I had no idea how much I’d love the paranormal historical genre in romance! Here’s a roundup of my favorite (so far) paranormal historical romance novels (and short stories), in case you also appreciate some ghosts and whatnot with your smooching stories.
The way my life is organized these days, it’s tough for me to write reviews. Some of the books below have them, some do not, but I love them all. Enjoy!
Before we jump in:
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“The year is 1764, and following a glowing recommendation from his last employer, Henry Coffey, vampire, takes on a new personal secretary: young Theophilus Essex. The man is quite unlike any secretary – or any man, for that matter – that Henry has ever met.
Henry Coffey, immortal and ever-oscillating between periods of delighted focus upon his current passion project, is charming, witty, and seems utterly incapable of closing his mouth for more than a few moments; in contrast, Theophilus Essex is quiet and keenly focused, adopting an ever-flat affect, but as time goes on, he relaxes in his employer’s presence.
Craving resounding intimacy but with an ever aware of the polite boundaries for their situation, Coffey and Essex perform a slow dance as they grow closer to one another, and find themselves entangled.”
Diversity notes: (1) Though it’s not named on page because 1764, Henry’s character is understood to have ADD and Theophilus is understood to be autistic. (2) Evans is a gay trans man.
Why I loved Caroline’s Heart: aside from both main characters being trans and bi (representation yay!), there’s a gentle cowboy with lovely manners, some spooky-as-hell magic done by cranky witch, and Austin Chant is freakin’ gifted with the English language. So many sentences in this novella kicked me right in the heart. It’s about loneliness, loss, the burden of keeping secrets, and finding a person with whom you can be your whole self, but it never feels heavy. The story ends with such a feeling of relief, hope, and home. The blurb for this book centers Cecily, but Roy’s the emotional heart (no pun intended) of the story, the one who coaxes Cecily alive and holds her up when she needs it.
Set in 1885 in both Texas (including Austin, yay!) and Oregon, but with no road trip, because witches have better travel options than non-magical people.
For a really good, long review of it by someone who writes about books far better than I ever will, see this take on Caroline’s Heart by X / Black Magic Reviews.
Diversity note: Chant is a queer agender writer.
I am going to tell you this is a serious emotional romance novel, and you are not going to believe me. I know that’s what’s going to happen, because it already happened with my friend alianora. I don’t blame her! The marketing copy for the book is hilariously overwrought, and I’m sure it was fantastically entertaining to craft, and it’s not inaccurate, but… can you just trust me here? This is a serious book!
It’s a Victorian steampunk aristocracy polyamorous romance that begins between Arcadius, a.k.a. Lord Mercury, a closeted gay man, who falls for bisexual man Anstruther Jones, who is rich due to industry… and then Jones also falls for straight woman Lady Rosamond Wolfram. I really felt for Jones, who is the sweetest heart ever. Arkady is too frightened of exposure and his own identity to have a genuine relationship, even though losing Jones is breaking his heart. Rosamond is so entrenched in her social position that she can’t see a way out, even though her life clearly doesn’t feed her at all. When the three of them finally get all their social expectations and prior rejections and fears and affections untangled, there is so much love, it’s absolutely gorgeous.
It’s theoretically part of a series, but that’s more about the universe Alexis Hall is playing in than any connection between this book and the rest.
Diversity Note: Hall is a gay man.
Gorgeous, emotional historical paranormal murder mystery combined with a love story between two young men at a boarding school. (I initially interpreted them as something like high school juniors, but I think it’s more like they’re college students, since in book 2 they’ve graduated and gone off to work.) James Spencer doesn’t initially find the Whisperwood School for Boys that bad, aside from the creepy noises in the halls at night. James sets about making friends, and he’s especially drawn to aloof, intellectual William Spencer. William is rumored to be an opium addict who got in trouble for activities with another boy, but James himself is gay, so that doesn’t trouble him. As James slowly coaxes William out of his shell, James’s (lovely and wonderful) roommate Oscar starts having trouble with the headmaster… and then disappears.
This book does an amazing job balancing and blending the developing attraction between James and William with their growing mutual trust with painful secrets from their pasts and with the investigation of Oscar’s disappearance. The danger related to the murder is scary as hell, but there’s also space and freedom for William and James to fall in love, to enjoy things like picnics and pet names, in a way that realistically would probably have been dangerous at the time. The writing always gives it enough cover (secluded forest glade, friends who aren’t evil jerks) that I never felt tense like something bad was about to happen on that front. When there was a zombie boy wandering around the school grounds, on the other hand, that part was tense, eek!
The second book, A Hymn in the Silence, is from William’s point of view, and explores his anxiety and self-medication attempts more deeply. It’s a lovely book as well, I can’t wait for more from this wife and wife (!!) writing team.
Content note: In the first book, a character discloses past sexual assault.
The lighthearted slow burn paranormal Victorian steampunk lesbian romance I never knew I needed, but I totally did.
Imogen Hale goes into service with a vampire hive because she can’t figure out how else to avoid expectations to marry a man, and also because she suspects there’s “perverted” sex going on in the hive and how else is a gal with sinful (i.e. same-sex) desires supposed to get lucky? Inventor Genevieve Lefoux, who wears “men’s” clothing, is an indentured servant to the vampires after a slight misjudgment involving a rampaging attack in London with a mechanical octopus.
The setup sounds a bit ridiculous, but there’s a genuine love story here within the genre fun. Imogene sees Genevieve and both her heart and body say “YES, YOU!” Genevieve sees Imogene and says “Thanks, but I’d rather not, because many excuses, but you’re great at mathematical calculations so help me in my lab.” Imogene is fine with working in the lab, but hell if she’s giving up on this amazingly perfect woman! The will-they-won’t-they often makes you want to whack them both on the back of the head with a newspaper, but it’s hard to stay mad because they’re both so damn cute. Also, there’s a lot of interference that isn’t their fault, such as class issues, employment contracts, and of course the damn vampires.
This is a spinoff of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate multi-series universe, but I hadn’t read any of the Parasolverse before I read this and I had no trouble with it whatsoever.
Diversity note: Carriger is queer and femme.
Baltimore, late 1800s, a time when belief in ghosts and mediums ran rampant… and in this series, that belief is true. This is a suspenseful rivals-to-lovers tale with angry ghosts and significant critique of privileged folks who act like jerks. (So relevant to my interests!)
Henry Strauss is a gay inventor who believes in using science to banish hauntings, after his family was financially ruined by a fraudulent medium. Vincent Night is a gay Native American medium and former street kid whose last exorcism led to the death of his mentor, leaving Vincent afraid of his own powers. They’re invited to compete against each other to de-haunt a mansion with a malevolent ghost. The immediate sparkage between flirtatious fashionista Vincent and uptight scientist Henry is compelling and sexy. The ghost story is chilling and suspenseful. Both the science and the paranormal magic system are appropriately interesting. If that’s all we got here, I’d have no complaints.
What’s layered on top, though, and which I found very entertaining, is “liberal” white guy Henry repeatedly being forced to acknowledge and fix his ignorance. Henry is the guardian for his younger biracial African-American cousin Jo, so he has gotten a couple clues from that, but that doesn’t mean he’s automatically a thoughtful, enlightened person on all other topics. Several other characters and the author have zero interest in letting Henry off the hook for his screwups, and it’s enormously satisfying to see him apologize properly and grow as a result.
The second book, Dangerous Spirits, was just as satisfying. The haunting is truly frightening, and Hawk wasn’t afraid to complicate things for Henry and Vincent by repeatedly punching the button marked “Henry’s insecurities.” I was quite pleased to hear that Hawk’s working on a third book for these guys. [Update November 2018: I read the third book of the trilogy, and it was lovely!]
Content warning: In the first book, a trans character is outed, threatened, and physically assaulted, so it won’t work for some people, and that’s okay. Take care of yourselves, folks!
Hawk has two other popular historical paranormal series: Griffin & Whyborne and Hexworld.
Diversity note: Hawk is a trans man.
A fun meet-cute-ish short story with bloodsuckers, set in 1913 on Christmas Eve in Seattle. Vampires infest the world and everyone knows it, so Clydie probably should have worn a more practical dress to the train station to meet her boyfriend late in the evening. I’m just saying, a gal whose sorority activities included weapons and hand-to-hand combat training might be a little more sensible. Chaos ensues, Clydie learns important information about both her fiance and her father’s charismatic assistant Lucas Storm, and the New Year promises to be quite different than the year that’s ending. (For anyone who’s read it, fangirl moment, the bit with the handkerchief near the end? So understated and yet packs such a punch, holy crow!)
If you like her writing style, also check out The Clockwork Monk (Free at Liv Rancourt’s site / Goodreads), an intriguing short story that combines espionage and the beginning of a romance in a steampunk alternate United States. Trevor is a spy tasked with finding a missing spy and retrieving an artifact called The Clockwork Monk. Trevor infiltrates the household of the Archbishop of Chicago and tangles with Father Stephen, who is probably not a Father. Or named Stephen. He is, however, tremendously attractive.
Starts out horrifically dark, ends up so hopeful, and I am very into the world-building in this novella series. Tenrael is a demon enslaved by men, kept captive in a carnival where attendees can pay to abuse him. Charles Grimes is… something other than human. He works for the Federal Bureau of Trans-Species Affairs as a demon-hunter, and he’s assigned to investigate a report of a demon in a circus. If it proves true, his job is to kill the demon.
It’s a spare, short novella, but IMHO it hits every note spectacularly, from Tenrael’s grateful acceptance that Charles will end his torment, to Charles’s melancholy reflections back at his Los Angeles home after resigning from the Bureau. The words and interactions between these two characters elegantly make the point that there’s a difference between a pain kink and abuse.
Ten and Charles make another appearance in the next Bureau story, Clay White, which is a contemporary vampire story that I also enjoyed. All of Fielding’s self-published book royalties are donated to Doctors Without Borders, so even more of a reason to try them out.
“Lord Thornby has been trapped on his father’s isolated Yorkshire estate for a year. There are no bars or chains; he simply can’t leave. His sanity is starting to fray. When industrial magician John Blake arrives to investigate a case of witchcraft, he finds the peculiar, arrogant Thornby as alarming as he is attractive.
John soon finds himself caught up in a dark fairytale, where all the rules of magic—and love—are changed. To set Thornby free, both men must face life-changing truths—and John must accept that the brave, witty man who’s winning his heart may also be about to break it. Can they escape a web of magic that’s as perilous as love?”
More of a paranormal mystery than a romance, but the substantial romance arc hit all the right buttons for me. And it won a RITA Award by Romance Writers of America for “Best First Book & Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements,” so I’m clearly not the only romance fan who sees it as an honorary member of the genre.
Set in 1920s England in a period still deeply scarred by the first World War, it begins when Sarah Piper is hired by wealthy ghosthunter Alistair Gellis. He wants to document a haunting, but the female spirit in question, Maddy Clare, hates men. (Content warning: sexual assault in the ghost’s backstory, brought up multiple times during the book.) Sarah has no friends or family, and she’s been drifting through life temping as a secretary. She’s frightened by his tales of ghosts, but also intrigued by the prospect of doing something different to break out of her haze. She’s also a teensy bit attracted to bright, warm Alistair. When Alistair’s usual assistant Matthew Ryder arrives unexpectedly on the job, though, Sarah realizes that whatever she feels for Alistair is just a fleeting crush. Matthew is the one who makes both her heart and her body sit up and take notice.
Unfortunately for Sarah, Matthew’s still suffering from both physical and mental scars of his time at war, so he’s decided to be emotionally unavailable. Also rather unfortunately, a terrifying, powerful ghost may kill them all very shortly if they can’t figure out her secrets and help her get revenge. Um, I mean justice. It’s a compassionate look at trauma in so many different forms: Maddy’s rage and suicide (and them more rage) in response to her assault, Alistair and Matthew each having different experiences with PTSD, and Sarah’s loss of her parents and (I suspect) resulting depression. Sarah, Alistair, and Matthew are all cut off from other people in significant ways because of their pasts, and have to struggle to find their way back.
Sarah was a delight to read because being underestimated is such a spark for her to become more confident and even feisty. I loved her growth, the he-won’t-admit-it romance between her and Matthew, the creepy-as-hell haunting, the mystery, the reflections on the war. It all combines into a fast-moving story that kept me up until midnight… but then I saved the last chapter for the next day because I didn’t want it to be over just yet. And that chapter was good too. :)
Fairly dark magical adventure romance set in an alternate Victorian London. Magic is real, though kept hidden by a network of magical police. Lucien Vaudrey, Lord Crane, ends up hiring Stephen Day, one of these magicians, when a supernatural threat causes Lucien to make repeated attempts on his own life. It’s not at all awkward that Lucien’s family destroyed Stephen’s. Nope. Stephen’s not angry about that at all.
Three books in this series, each of which is a very compelling combination of (a) Lucien being a tall kick-ass rich motherf—- who’s SO unimpressed with backwards England after living in exile in China for years, (b) Stephen being a short, pissy, frighteningly powerful magician who Lucien can’t keep his hands off, and (c) some kind of terrifying and creepy paranormal threat they face together. Charles is known for her expertise and attention to historical detail, and she balances the paranormal threat and the passionate ongoing love story (the sex is often D/s) in each book exquisitely. There tons of great secondary characters, including believable villains, and enjoyable political infighting within the secret magical community.
There are in-between short stories for the novels, numbered on the Goodreads page for the series as 1.5, 2.5, and 3.5, but I believe those are rolled into the novels in the editions Charles self-published in 2017 after getting her rights back. The .5 short story is better read after the series, IMHO, as it’s backstory that’s only meaningful once you know Lucien’s past.
Once you have read all that, I highly recommend the spin-off novel Jackdaw (this is all bold so you don’t miss it!), about one of the villains from Flight of Magpies. I hated windwalker Jonah Pastern in Flight of Magpies. I didn’t want to read his book. That would have been a mistake. Charles takes bad guy Jonah and basically says “yeah, he did a bad thing, but before that he was the love of someone’s life, and he hurt that person badly trying to protect him, and that person is still destroyed, and how in the world are these two guys going to fix this?”
Jackdaw is the struggle of Jonah and his ex Ben to rebuild any kind of trust and connection between them while on the run from both magical and non-magical authorities. It’s unflinching in showing the cost of betrayal, how hard it is to repair a relationship, and the work it requires to forgive. Like being kicked in the heart repeatedly, but in a good way. (And diversity note, Jonah is dyslexic.) Content warning: an early scene between the two may veer too close to attempted sexual assault for some readers.
This is another spinoff from Charm of Magpies, which includes some glimpses of what’s happening in Jackdaw, but I’m listing it separately here because you could read it as a standalone if you wanted. The cameos would mean more if you’d read them, but no big deal if you didn’t.
A Queer Trade is the meet-cute-with-magic of Ned Hall, a Black Londoner who collects and sells waste paper, and Crispin Tredarloe, an apprentice magician. Crispin’s mentor dies and his papers are accidentally sold to Ned, leading to some bizarre magical events as the papers circulate in the city. Rag and Bone picks up a bit later, Ned and Crispin having been dating for some time while Crispin is studying under the magical authorities.
I was gripped by the drama of Lucien and Stephen, then heartbroken over the struggles of Jonah and Ben, but it’s quite possible that Ned and Crispin might be my favorite couple in the Magpie-verse. They are really struggling for the first half of Rag and Bone, each insecure in a different way about what Crispin’s powers mean compared to Ned’s practical, working-class life. When Ned’s neighbor is magically murdered, it’s a blow right on the fracture line of their relationship, but Crispin tries SO hard to fix his mistakes even though he feels undeserving of Ned’s love. He just adores Ned, and I want to wrap him in a blanket and give him a cookie. Ned is intensely practical, very clear-eyed, and his character voice is stunning in its stripped-down wisdom and emotion.
Like Fire Through Bone by EE Ottoman (out of print as of August 2019, I’ll update this when it’s republished / Goodreads)
E.E. Ottoman is possibly one of the smartest, most research-y queer romance novelists ever. This book is a perfect example of his strengths. In an alternate Byzantine Empire we meet quiet, capable Vasilios Eleni, who as a young man was captured in war, castrated, and enslaved. He’s now in his mid-thirties, a valued household business manager for a wealthy family. He has a mutual long-term crush on General Markos Ozdemir, a slightly older high-ranking soldier and politician in Vasilios’s owner’s circle. Markos’s mission to track down a child-kidnapping demon brings them together, because Vasilios is having precognitive visions of the demon. What follows is Vasilios and Markos working together to solve the case, including trips into the desert to fetch holy seers and whatnot, while finding out that yes, they they like each other for all the right reasons.
Consent is a huge issue in this book, and handled beautifully. Vasilios is enslaved, and thus can’t freely agree to a relationship. Both characters understand this, and it tears them up, but neither would want something to happen without Vasilios being able to say no. The situation finally changes not because Markos singlehandedly saves Vasilios, but because they both have caring friends. The deep respect for consent carries forward into their relationship. The end of the book is a slightly non-traditional HEA where Vasilios has what both parties want for him the most, self-determination, with Vasilios praying that their relationship works out but prepared to have a good independent life if that doesn’t happen. So appropriate for a character whose well-being was previously dependent on others’ goodwill.
If you’re a history nerd, you’ll also enjoy the detail that Ottoman weaves in about various households and political currents. And if you like women resisting power, you’ll appreciate who ends up defending Vasilios from his second master.
Diversity Notes: (1) Vasilios describes his skin as “smoke-dark,” though it’s never said where exactly he came from. Late in the book, he explains his perception of the gender of eunuchs, including himself, in a way that might mean non-binary today? (2) Both main characters strike me as bi/pan from their backstories. (3) EE Ottoman is a disabled, queer, trans man whose pronouns are he/him/his.
And that’s the list of my favorite historical paranormal 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!