15+ Lovely Historical Romance Novels

   November 8, 2020    Comments Off on 15+ Lovely Historical Romance Novels

— I’ve consolidated two posts into one, and done some freshening up. Happy reading! —

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.

Before we jump in:

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Eden Springs by Ada Maria Soto (Amazon / Goodreads)

Warm M/M romance novella set in a post-Civil War Western boomtown, where wandering tracker Aaron Byrne meets Oxford-educated astronomer Jonah Mann, currently serving as the town’s schoolteacher. Aaron’s been brought in to end a reign of terror perpetrated by some local bandits, but while he’s doing that, he and Jonah are also circling each other like “Who are you now? Might there be a thing between us?” Aaron is used to traveling freely about the country, and any attachment growing between the two men has some competition from his tendency to wander.

Soto takes us to an HFN with promise, not a permanent HEA, but I thought that was appropriate for these guys. I also adored the revelation of why the sheriff, Aaron’s friend, is so down on Jonah. So funny. A very satisfying tale of two people finding something special in each other, though on the surface they appeared to have little in common, and choosing to see where it may lead.

Content warning: A dude we’re supposed to like says something to a domestic abuser dude that is accepting of a certain level of domestic violence. To me, it was clear that this was an attempt to manipulate the abuser into backing off from further violence, but this is a heads up, because some folks might come upon that unaware and be stung by it anyway, and that would be so valid.

Diversity note: (1) Aaron is bi/pan, and his mother was half Chinese. (2) Soto is Mexican-American. She has dysgraphia and phonological dyslexia.

The Way Home by Lily Hammond (Amazon / Goodreads)

I haven’t had a chance to write a review yet, but this F/F romance set in New Zealand was really good:

“In 1941 May Lewis is looking for a fresh start. Leaving the city and an old love affair behind, she buys a medical practice in a small country town. Here she hopes to find peace, friendships, and the sort of medical practice she’s always dreamed of, where she knows all her patients by name. What she discovers is the possibility of a new, deep love with Eadie McClintock, a young woman struggling to raise her baby nephew while hiding her brother from the men determined to send him off to the war. Shunned by the town, however, Eadie refuses to have anything to do with May – for the new doctor’s own good. Which leaves May with an impossible task. How can she win the trust of the town when they are so set against the one person May wants to be closest to?”

Diversity note: Hammond has a female partner, though I don’t know how she identifies.

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 is a woman of color living in the Hispanic Caribbean.

A Lady’s Desire by Lily Maxton (Amazon / Goodreads)

I haven’t had a chance to write a review yet, but I really appreciated the main characters in this F/F novella and I was SO pleased with their HEA:

“Lady Sarah Lark has never had much interest in any of the suitors that surround her. Winifred and Sarah used to be best friends, but after Win married Sarah’s cousin and moved to London, their friendship fell apart. Neither Win nor Sarah are happy about being underneath the same roof, but after settling her late husband’s debts and being left with almost nothing, Win doesn’t have much choice other than to play nicely with the Lark family. The more time they spend in each other’s company, the more they wonder if friendship is all they feel. Still, even if they admit their feelings, to each other and to themselves, Lady Sarah’s parents are determined to see both young women married to suitable gentlemen. Win and Sarah’s newfound love might be over before it even begins.”

Behind These Doors by Jude Lucens (Amazon / Goodreads)

Gorgeous, lovely, wonderful polyamorous romance set in 1906 London. The main love story is between Aubrey Fanshawe, second son of an earl, and Lucien Saxby, working-class journalist. If you’re a fan of historical romance that engages with feminism, class and power differences, political struggles, etc. (think K.J. Charles and Courtney Milan) then you should give this a try. I loved watching these two guys – and various other characters – work so hard to love each other, make mistakes, hurt people they care about, apologize, and try to do better, and I loved how their stories were so carefully built within their historical setting. Lucens does an amazing job of having characters talk things out with each other, sometimes at length, while maintaining the character voices and the feeling of engaged conversation rather than people suddenly giving dramatic speeches.

I also appreciated the diversity here of various kinds. Aubrey is in a long-term committed romantic and sexual relationship with his childhood friends Lord and Lady Hernedale. Lord Hernedale is somewhere on the asexual spectrum, which doesn’t bother his wife or Aubrey, but which sadly is a source of profound insecurity for him. Lucien has a casual ongoing sexual relationship with his friend Ben, a bisexual married working class man of color. Lucien has a wealthy acquaintance who has an unlabeled long-term disabling chronic illness. This is historical romance on the realistic end of the spectrum, not the fairy tales of balls and castles, and I am 100% here for it.

There’s one minor tweak I would have wished for: a bit more of something to establish the meaningfulness of Ben to Lucien, to better support some of Lucien’s personal-growth-related realizations about relationships late in the book. I originally also felt like Henrietta, Lady Hernedale, needed at least one more speaking appearance after various male characters have realized that her agency has been taken away. I needed that to feel like the book wasn’t also overlooking her. EXCEPT after I finished writing this review, I read an interview with Lucens on Corey’s Book Corner that said this was a deliberate decision not to take more away from Hettie by having her story told through a man’s eyes. The next book in the series will be hers. I am 100% happy with that.

There is a related/prequel short story to this, Gutter Roses, that I also 100% recommend, but you don’t have to read it first.

Diversity note: Lucens is a bi, demisexual, pagan woman of color.

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.

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: Cole is a Black woman.

Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight by Alyssa Cole (Amazon / Goodreads)

I also have to include this Alyssa Cole because I love it too. It’s an inter-racial medieval Highlander romance! Loosely based on a true story, it’s an incredibly well-constructed short story about an African woman in Scotland, part of the court of King James IV. Agnes, known as Agnes Moor, serves as an “exotic” but also an advisor and informal diplomat. When the King organizes a tournament where the prize is a kiss from Agnes, she can’t help but hope and fear the Wild Knight who enters is a certain Highland laird. Spoiler alert: it is. Agnes’s awesomeness hit Gareth like a freight train when he met her, and he’s not going to let anything stand in the way of marrying her.

There are only about five events, and one of them is a flashback, but the storytelling is so effective that by the end I was entirely won over.

True Pretenses by Rose Lerner (Amazon / Goodreads)

A slow-burn Regency era small-town British romance between Lydia Reeve, a spinster heiress struggling to maintain her recently passed father’s legacy of politicking, and Asher Cohen, a Jewish con man who grew up in poverty and passes as Christian to avoid prejudice.

It’s so detailed and multi-layered, the writing is lush, the main and secondary characters are complex, and Lerner does an amazing job showing how both main characters are hurting – Lydia from the loss of her father, and Ash because the brother he’s raised and protected is abandoning him. That pain is what sometimes makes this hard to read, in a good way. It’s real, and it’s unsolvable. You can’t bring someone back from the dead, and you can’t keep someone with you who doesn’t want to stay. On top of that, Ash has been a con man so long that he struggles to find his authentic self, which complicates his growing attraction to Lydia. What makes it work is that Ash and Lydia both need someone to see them, and to honor their pain and sacrifices, and they’re able to give that to each other.

If you’re looking for something heartwrenching and real, give this one a try.

Diversity note: Lerner is Jewish, queer, and demisexual.

Unfit to Print by K.J. Charles (Amazon / Goodreads)

Second chance romance between two men of color in Victorian London, written by K.J. Charles who is an auto-buy author for me. It did not disappoint though it’s somewhat quieter than many of her novels. I kinda liked that about it.

Vikram Pandey is an uptight lawyer, Gilbert Lawless is bookseller who handles pornography. They were childhood best friends who started falling in love/lust until Gilbert – the biracial Black illegitimate son of a rich man – disappeared without notice from their boarding school. They meet again as Vikram investigates the disappearance of a young man from his Indian-British immigrant community. The attraction is still there, but Gilbert resents Vikram’s naivete and perceived abandonment, and Vikram struggles to clarify for himself whether his sense of morality and justice can square with Gilbert’s profession. There’s some investigating, some arguing, some reconnecting, and I enjoyed every bit of this.

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

This is another one of my fave K.J. Charles books. 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 Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan (Amazon / Goodreads)

Emotionally turbulent M/F romance in 1867 England between two characters who are trying to hide in plain sight. Jane Fairfield is an heiress who can’t get married without leaving her younger sister unprotected, so she pretends to be absolutely horrible hoping that no one will ask her. Oliver Marshall, the bastard son of a duke, has chameleon-ed his way into the social circle of nobility, hoping to make a career in politics so he can push reforms to benefit common people. They are wildly drawn to each other… but having Jane as a wife would wreck Oliver’s career, and marrying would put Jane’s sister at risk.

What struck me the most about this book: Milan’s passionate engagement with political and social themes; the pain of knowing that someone exists who really understands you, and not being able to be close to them; the resilience of women; the respectful depiction of the true diversity of England at that time. Tremendously well-written, made my heart ache in a good way, and I especially liked the secondary romance between Jane’s sister, who has epilepsy, and an Indian immigrant lawyer. They are both adorable.

Diversity note: Milan is Chinese-American, biracial, bisexual, and neurodivergent.

I also super-adored Milan’s After the Wedding (Amazon / Goodreads), an interracial romance between a biracial black businessman and a bi white woman reduced from nobility to working as a maid. Great dialogue and some lovely secondary characters.

The Valet and the Stable Groom by Katherine Marlowe (Amazon / Goodreads)

This Regency M/M romance between servants, set on a country estate, cracked me up so many times. It’s lighter on the romance than I usually prefer, because the central problem is that valet Clement Adair is so overwhelmed by his job that it’s threatening his chance for a relationship with stable groom Hugo Ogden. If Clement’s going to spend all his time trying to manage the household of his eccentric aristocratic employer, Hildebert Devereaux, there won’t be enough left for romance!

What kept the romance part on the back burner for a while, though, is exactly what I loved about it: the personalities and antics of Devereaux, his wife, and the various servants from the estate and the ones newly arrived from London. All are trying to cope with the transition from the estate being an empty vacation spot to the full-time residence of a noble couple used to having all of London to entertain them. Clement’s tact, practicality, formidable intelligence, and diplomacy are taxed to their limit as Devereaux engages in various leisure pursuits, some of which threaten life and limb (amateur chemistry lab, anyone?). There’s servant conflict, economic unease, and a garden party to host. It’s superbly entertaining. And overall, it’s a remarkably gentle and feel-good story, with two sweet guys who finally do manage to connect… once Clement learns a valuable lesson about prioritization.

Marlowe also has a novella about another interracial couple called Lord Loxley’s Lover (Amazon) that I enjoyed, though it felt more like a fairy tale as opposed to a realistic historical depiction. Nothing wrong with a good fairy tale now and again, though.

Occasions of Sin by Elena Graf (Amazon / Goodreads)

Fascinating lesbian romance (maybe, see last para below) about the relationship between a female physician from an aristocratic family and a nun, set in 1931 Germany around the time the Nazis start to rise in prominence. Margarethe von Stahle’s family are the patrons of Obberoth convent. When she travels there to interview a candidate for head nurse, she meets the mysterious Sister Augustine, a former physician who renounced being a doctor when she took orders. The differences between the two women is striking. Margarethe is arrogant, confident, from a somewhat decadent (her words) aristocratic class, and used to having the world jump when she says how high. Sister Augustine, nee Katharine, an Irishwoman, lives with guilt and uncertainty, always attempting to efface herself in her work, but unable to deny her growing attraction to Margarethe.

Their relationship doesn’t have an easy road, and it’s not an easy read. Margarethe isn’t a bad person, but she’s very comfortable deciding other people’s lives for them, and she genuinely believes she knows what’s best for Katharine. Katharine is often overwhelmed by her life, maybe too much so to adequately defend herself, but she rarely holds back from letting Margarethe know her opinion of the intrusive steamroller behavior. By the end, I wouldn’t say that Margarethe’s grown terribly much as a person on this front, but she has at least realized Katharine is more important than getting her way every time.

I would imagine many romance readers will actively dislike Margarethe, to be honest, and find she doesn’t have the character arc they’re hoping for. I’m not sure this was written as a romance per se, as it sure doesn’t follow the genre conventions of jerk characters learning the error of their ways and changing them. However, among two-gal love stories, this is such an unusual setting with such distinct characters, and I found it extremely interesting.

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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!