Stories situated in Black history occupy a difficult position in the media landscape. On the one hand, the prevalence of slavery and other such trauma narratives evidences the market’s appetite for Black pain. On the other, history is always told from the perspective of the hunter: “we need the lion to tell it as well”, says a veteran of historical fiction and the author of Daughters of the Stone Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa. These are some of the many historical fiction novels out this year that tell our side of the story.

While Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets and Ladee Hubbard’s The Rib King have been released to much critical acclaim, here are 7 lesser-known historical fiction novels out this year that could do with a bit more buzz. Support independent bookshops by buying these on www.bookshop.org.

The Conductors by Nicole Glover

Publication Date: 4 March 2021

Publisher: John Joseph Adams

Plot: As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband Benjy have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions. To solve this mystery, they will have to face ugly truths all around them, including the ones about each other.

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Publication Date: 30 March 2021

Publisher: Algonquin

Plot: Coming of age as a free-born Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, Libertie Sampson was all too aware that her purposeful mother, a practicing physician, had a vision for their future together: Libertie would go to medical school and practice alongside her. But Libertie, drawn more to music than science, feels stifled by her mother’s choices and is hungry for something else — is there really only one way to have an autonomous life? And she is constantly reminded that, unlike her mother, who can pass, Libertie has skin that is too dark. When a young man from Haiti proposes to Libertie and promises she will be his equal on the island, she accepts, only to discover that she is still subordinate to him and all men. As she tries to parse what freedom actually means for a Black woman, Libertie struggles with where she might find it—for herself and for generations to come.

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

Publication Date: 30 March 2021

Publisher: 37 Ink

Plot: Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgeling Rivington Records. In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially Black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Dead Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia

Publication Date: 1 June 2021

Publisher: Berkley

Plot: Harlem, 1926. Young Black girls like Louise Lloyd are ending up dead. Following a harrowing kidnapping ordeal when she was in her teens, Louise is doing everything she can to maintain a normal life. She’s succeeding, too. She spends her days working at Maggie’s Café and her nights at the Zodiac, Manhattan’s hottest speakeasy. Louise’s friends might say she’s running from her past and the notoriety that still stalks her, but don’t tell her that. When a girl turns up dead in front of the café, Louise is forced to confront something she’s been trying to ignore — several local Black girls have been murdered over the past few weeks. After an altercation with a local police officer gets her arrested, Louise is given an ultimatum: she can either help solve the case or let a judge make an example of her. Louise has no choice but to take the case and soon finds herself toe-to-toe with a murderous mastermind. She’ll have to tackle her own fears and the prejudices of New York City society if she wants to catch a killer and save her own life in the process.

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

Publication Date: 6 July 2021

Publisher: William Morrow

Plot: A remarkable, sweeping historical novel based on the incredible true-life story of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a free woman of colour who rose from slavery to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in the colonial West Indies. Born into slavery on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, Doll bought her freedom—and that of her sister and her mother—from her Irish planter father and built a legacy of wealth and power as an entrepreneur, merchant, hotelier, and planter that extended from the marketplaces and sugar plantations of Dominica and Barbados to a glittering luxury hotel in Demerara on the South American continent.

 

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Publication Date: 14 September 2021

Publisher: Doubleday

Plot: To his customers and neighbours on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cash is tight, especially with all those instalment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweller downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either. Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa, the “Waldorf of Harlem”, and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes. Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook.