s appreciation for Penelope’s mind and capabilities is endearing. Finally, I really appreciated how the Duke is well over six feet tall and EVERYONE NOTICES ALL THE TIME. Unlike in most romance novels where all these 6’5″ guys are walking around and there’s zero bystander reaction. That is not reality.

If it Ain’t Love by Tamara Allen (Amazon / Goodreads)

A quiet, short falling-in-love story set in the Great Depression between a down-and-out New York Times reporter, Whit Stoddard, and a mysterious man named Peter who is about to be evicted from his mansion after financial ruin. It has a light, airy touch that several reviewers on Goodreads have said gives it a fairy tale feel, and I agree. Peter’s the prince in the decaying castle, and Whit’s the scruffy bard who helps the prince find hope. Both men are sweetly surprised to find a connection with each other that’s more than physical.

This seems to be permanently free on Amazon, so if you have a way to read digital books and you want to say “awwww” several times, give it a whirl.

An Unseen Attraction by K.J. Charles (Amazon / Goodreads)

If there was an award for Sweetest Couple in a Romance Novel, Clem Talleyfer and Rowley Green in this Victorian romantic suspense novel might win it. Clem is a mild-mannered illegitimate half-Indian son of an English lord. He runs a lodging house in a diverse neighborhood on the sufferance of his his jerky titled step-brother. Rowley is his lodger, a local taxidermist with an artistic bent who’s long wanted more than friendly cups of tea with his cute-as-a-button landlord Clem. It’s a slow burn between two introverts, Clem hesitant because most people get frustrated with his (what we would now label) dyspraxia, and Rowley nervous because he’s submissive and previous lovers haven’t been exactly delighted by that.

While all of this is developing, one of Clem’s lodgers is found tortured and murdered. This sets off a chain of dangerous events that heightens both Clem’s family conflicts and Rowley’s well-earned fears of anger and conflict. Charles draws in a wide variety of interesting secondary characters, including Clem’s found family of other gay men, and gives the reader plenty of mystery and action along with a more accurate look at London’s diversity in this era than one typically finds in historical romance.

The full resolution of the mystery requires the two following books in the series, neither of which clicked for me as well as this one, but Clem and Rowley will always have my heart. They are so damn adorable.

The Enlightenment Series by Joanna Chambers (Amazon / Goodreads)

Stunning, layered trilogy that tells the story of two very different gay men falling in love in Scotland during the early 1800s. David Lauriston was raised by a deeply religious farmer and is clawing his way up into the middle class as a barrister. Lord Murdo Balfour is rich nobility, son of a politically ambitious jerk. The conflict between Balfour and Murdo (that takes three books to resolve) is historically appropriate during the Enlightenment: will God rightly damn you for having a homosexual relationship?

I liked how it didn’t feel like a modern discussion pasted onto a historical setting. David has managed to get clear of his religious and cultural programming enough to fight for both commoners’ and women’s rights in significant sub-plots over the course of the series, but allowing himself his own gay happiness is much more difficult.
David has very little information, no role models, and limited support available to him outside of Murdo, who clearly has a dog in the fight over whether David’s going to accept himself. Murdo also has a hard time being sympathetic to the deep and very real pain David experiences, especially when David goes to visit his family. Chambers managed to get me sympathizing with many nearly-opposite things simultaneously: David’s fear of judgment, Murdo’s impatience, David’s resistance to Murdo’s impatience, and Murdo’s fear that David will leave him for good.

Both characters are complex and imperfect, and for quite a long time they don’t actually fit each other very well, but with great effort love does eventually prevail. Very well written.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (Amazon / Goodreads)

A book that most people seem to either love or hate, and I’m on the love side. It’s a friends-to-lovers New Adult / Young Adult romance/adventure novel set in 18th century Europe. The love story is between bisexual English gentleman Henry Montague and his best friend Percy, the biracial son of a wealthy family who has a chronic health condition I won’t disclose here to avoid spoilers. Monty and Percy are sent on their Grand Tour of Europe, the last hurrah before Monty’s father requires him to assume adult responsibilities. Monty, whose father’s physical abuse due to his queerness has deeply scarred him, is careless with his own life and almost immediately endangers himself, Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity who is accompanying them. What’s supposed to be a Grand Tour becomes a life-threatening search for safety. It’s a little bit magic, a lot of suspense, and very much Monty crushing helplessly on Percy and flailing around trying not to fuck up everything between them.

Unfortunately for Monty, he’s the best example I’ve read of how someone can be marginalized and abused for one aspect of their identity, but also extremely ignorant due to their overall social privilege, so he fucks it up a lot. He just doesn’t get what either Percy or Felicity face due to their race and gender respectively, and his ignorance is dangerous and painful. Some readers put the book down because of Monty’s borderline insulting lack of perception and even empathy. I totally respect that. For me, though, a big part of Monty’s self-centeredness is how much energy he’s using just to live in the face of his otherness and his father’s hostility. The world has always been closing in around him, choking him, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for growth or maturity. I just want to wrap him in a blanket, give him a sandwich, and pet his hair as he basically waves his hands and yells “What is going on? I don’t understand!”

I appreciated Monty for his irrepressibility, though, and for how hard he (eventually) struggled to learn and be a good person even when he didn’t have the slightest clue how to go about it. Percy is strong, gentle, and gets even stronger as he increasingly refuses to let Monty see him or the world inaccurately. Felicity is clever, charming, and no-nonsense, and I’m delighted she’s getting a book of her own.

A heartfelt historical queer and diverse romance with disability rep, feminism, and alchemists. Good stuff.

Gutter Roses by Jude Lucens (Amazon / Goodreads)

Finally, I want to let y’all know about this bitty short story about two streetwalkers in London, 1898, because it’s so lovely and I’m excited to read more when Lucens publishes her first full-length novel. Gutter Roses is about Cath and Ben, close friends who look out for each other. When one of Cath’s clients assaults her and she fights back, the pair have to make a choice about how they go forward. I’m not going to say more because it’s tough not to spoil a short story. But I can say that even in the face of the violence in this story, what I felt most clearly at the end was the warmth, acceptance, and trust in the relationship between Cath and Ben. Absolutely worth the (negligible) price.

Lucens says she writes “historical romances about marginalised people building family and tribe in the face of restrictive, often punitive, social norms.” You can really see that in this short, which it seems is a sort of sample for her forthcoming Radical Proposals series. I signed up on her mailing list right away.

Diversity notes: (1) Ben is bi and it’s no big deal, yay! (2) Lucens is a queer woman of color.

And that’s the list of my favorite historical romance novels! Hope you found something interesting. If you have any reading suggestions, let me know, and as always, if you found this post helpful, please share it!

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