Written by Aseel Sahib
Graphic by Hengjia Liu
“No matter who you are, no matter where you live, and no matter how many people are chasing you, what you don’t read is often as important as what you do read.”– Lemony Snicket
In Spongebob’s voice: one hour later, I finally settled on the perfect reading quote (by an author who broke me as a child *side eyes A Series of Unfortunate Events*). But the fact of the matter is, most books we read (in English-speaking countries, at least) are by white authors. And if you are like me in the sense that you live for magic, swords, and dragons—in other words, fantasy—you will predominantly be transported into worlds inspired by European mythology and folklore whenever you pick up a new book. Which is completely fine… some of the time. Whether you are in the business of amplifying BIPOC authors, expanding your reading tastes, or just bored with the same seven tropes, reading fantasy novels inspired by different parts of the world is important. But in the large ocean of novels, it can be hard to figure out where to start. So, I have decided to do the hard work myself (you are welcome), and have compiled a list of five fantasy novels set around the world that will rip the fabric of your fantasy-novel-reading reality. So, sit back and relax with a nice big cup of tea and a blanket: you are in for a treat!
South Asia: The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
“I tried to hold on to this compassion, sensing its preciousness, but even as I reached to grasp it, it dissipated into wisps. No revelation can endure unless it is bolstered by a calm pure mind- and I’m afraid I didn’t possess that.”
A retelling of Mahabharat (a Sanskrit epic poem of ancient India) from the wife’s perspective, The Palace of Illusions is a stunningly written novel about love, ambition, and fate. Intertwining myth and history, we follow Panchaali’s life from birth to death. I will admit that I found the characters frustrating and egotistical (personal opinion), but the writing, plot, and themes/messages of the novel still made this a story that I think about to this day.
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Middle East and North Africa: City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
“Praise be to God, have I actually silenced you for once? I should have accused you of treason earlier in our conversation and saved myself your insufferable comments.”
Sass, magic, and betrayal, City of Brass is set in one of the most richly created fantasy worlds I have ever read. The history, the setting, and the character dynamics are to die for. The first in a trilogy, this novel incorporates Middle Eastern and North African history, culture, and mythology (specifically djinns and Prophet Suleiman’s curse) to create a lush world. You will feel the sand on your feet and the weight of a Zulfiqar (a type of sword) in your hand. I can promise you that you will be transported to a world of wonder and angst, all while laughing along with sarcastic barbs.
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East Asia: Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa
“It is very hard to be human, little fox. Even the humans themselves don’t do a great job of it.”
I have raved about this book/series to literally everyone—it has DRAGONS and SWORDS and SAMURAI CLANS and DRAGONS (I really love dragons). Incorporating Japanese mythology, history, and legend, Shadow of the Fox has it all: ninjas, samurai, demons, ghosts, and more. We follow a rag-tag team of fantastic characters, who will make you laugh and cry (wait until you read the third book).
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South America: Nocturna by Maya Motayne
“Who you are when you’re angry is still you. It doesn’t have to be all of you, but it’s a piece of you all the same. If you deny that, you might as well deny your whole maldito self and be done with it.”
A face-changing thief and the heir to the throne teaming up to save the world from pure evil (which they released): what could go wrong? Nocturna is a gorgeous Latinx-inspired fantasy that is gorgeously vivid. The story incorporates philosophical musings such as identity and grief, while also being light-hearted, funny, and adventurous.
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Africa: Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
“Why does everyone hate change so much?” I demanded.
“Because things could get worse.”
“Maybe. But do you know what I think?”
My chest throbbed. “I think deep down, we’re afraid that things could get better. Afraid to ding out that all the evil—all the suffering we ignore—could have been prevented. If only we had cared enough to try.”
I will be the first to admit it, you read the blurb of this and you think “basic”. Girl is forced under a magical oath to kill the crown prince? Seen it before, right? WRONG. Raybearer is completely unique and wild in the best possible ways. The villainess gets a compelling backstory, the main character obtains power, and the romantic interest? Not who you think it is. I would definitely recommend it if you are wanting to try a West African-inspired fantasy novel.
So there you go, folks. Add them to that never-ending TBR pile, go out and borrow or buy them—but above all, enjoy reading them!