It’s nothing new to point out how much epic fantasy is based on a pretty narrow swath of human culture. Due partly to reverence for foundational texts like The Lord of the Rings, and partly the institutional dominance of white, Western writers, for a long time, the phrase “fantasy literature” was nigh-synonymous with invented worlds clearly drawn from Western European myths and history. This is not to say that, even decades ago, there weren’t many books—and many writers—creating fantasy drawing from non-Western traditions, but such works were definitely the exception when it came to mainstream success.
Times change. We’re finally seeing a many other cultural identities represented in fantasy and sci-fi literature, many of them written by people actually from those cultures. The result is that we’re living in one of the richest and most diverse era in the history of genre fiction, and it’s only getting richer. Without even leaving your seat, you can take a virtual tour of the world, encountering people who live their lives and share their stories in very different ways. Here are 15 relatively recent SFF books and series that truly take you places—just a small selection of many on the shelves (and we hope you’ll share your favorites in the comments).
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Book: The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy), by Katherine Arden
Katherine Arden’s just-completed trilogy represents an incredible achievement, fusing Russian folklore and history into a thoroughly modern fantasy saga exploring themes of belief, feminism, and magic. Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna is the beautiful daughter of a 13th century Russian noble, and granddaughter of a “wild” woman who was said to have the power to commune with the spirits of the natural world. Her father, conflicted because he blames Vasya for the death of her mother in childbirth, nonetheless seeks to protect her in the one way he believes he can: by marrying her into royalty. Vasya, however, prefers to commune with the spirits of wood, home, and water that lurk in the forests on her father’s estate—spirits who have protected the land for centuries. Disguising herself as a man and riding her mysterious horse Solovey, Vasya must flee her home after the death of her father, accompanied by the frost-demon Morozko, launching a grand adventure that leads to a supremely satisfying ending, all of its steeped in Russian mythology and traditions that most Western readers haven’t had a chance to savor.
Book: The Poppy War (The Poppy War trilogy), by R.F. Kuang
Nearly every aspect of R.F. Kuang’s impressive debut is inspired by some aspect of Chinese history, including a main character, Rin, whose tumultuous life is explicitly based on that of Mao Zedung, a central conflict modeled on the Opium Wars, and harrowing sequences drawing on the atrocities of the Rape of Nanking. While you certainly don’t need a degree in modern history to enjoy this wonderful series about a poor girl who gets the chance of a lifetime when her performance on a nationwide standardized test places her in an elite academy—and reveals her strength in mysterious and ancient magical powers—chances are you’ll have a new (or renewed) interest in discovering that history after seeing it through Kuang’s imaginative eye.
Culture: Middle Eastern
Book: The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy), by S.A. Chakraborty
In her debut trilogy, S.A. Chakraborty builds an entire fantasy world based on Middle Eastern traditions, beginning a rich and fascinating version of 18th century Cairo, and then the enchanting City of Brass, a realm where loyalty is a magical bond and grudges are measured in millennia. Both of these settings are navigated by Nahri, a young Egyptian con artist who unwittingly captures the attention of a djinn warrior with her powerful supernatural healing capabilities. Adrift in a confusing new world, Nahri becomes embroiled in the complex and violent politics of its magical residents, who are edging ever-closer toward a religious war.
Culture: A Multitude of African Traditions
Book: Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
The first book in the Dark Star trilogy from Booker Prize-winner Marlon James has been likened to an “African Game of Thrones,’” a comparison both apt and overly simplistic—James is doing far more than gluing familiar tropes onto African folklore; like Tolkien and so many others did with European myths and history, he is creating something new and unique from the many different cultures and stories of Africa. The Black Leopard is a mercenary able to shape-shift into a jungle cat, and the Red Wolf, also called Tracker, is a hunter of lost folk, with an incredible sense of smell that enables him to hone in on his quarry from vast distances. Sometimes with Leopard and sometimes alone, Tracker works his way across Africa in search of a kidnapped boy, his mission is complicated by the complex and ever-shifting politics of the many tribes he encounters.
Culture: West African
Book: Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha trilogy), by Tomi Adeyemi
Inspired by and drawing from West African folklore and myth, Adeyemi’s debut tells the story of Zélie Adebola, whose community was once a place of magic in which people like her mother called forth the elements and spirits to enrich the soil and their lives. But the king ordered magic driven out of the land, and the maji were all killed—including Zélie’s mother. Yet magic remains, and as the king’s son marches in a final attempt to snuff out its flame forever, Zélie finds herself reckoning with her nascent abilities. Saying that not much mainstream SFF draws from West African myths and storytelling traditions is an understatement, but the phenomenal success of the first volume of this series proves there is certainly an appetite for it among readers.
Book: Markswoman (The Asiana series), by Rati Mehrotra
Set in a future where Asia—called Asiana—is a depopulated wasteland centuries after a Great War devastated the world, Mehrota weaves together various threads of Indian folklore, mythology, and culture to tell the story of Kyra, the lone survivor of an attack on her village by an outlaw gang. Kyra has risen to become a Markswoman, a psychic warrior charged with carrying out executions with her psychically-aware daggers—one example of many pieces of alien technology strewn around this postapocalyptic world. The mystery surrounding these alien artifacts forms a powerful counterpoint to the story’s violent, action-packed narrative, enriched with flashes of Indian culture.
Culture: Middle Eastern
Book: The Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed
Saladin Ahmed drew inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights and Middle Eastern legend as he built the world of his marvelous debut novel, which tells the story of an aging, prickly demon hunter roped into one last job. In a single book, Ahmed effortlessly crafts a fantasy universe, magic system, and central conflict that does for Middle Eastern cultures what countless other books for European traditions—mixing and matching and heightening them in service to an engrossing narrative. The mythical Baghdad of Arabian Nights becomes the city of Dhamsawaat, the Bedouins become the Badawi (the former being a Westernization of the latter word anyway), and instead of elves and dwarves there are ghouls and dervishes. We’re still hoping a sequel to this Nebula nominee will someday appear, though Ahmed has been keeping himself very busy as of late bringing diversity to the realms of superhero comics.
Book: Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
The moment you learn that this novel is set on a planet colonized by a Caribbean culture you know you’re in for a treat. Toussaint is an entire world echoing with the traditions and mythology of the West Indies, and Hopkinson ups the ante by taking her characters from the technologically advanced world to an alternate alien world where the myths and legends of the culture seem terrifyingly real. Hopkinson employs creole and Caribbean-flavored English throughout, which is a welcome challenge for readers bored with the faux “King’s English” much of fantasy seems to favor. (Another entry in the Caribbean SF canon—Tobias S. Buckell’s Xenowealth trilogy—is coming back into print next year in reedited editions courtesy of Fireside Fiction Company, and we’re pretty pumped about it.)
Book: Finn Mac Cool (Celtic World series), by Morgan Llywelyn
Morgan Llywelyn has set many of her books and stories in Ireland, but this retelling of the Fenian Cycle myths is a deep dive into the story of an Irish legend. We meet Finn as a helpless child who loses his parents in an attack by their ancient clan enemies, the Morna. Finn swears to become strong enough to never have to flee anything again, and in a purposeful Arthurian twist, as he grows more powerful, so does his army, the Fianna. This is an epic-scale story in which truth and loyalty always win, and betrayal and deception are doomed to failure—but not before damage is done and pain is inflicted. This one serves double duty as crackling entertainment and a quick primer on one of Ireland’s foundational myths.
Culture: Indigenous American
Book: Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World Series), by Rebecca Roanhorse
Rebecca Roanhorse describes her debut series as an “indigenous Mad Max.” It’s a genre-shattering urban fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic world drawn from the author’s Indigenous American heritage, set in a future devastated by rising sea levels. In this time, the Navajo Nation has been reborn as Dinétah—and with it have returned the old gods and monsters of Native American legend. Maggie Hoskie is a monster-hunter gifted with the power to fight these beasts, and so she does. On one level, it’s brisk, action-filled romp; on another, a moving portrait of a character suffering from past trauma; and on still another, an impressive exercise in subtle, expansive worldbuilding. Of course, there isn’t a monolithic “Indigenous American” culture; it’s a rich tapestry of nations, each with their own traditions and myths—but Roanhorse offers a genuine glimpse of that diversity via a unique and extremely well-rendered world.
Book: Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
This Mexican folklore-inspired epic tells the story of young Casiopea Tun, who slaves away keeping her wealthy grandfather’s house until she stumbles on a mysterious wooden box. When she opens it, she releases the Mayan god of death—a curiously charming entity who asks Casiopea to help him regain his throne from his treacherous brother. Casiopea knows the risk—failure means her death—but the rewards are too tempting to pass up as she accompanies the charismatic god to the Mayan underworld and beyond. Along the way, readers get an introduction to a culture and mythology long missing from Western fantasy literature.
Culture: Indigenous Australian
Book: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina
Australia has a thriving literary world that doesn’t consistently cross over into other markets—even English-speaking ones—so it’s little surprise that there isn’t a ton of SFF that explores the indigenous cultures of that country. That’s part of what makes Kwaymullina’s dystopian YA so interesting, as it draws heavily on that background and the aboriginal tale of the Dreamtime to tell a story of ecological collapse and human evolution. A generation of young people have developed powerful abilities and fled to the bush to live in harmony with a mutated and unfamiliar nature. They’re hunted and warred upon by the terrified and technologically-dependent government, leading to the capture of the tribe’s leader, the titular Ashala Wolf, whose imprisonment and interrogation via memory-ripping machine makes up the bulk of this powerful story.
Book: The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright
Wright’s lyrical and challenging book offers a wider view of Australia’s struggle to integrate Western and Aboriginal traditions. Set after brutal and devastating conflicts spurred by climate change, this is the story of a girl found inside a gum tree, the victim of a terrible attack. Given the name Oblivia Ethelyne, she’s taken to a polluted area called The Swamp, guarded by the army, where her adoptive mother tells her stories about swans. Oblivia goes on to become the First Lady of Australia when its first aboriginal president takes office, which makes her a virtual prisoner in a poisoned city located in a world where ancient myths are as real as modern-day ecological disaster.
Book: Shadow of the Fox (The Shadow of the Fox series), by Julie Kagawa
Kagawa draws heavily on Japanese culture, especially its ancient myths and folklore, to tell the story of a half-kitsune woman named Yumeko who flees the brutal murder of her family with a piece of an ancient scroll that will grant a wish to whoever possesses it. She’s pursued by a veritable army of demons, and a samurai named Kage Tatsumi who has been ordered to locate all the pieces of the scroll. When Kage encounters Yumeko, she uses her powers of illusion to hide the scroll fragment from him and the two are forced into an unlikely alliance as the fate of the world rests on what happens next. Japanese culture is sometimes reduced to anime tropes in the Western world; this lush fantasy series offers an incredible alternative.
Book: The Core of the Sun, by Johanna Sinisalo
Not all Western cultures get equal play in the speculative genres. The Core of the Sun offers a uniquely Finnish spin on alternate worlds: a future society where public health and the maintenance of social function takes precedence over everything else. This has led to the development of the horrific eloi, genetically-altered women who are designed to be submissive and purely sexual, used for providing pleasure and to bear children. Meanwhile, independent and willful women are sterilized and used as slave labor. Vanna is an eloi who hides her unusual intellect and has a penchant for the illegal chili peppers that have an addictive stimulant effect. Her search for her missing eloi sister leads her to rumor of The Core of the Sun, a chili whose hotness reputedly causes visions. (Hey, we said it was very Finnish.)
What other stops would you add on this SFF world tour?