Today I’m recommending Science Fiction and Fantasy books by Asian authors. My definition of Asian is pretty broad, ranging from India to Japan to the Pacific Islands. It also includes authors whose heritage is Asian, but who were born elsewhere – the UK, for example. The point is less about where they’re from, and more about how they identify.
I think I’ve given a pretty good range in terms of heritage, age range, and themes, so I hope you enjoy!
[Side note: All synopses in italics are from Goodreads. I tried to write my own synopsis for the ones I read, but it didn’t always happen.]
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo 🇲🇾
The Ghost Bride is set in Malacca, Malaysia in 1893. It follows Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family. Having few prospects, she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become the bride of their recently deceased son, who died under mysterious circumstances. What follows is part ghost story, part mystery, part adventure, as Li Lan finds herself haunted by her would-be groom, and journeys through a shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife every night.
I loved how The Ghost Bride blended historical fiction, cultural practices, and mythology together. It has been a few years since I read it, but I still think it’s worth recommending. There are ghosts, and vengeful spirits, dark family secrets, and a mysterious, but charming guardian spirit, Er Lang.
The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi 🇮🇳🇵🇭
Young Adult Fantasy
Maya is cursed with a horoscope that foretells of a marriage of death. She is content to occupy herself with scholarly pursuits, she is shocked when her father arranges a political marriage to quell outside rebellions. Maya finds herself queen of Akaran and the wife of Amar. Both the kingdom, and the king, are nothing like what they seem, and both are shrouded in mysteries Maya must solve.
The Star-Touched Queen is a beautifully written retelling of Hades & Persephone with Indian inspired mythology. What I love the most about it is the gorgeous world. Everything was so magical and so detailed that I was completely transported there. I also loved the sequel, A Crown of Wishes, and highly recommend that one too.
Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee 🇰🇷
American-born Korean, Transgender, Queer
Science Fiction/Fantasy Short Story Collection
Conservation of Shadows is a collection of short stories that blends sci-fi and fantasy. The writing was absolutely gorgeous – it had this lilting kind of quality to it. The stories vary widely, but they often draw on philosophy, physics, and philosophy. They also share some common themes, ranging from war, colonialism, revenge, and language.
Two of my favourites were ‘Ghostweight,‘ which involves origami, spaceships, colonialism and revenge; as well as ‘Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain,’ which involves guns with very specific abilities.
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings ed. Ellen Oh
Young Adult Fantasy Short Story Anthology
Star-crossed lovers, meddling immortals, feigned identities, battles of wits, and dire warnings. These are the stuff of fairy tale, myth, and folklore that have drawn us in for centuries.
Fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories that are by turns enchanting, heartbreaking, romantic, and passionate.
Compiled by We Need Diverse Books’s Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, the authors included in this exquisite collection are: Renee Ahdieh, Sona Charaipotra, Preeti Chhibber, Roshani Chokshi, Aliette de Bodard, Melissa de la Cruz, Julie Kagawa, Rahul Kanakia, Lori M. Lee, E. C. Myers, Cindy Pon, Aisha Saeed, Shveta Thakrar, and Alyssa Wong.
A mountain loses her heart. Two sisters transform into birds to escape captivity. A young man learns the true meaning of sacrifice. A young woman takes up her mother’s mantle and leads the dead to their final resting place. From fantasy to science fiction to contemporary, from romance to tales of revenge, these stories will beguile readers from start to finish. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
This is an absolutely fantastic collection of stories inspired by Asian mythology. There were a couple that really stood out – ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’ by E.C. Myers, which features Korean gumiho and modern technology; and ‘The Crimson Cloak’ by Cindy Pon, which is a retelling of The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl.
The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco 🇵🇭
Young Adult Fantasy
Honestly, I’m not even sure any synopsis I write will be adequate. The Bone Witch is about a girl named Tea who can resurrect the dead, and her journey to become an asha (essentially a magical geisha). But it is so much more than that. It’s got witches and monsters, revenge and political intrigue, necromancy and elemental magic. It explores themes such as gender and power, among other things.
This first book really lays out the groundwork for future books, focusing on worldbuilding and introducing the characters. The second instalment, The Heart Forger, has a lot more action. I haven’t read the final book yet because I really just don’t want it to end.
Want by Cindy Pon
Young Adult Science Fiction
Want is essentially a high-tech heist set in future Taipei, where pollution and environmental destruction have completely divided society. The rich and corrupt wear special suits that protect them from pollution and disease, while the poor suffer illness and early death. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and grieving his mother’s death, Jason Zhou and his friends make it their mission to change things, no matter the cost.
The plan is to infiltrate and destroy Jin Corporation, the company that manufactures he suits the rich rely on. But things don’t go to plan, and Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO.
What I appreciated was the realistic portrayal of environmental destruction and its results – not just the physical ones, like disease, but also the social/class divides that are further compound the problem. I personally found the plot a bit predictable, but the themes and worldbuilding and characters were all well done.
Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew 🇹🇭
Winterglass is an LGBT+ Asian retelling of The Snow Queen. Many elements from the original tale remain – the Winter Queen seeks fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire. In this novella she conquers other countries and turns them into lands of unending snow and frost. Her right hand is General Lussadh whose heart bears a mirror shard. She is loyal, but tormented by her past as a traitor to her country.
Our story takes place in Sirapirat, where General Lussadh, tasked with finding other mirror shards, finds Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon to strike down the queen.
The strengths of this novella lay in its themes. It completely normalised of all sorts of varieties of gender and sexuality. For example, General Lussadh is biologically male, but identifies as female. It explores the experience of colonisation, and how it affects not just the physical aspects of life, but also a group’s collective psyche. The other thing I really liked was the creepy magic system – ghosts are literally used as a power source.
The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang 🇸🇬
Singaporean, non-binary and queer
The Black Tides of Heaven is one of a pair of novellas introducing us to the world of the Tensorate series.
Mokoya and Akeha, twin children of the Protector, were sold to the Grand Monastery as children. When Mokoya developed the gift of prophecy, their lives change dramatically. As time rolls on Akeha begins to see the problems at the heart of his Mother’s Protectorate. Unwilling to continue being a pawn in her schemes, Akeha leaves the Tensorate behind and falls in with the rebel Machinists. But every step toward the Machinists is a step away from his sister Mokoya.
This novella had a lot going on, and yet it didn’t feel rushed at all. I loved the relationship between Akeha and his twin sister, Mokoya. I loved the LGBT+ representation. This is a world in which all children are genderless until they choose. Even the elemental based magic system had an interesting twist. It’s called slack craft and is based on the five Chinese elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Wood/Forest).
I also appreciated the exploration of power, both magical and political, and how this was concentrated in the elite and educated classes. I also liked that the central conflict is bound around the development of machines, which would give the lower classes power.
Descendant of the Crane by Joan He
Young Adult Fantasy
Chinese – American author 🇨🇳
When her father dies, Princess Hesina of Yan commits treason. Convinced that her father was murdered, she engages the services of a soothsayer whose magic was outlawed centuries ago. Using the information provided by the sooth, and uncertain who else to trust, Hesina turns to Akira, a brilliant investigator and convicted criminal with a mysterious past.
This Chinese-inspired fantasy has a bit of everything. A murder mystery, court politics, intrigue, the looming threat of war, a legal trial, a complicated family dynamic, soothsayers, forbidden magic, and persecution, just to name a few…
I read this in only two sittings, which is rare for me. It’s also the third book I’ve given 5 stars to this year. It is completely addictive, and I cannot recommend it enough.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir 🇵🇰
Young Adult Fantasy
It’s funny that I can’t think of a way to give an overview of this book because I talked about it all the time on my YouTube channel (RIP.) Instead I’ll just use the synopsis from Goodreads.
Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
I think an Ember in the Ashes achieves the trifecta – great characters, phenomenal worldbuilding, and an action packed plot. It explores themes of colonialism, imperialism and genocide in a really sensitive but not overly depressing way.
The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad 🇫🇯
Fiji born, lives in Canada
Young Adult Fantasy
Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. But less than a decade ago a tribe of Shayateen djinn slaughtered the entire population – except for Fatima, her adoptive sister, and one other. Now Noor, and the nation of Qirat, are ruled by a new maharajah and protected by Ifrit djinn, led by their commander, Zulfikar.
But when one of the most powerful of the Ifrit dies, Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, and she finds herself drawn into the lives of the djinn and the royal family.
What I loved about this book was the racial and religious diversity, the fabulous world, the strong female characters, and the fascinating plot.
On My TBR
Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri🇮🇳
Young Adult Fantasy
A nobleman’s daughter with magic in her blood. An empire built on the dreams of enslaved gods. Empire of Sand is Tasha Suri’s captivating, Mughal India-inspired debut fantasy.
The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.
When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda.
Should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…
Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra
Young Adult Fantasy
Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, one of a handful of sisterhoods of highly trained elite warriors. Armed with blades whose metal is imbued with magic and guided by a strict code of conduct, the Orders are sworn to keep the peace and protect the people of Asiana. Kyra has pledged to do so—yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her murdered family.
When Tamsyn, the powerful and dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. She is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof.
Kyra escapes through one of the strange Transport Hubs that are the remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past and finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of a desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a disillusioned Marksman whose skill with a blade is unmatched. He understands the desperation of Kyra’s quest to prove Tamsyn’s guilt, and as the two grow closer, training daily on the windswept dunes of Khur, both begin to question their commitment to their Orders. But what they don’t yet realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is thin . . . as thin as the blade of a knife.
A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna
Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy
In a universe of capricious gods, dark moons, and kingdoms built on the backs of spaceships, a cursed queen sends her infant daughter away, a jealous uncle steals the throne of Kali from his nephew, and an exiled prince vows to take his crown back.
Raised alone and far away from her home on Kali, Esmae longs to return to her family. When the King of Wychstar offers to gift the unbeatable, sentient warship Titania to a warrior that can win his competition, she sees her way home: she’ll enter the competition, reveal her true identity to the world, and help her famous brother win back the crown of Kali.
It’s a great plan. Until it falls apart.
Inspired by the Mahabharata and other ancient Indian stories, A Spark of White Fire is a lush, sweeping space opera about family, curses, and the endless battle between jealousy and love.
Wicked Fox by Kat Cho 25 June 🇰🇷 South Korean
Young Adult Fantasy
Eighteen-year-old Gu Miyoung has a secret–she’s a gumiho, a nine-tailed fox who must devour the energy of men in order to survive. Because so few believe in the old tales anymore, and with so many evil men no one will miss, the modern city of Seoul is the perfect place to hide and hunt.
But after feeding one full moon, Miyoung crosses paths with Jihoon, a human boy, being attacked by a goblin deep in the forest. Against her better judgment, she violates the rules of survival to rescue the boy, losing her fox bead–her gumiho soul–in the process.
Jihoon knows Miyoung is more than just a beautiful girl–he saw her nine tails the night she saved his life. His grandmother used to tell him stories of the gumiho, of their power and the danger they pose to humans. He’s drawn to her anyway.
With murderous forces lurking in the background, Miyoung and Jihoon develop a tenuous friendship that blossoms into something more. But when a young shaman tries to reunite Miyoung with her bead, the consequences are disastrous . . . forcing Miyoung to choose between her immortal life and Jihoon’s.
Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim 30 July 🇨🇳
Young Adult Fantasy
Project Runway meets Mulan in this sweeping YA fantasy about a young girl who poses as a boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor and embarks on an impossible journey to sew three magic dresses, from the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.
Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.
And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.