Historical fantasy books with BIPOC characters

Are you looking for your next historical fantasy read that also features people of color? This was something I found myself seeking last summer (2020) as I began working on my own historical fantasy projects. I was surprised at how difficult it was to even find good search results, let alone books I wanted to read.

So if you’re also on the hunt, let me help you out with some options I found.

This list is defined by historical low fantasy or alternate reality with magical elements set on Earth circa 1803 – 1914 with main characters of color, specifically Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color including Asians (BIPOC).

The BIPOC persons cannot be supporting characters, they must be active and key to the plot. BIPOC characters should be human rather than a magical creature e.g. angel, demon, vampire, werewolf.

Comment with your suggestions because I know there have got to be more that I’ve missed! I’ve also started a Goodreads list where you can also vote for your suggestions there.

Bridgerton: Careful how you insert BIPOC into your historical fiction or romance

As a mixed BIPOC (Black Indigenous Person of Color) myself, I appreciate seeing representation in my media. I enjoyed the 1990’s Brandy version of Cinderella, for instance, because I saw it for what it was… a modern retelling of a fairy tale, which you can’t say was ever a true story, and therefore who are we to say that casting couldn’t have happened (excluding the historical context of the Brothers Grimm, of course)?

I looked forward to watching Bridgerton on Netflix because I had read a couple of the original books by Julia Quinn, mostly the later books about the younger siblings. Eloise comes to mind, being a step-mom story with two fun kiddos. I’m not familiar with the earlier books, but was aware they followed some of the more unsavory historical romance tropes (power struggles, non-consensual sexual activities, etc) since that was popular reading at the time.

And I mean, I thought it was interesting they were going to play with these historical romances by diverging from the all-white characters in the books. Black people existed in many of the socio-economic levels in Regency England, though Duke is definitely a fictional stretch (or maybe not, check out this article from Marie Claire about what Bridgerton got right about Queen Charlotte), so why not play around with the idea in a Netflix series inspired by historical romance?

However. However. Facebook threads exploded in my news feed about the quality of including these non-white characters, confirming my fears from the commercials. If you’re going to go through the trouble of a diverse cast (in any media), the least you can do is avoid the following. I’ll do my best to give reasons behind why you should avoid these things.

DISCLAIMER: Since this is my personal blog, I will be liberal in blocking or deleting unhelpful comments that focus on “unnecessary political correctness” and the like, given the topic.

Do Not Hyper-Sexualize Black People

Keep in mind there is a harmful history in the United States, at least, of titillating the white population with the “threat” of the dangerous Black Man ravaging the innocent White Woman. Related is the Black Woman who is so inherently sexual that the White Man cannot help but be seduced by her (usually physical) sensual wickedness. The idea is that Black people are such savages that they just ooze sexual energy and therefore corrupt anyone else associating with them.

I encourage you to read more about this, especially some recent research that suggests during the centuries of enslavement in the United States, both white men and women compelled non-consensual sexual activity on the Black population, dispelling some of these harmful myths.

Do not suggest Black Women are romantically unavailable

This is sort of the reverse of the previous point. Often you’ll find in media that there is a Black woman in the character list, but she is relegated to a series of stereotypes, including the “mammy” who exists solely to comfort in a mothering way, the best friend who only exists to give advice, the “jezebel” or slut who will say yes to anything sexual, the “sapphire” or angry black woman who is defined only by her inherent aggressiveness, or the “tragic mulatto” i.e. a mixed (bi- or multi-racial) character solely defined and depressed by the fact they “don’t fit in anywhere.”

Romance and sex are two different things. One can have romance with little or no sex (sweet romances are the genre), but it is rare to see a Black woman get the romance treatment in media. If you’re looking for a unique offering, that would be a great area to explore.

Do not make skin tone an indication of… Anything

Have you heard of the “brown paper bag” test? Its history is rooted in racism and colorism. The basic idea is privileges may be determined by whether a person’s skin tone matches a brown paper bag or lighter, leading to acceptance. Whereas anyone darker will be disregarded. For the most part, this happens within the Black community and likely why, when racism comes up as a topic, you might hear “but Black people are racist against Black people, too!” When we’re discussing privilege in terms of amount of melatonin in one’s skin, that’s actually colorism.

If your character is dark as night, don’t also make that character corrupt and villainous. It’s just lazy writing. If your character is a lighter-toned Black person, don’t imply they are less corrupt than a person darker than them, or imply a white person spending time with them will become “less pure” by association. Again, it’s just lazy.

OK I get it, what am I supposed to take away from this?

Historical fiction is fiction for a reason. It’s inspired by historical fact, but in actuality, exists in the shallow end of speculative fiction. We all know a Regency Duke would never have married a governess. It would have been below his “station.” Heck, even Mr. Rochester, a landed, untitled man in England, shocked everyone by marrying his governess Jane Eyre.

If your Black characters are defined by one thing and that one thing only, and I’d say this for any marginalized population, then consider rewriting or removing that character. If your Black characters lack their own narrative arcs or are written with the assumption that they exist to be a threat or to serve white people, consider rewriting or removing that character. What are you trying to say, really?

Give your characters, all your characters, some sort of emotional depth. And if you can’t do that because you feel you have to rely on stereotypes that make characters feel Other Than White, then you might want to avoid it altogether or hire a Sensitivity Reader/Editor. If you’re going to be progressive with your fiction and/or fantasy, then be progressive, friend!