Five Fantasies of the Roaring Twenties from the New Gilded Age

By Andrea Horbinski (@horbinski)

As a historian, I’m a huge (if somewhat picky) fan of historical fantasy, and I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the 1920s and with books set in that era. It was a time of headlong social changes and precipitously widening social inequality, of glittering wealth at the top and grinding poverty at the bottom—sound familiar? It’s no accident that this new Gilded Age has produced a fine crop of novels set in the Jazz Age. Here are some of them, both young adult and otherwise:


Moonshine 1. Moonshine, Alaya Dawn Johnson
Set in an alternate 1920s New York City populated by vampires and djinn as well as bootleggers and immigrants, Moonshine is the story of Zephyr Hollis, the so-called “vampire suffragette,” a thoroughly modern woman with a zeal for social reform. Vampire novels are a dime a dozen these days, but this one is appropriately red of tooth, and it’s well worth tracking down.
TheGirlsattheKingfisherClub 2. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine
A retelling of the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses—from the princesses’ perspective—set in Jazz Age New York before the crash, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is fleet on its feet and manages to make each girl believably individual, and desperate, even as it stays within the perspective of Jo, the eldest, the self-appointed general, the one who not only helps her sisters survive their tyrannical father, but escape him.
TheDiviners 3. The Diviners, Libba Bray
The Diviners is a big, ambitious book that’s trying to do a lot of things at once, and though I can’t yet say whether the series (this is the first of four) will be the great American historical epic of magic and race and freedom that I’ve wanted for years, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Evie, who gets sent to New York City as punishment for her inveterate drinking and smoking and truth-telling in her small town, and of Memphis, a young poet and numbers-runner in Harlem, and of the magic, murder, and mystery that brings them and a lot of other people together.
CuckooSong 4. Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge
Frances Hardinge is one of my favorite writers, hands-down, and this book, her first non-secondary world fantasy, is all the crunchier for being set in 1920s England. It’s the story of Tris, who slowly comes to a horrible realization about her own existence that propels her out of her family’s suffocating bosom into a desperate race against time, but what really makes the book is the presence of the hard-bitten, motorcycle-riding flapper Violet, and the bond of grief and magic that ties the two of them together.
Razorhurst 5. Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier
Set in 1920s Sydney, Razorhurst is the story of two very different young women—Dymphna Campbell, the so-called “best girl” of mob boss Glory Johnson, and Kelpie, the street waif who shares just one of Dymphna’s talents: the ability to see ghosts. The hardscrabble neighborhood of Surry Hills, called “Sorrow Hills” and “Razorhurst” by the people who live there, is the setting for a tense and richly detailed story of two people who couldn’t be more different but who also find themselves thrown together against the odds, and against the gangsters who are hunting for them.
Bonus: The Legend of Korra
This isn’t a book, but it is one of the finest animated shows I’ve seen in a while. The sequel show to the wonderful Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra stars the next Avatar, the female water bender Korra, and takes place 70 years later in an around Republic City, which was clearly inspired by 1920s Shanghai. Though the pacing was sometimes rough, particularly in the first season, Korra became an ambitious, complex, and above all engrossing show about one young woman’s development as a person and as the Avatar against the backdrop of a world that is rapidly outgrowing old paradigms. And the animation is frequently pretty darnn awesome, too.


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