One reason I like reading fantasy that is non-European based is because it offers so many fresh and new ideas since I wasn’t raised in that culture. Forget Disney’s Mulan. If you are fan of Studio Ghibli Inc., you might also like some of my favorites:
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.
Asian cultures have such a rich and different take on ghosts and the afterlife than the Christian-European idea and I love it! Li Lan, a woman in a culture that doesn’t value her, is forced by circumstances to sell herself into a union that has devastating consequences.
I’ve watched the first part of the Netflix series (they’ve split this into seasons) and I feel the book is far better than the show. The show doesn’t really profile the courage of Li Lan or her personal journey but focuses too much on the male character.
Li-lin, the daughter of a renowned Daoshi exorcist, is a young widow burdened with yin eyes—the unique ability to see the spirit world. When a sorcerer cripples her father, terrible plans are set in motion, and only Li-lin can stop them. To aid her are her martial arts and a peachwood sword, her burning paper talismans, and a wisecracking spirit in the form of a human eyeball tucked away in her pocket.
These two books in a series (they can be read as standalones) dives into Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco, 1898. Not only is it meticulously researched but it offers a deep dive into all the wild Chinese mythology and the monstrous creatures found within it.
Like many historical based fantasy there is a delicate balance of providing historical context but also having heroines we want to root for. Why? Because history was not kind to our female ancestors where they were not treasured or valued. The above books do a fantastic job of making their heroines realistic in context but updates in a way we can appreciate today.
Thirteen Orphans, Nine Gates, and Five Odd Honors by Jane Lindskold. Breaking the Wall has a multi-cultural cast with a contemporary setting. Probably better known for her Wolf’s Firekeeper series, Lindskold’s Wall series was originally traditionally published and now the copyright is back to the author.
Brenda Morris has no idea that her father, Gaheris, has a secret life. He is the Rat: a key member of the curious cabal known as the Thirteen Orphans. When she is nineteen, Brenda learns that all the omens show that Brenda will be his heir.
Brenda may inherit her place far sooner than anyone wishes. Unseen enemies are stalking the Thirteen Orphans. If Brenda does not join Pearl Bright, the Tiger, as she gathers the surviving Orphans to stand against their enemies, soon the Orphans—and their generations-long mission—will vanish, even from memory.
These stories are driven by the characters, who are highly varied and richly drawn. Through the three books, there are many personal journeys – innocence to wisdom, fear to confidence, strength to vulnerability, betrayal to redemption. And all against the fascinating backdrop of the unique magic of the Thirteen Orphans and the ancient magic of China. These books are some of my favorites when I want a story that is subtle, complex, deeply engaging, and emotionally rewarding.
The Paladin by C.J. Cherryh is one of my favorite comfort reads. Ignore the butt-ugly cover.
How Shoka, a retired Samuri, with his companion returns to overcome a corrupt government is an exciting read and is one of the most realistic depictions of a wronged female who wants vengeance I’ve ever read. This story is set in alternative world is more about the mystique of reputation and the consequences of hero worship than history or lore. Told in a way that only an experienced wordsmith like C.J. Cherryh can do.
The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard received a lot of acclaim with nomination for awards (Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards novella finalist), although I only found it mildly interesting. However, those who like science fiction might want to check out this series of three.
Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appearance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood.
Another futuristic Asian world is the futuristic Singapore 3 in Liz William’s Inspector Chen series. Four of her novels have been shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award and several have been on The New York Times ‘Best of Year’ listings. These were traditionally published and now copyright is back to the owner.
This is a 5 book series and is best read in order as events build upon the other. Myth, magic,and the Chinese hell are all closely linked to humans living in Singapore 3, especially as Inspector Chen is married to a demon from hell, and his sidekick is a badger that can change to a teapot (and no, they aren’t funny books).
While teapot badger is probably my favorite, my next favorite is Zhu Irzh, the demon that ends up becoming a partner to Chen. His problem of being too good to be a demon, and too demon enough to be human is one I found really interesting. Oh, and he ends up with a tiger girlfriend.
These books are rather long and involved and take commitment. Not a quick read.
Some of the above books are written by non-minority writers. I am sensitive to cultural appropriation but fantasy stories with myth from countries like China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Singapore etc… are not easy to find in the first place. I also don’t read the popular genre of Wuxia fantasy.
I’ve also noticed that the Asian names I see are writing what I would call hard science fiction, a genre I don’t read. However, to find a more inclusive list, check out Martha Wells blog where she posts a round up of authors to check out.
Do you have some fantasy fiction featuring Asian cultures you would like me to check out? Let me know about them in the comments.