I don’t think of myself as a big reader of historical fiction, but one of my favorite experiences is trying the first few pages of a book set in a time and a place I don’t think I’m interested in and getting swept away. Prime example: Wolf Hall. Other examples: Rose Tremain’s The Colour, about the 1860s New Zealand gold rush, and Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First, about an English noblewoman who sided with the monarchy during the 17th-century civil war.

Jac Jemc’s new novel sounds alluring in a similarly surprising way. Empty Theatre (MCD/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Feb. 21) imagines the lives of two (real) royal cousins—Ludwig II of Bavaria and the Empress Elisabeth of Austria—as they “chafe against the constraints of power even as the world around them seeks to strip that power away,” according to our starred review. Born into a life of extravagant privilege, Elisabeth never expected to become a broodmare for her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, having to behave with rigid propriety at all times. Ludwig, meanwhile, would rather indulge his passions for art and beauty than manage the political needs of his country. “Sensual, intricate, and filled with the verve of its own opulent language, Jemc’s retelling of these apocryphal lives delivers all the urgency of their time into our own without losing any of the fidelity it owes to their real legacies,” our review says. “This novel is a triumph.”

Kai Thomas’ debut novel, In the Upper Country (Viking, Jan. 10), is full of stories exchanged by two women under difficult circumstances. It’s 1859 in the Canadian town of Dunmore, and a woman named Cash has shot a man who was hunting her under the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act. Lensinda Martin is a young Black newspaper reporter who interviews her in jail, hoping to help her legal case. But Cash wants to trade: “Will you barter with me? A tale for a tale?” According to our starred review, “So begins a beguiling exchange of personal stories that will draw surprising links between Sinda and Cash while dipping into slave narratives that highlight historical relations between Blacks and Native Americans.…An exceptional work that mines a rich historical vein.”

Paul Harding has based his third novel, This Other Eden (Liveright, Jan. 24), on real events that took place on a tiny island off the coast of Maine in 1912. Harding’s Apple Island was settled in 1793 by a formerly enslaved Black man and his White, Galway-born wife. Over the next century, their descendants were joined by people from Angola, Cape Verde, and Scotland as well as a Penobscot family and, in the summers, a retired White teacher who rowed his boat out every morning to school the island’s children and preach—and whose presence began a series of events that led the Maine authorities to evacuate the island and institutionalize some of its residents, spurred by the “science” of eugenics. Our starred review called the book “a moving account of community and displacement.”

The End of Drum-Time by Hanna Pylväinen (Holt, Jan. 24) opens in 1851 in a church in the north of Sweden as a Lutheran preacher known as Mad Lasse tries to turn the Sámi reindeer herders toward his religion. Meanwhile, as our starred review said, “one of his daughters falls in love, the local shopkeeper laments his choices, a local woman breaks her engagement, and the Sámi herders prepare to drive their reindeer to the sea on their traditional route. Pylväinen seamlessly moves among different points of view, giving rich and satisfying breadth to a story of cultural upheaval.” The Russians get involved, too, and this book seems certain to appeal to fans of Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth.

Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.