I’ve been banging on about diverse historical romance a lot recently. Why? Because I love historical romance and I love diversity. If you were expecting a fascinating explanation based on critical analysis and the examination of cultural trends, I’m very sorry. I’m just here to squee.
And since no romance reader worth their salt is happy to squee alone, I have compiled a short list of fabulous, diverse historical romance novels for your pleasure. I know; I’m a diamond. I’ve even included some key information — like, which marginalised identities are featured? (Many.) How steamy are these books? (Very.) What do I adore about them? (The weird stuff, obviously. It’s always the weird stuff.) If you don’t know where to start when it comes to diverse historicals, I’m hoping these mini-reviews will help.
There is really no need to thank me. I know that in your eyes, I’m a hero—but really, I’m just a girl who grew up hiding the covers of her books with her conveniently enormous hands. Now that I’m older and wiser, I consider it my sacred duty as a romance acolyte to tell anyone who’ll listen exactly what I’m reading. Even if what I’m reading is (literally) animalistic sex in a cage. You’re welcome.
Let’s begin, shall we?
Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin
Representation: Chinese heroine, (on the cover!!!) set in 8TH century.
Steam: intense. The kisses, you guys. THE KISSES.
I’m tragically late to the Jeannie Lin party, but that’s okay, because books don’t die of old age. Butterfly Swords is perfect for anyone who loves fantasy (even though there is no magic) or the road trip trope (even though there aren’t many vehicles). It just hits all the right beats, okay? There is a brooding, tortured hero, who is considered a barbarian but is noble at heart. There is a badass swordswoman heroine, who is Secretly Very Important and is On a Mission. They have a quest. They make out in the grass. It’s exactly as perfect as it sounds.
My favourite part? The heroine, Ai Li, is all grumpy with the hero, Ryam, because she doesn’t like how much his kisses affect her. Ryam gets defensive and mutters, “Don’t kiss me back, then.”
So she draws her swords and tells him to pull up.
He is shook. Shook. Outta nowheeeere! I stan a legend.
Her Viking Wolf by Theodora Taylor
Representation: African American heroine.
Steam: red-hot. This thing is explicit and constant, you guys. Like. There is no rest. From the minute these two fated mates (oh, yeah, they’re wolves) get together, your loins will have no peace. Except for when the heroine hates the hero’s guts, I mean.
Now, I’ve kind of cheated by including this, because it’s technically a time travel romance. The heroine is a modern wolf, and one day a Viking wolf comes barging through a portal claiming she’s his fated mate. But the majority of the book occurs in Vikingland, Viking-hundred BC, so I think it counts. Anywaaayyyys… if you were wondering about that animalistic cage sex I mentioned above, wonder no more! It’s from Her Viking Wolf and it’s kind of aggressively hot.
But my favourite thing about this book is the realism. Yes, the realism in this paranormal, time-travelling romance about a pair of wolf shifters. The heroine is yanked back to Ye Olde Viking Times, and hers is the first reaction to time travel I’ve ever read that seems genuinely realistic. Basically, she gets hella pissed, then hella depressed. Her feelings aren’t brushed over in favour of ALL ROMANCE ALL THE TIME. She’s devastated, and she’s allowed to be devastated. Let women feel things! Radical! We love it!
An Unsuitable Heir by KJ Charles
Representation: gender-fluid, non-binary main character (on the cover!!!) and physically disabled hero.
Steam: help me, I cannot breathe. You know that song, Sex on Fire? It’s like that, but with a bucket of heart-breaking tenderness dumped on top.
This queer Victorian romance is a perfect example of why I love Victorian romance above all other British histrom. You see, sometimes—no shade!—I get fed up of seeing seamstresses become marchionesses and oh-look-everything’s-fine-because-love. Sometimes I get tired with the invisibility of working-class people while the wealthy take up every page.
But Victorian romance is so much more likely to be gritty and realistic on the path to its happy-ever-after, and An Unsuitable Heir definitely does that. Pen, our genderfluid MC, is the heir to a dukedom — and he is not pleased about it, and neither is anyone else. This is not a Cinderella story, and the HEA does not require an elevated class status. Yes, I italicised and bolded for emphasis. I feel very strongly about this. Fight me.
I actually have two favourite things about this story, because I couldn’t choose just one. First: Pen is a twin, and the classic twin mix-up trope is used to great dramatic effect. The betrayal! The angst! The confusion! The ‘Oh wait; it was your twin all along’ moment! I LOVE THAT STUFF. Second: the ducking.
No, that’s not autocorrect or a typo. Read the book.
Talk Sweetly to Me by Courtney Milan
Representation: black heroine (IN A FANCY SWOOSHY DRESS, ON THE COVER!!!).
Steam: slow, but burning, but slow. A slow burn, is what I’m saying here.
This Victorian romance occurs between a known rake/old-timey celebrity and a gifted black woman with a love of astronomy. So it’s absolutely fascinating right off the bat. There are old-timey maths and science jokes galore, and I love it. Ah, Courtney Milan, queen of my geek heart.
The story also explores the lives of Black Brits and the work of Black British communities at the time. Plus, there’s a look at the chilling source of an ongoing and life-threatening form of racism that still exists today. But let’s not talk about that part, because I’m trying to have fun, here, okay?
Obviously, obviously, my favourite thing about this book is the fact that its title is a pun. A pun that the hero uses throughout! To flirt! With the heroine! Her last name is Sweetly, and whenever she tells him about her geeky pursuits, he says…
“I LOVE IT WHEN YOU TALK SWEETLY TO ME.”
AHHHHHHH CAN YOU HEAR ME SCREAMING??? I THINK YOU CAN.
So there we have it. Four of my favourite diverse histroms, complete with several thousand reasons (give or take) why you should read them all, now, immediately. Especially if you’ve never had the pleasure of a historical romance that centres diverse characters! Oh, you’re in for a treat. Don’t say I never give you anything.
Now go forth, and enjoy.