The best books for readers seeking unique Asian fantasy

The Books I Picked & Why

Jade City

By Fonda Lee

Book cover of Jade City

Why this book?

This book (the first of The Green Bone Saga) often gets short-handed as “A Chinese take on The Godfather” or “An Asian Sopranos.” I understand why but it’s also very much its own thing. It’s about two powerful clans who use fantastical powers enhanced by jade implants to vie for domination in a city that is like mid-twentieth century Hong Kong but with interesting departures. What is most delicious about this series is Lee’s utter commitment to believability, which often manifests as ruthless but necessary plot decisions regarding her characters. Despite the gritty material, there’s pure joy in this storytelling.

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The Grace of Kings

By Ken Liu

Book cover of The Grace of Kings

Why this book?

This book, the first in the staggeringly epic Dandelion Dynasty series, does something unique — it tells a story that has no place-markers of Chineseness (no Chinese-sounding place- or character-names, no great continental empire, etc). Nonetheless, it is one of the most profoundly Chinese books that I’ve ever read. It’s clear that the author is bursting with love for Chinese lore. His interpretation of the source tales of heroic deeds, folk wisdom, and philosophical debates are a huge-hearted celebration of Chinese culture and history. The book also uses the East Asian four-act structure, which withholds the book’s pivotal element until the surprise third act. He thus avoids the cosmetic and cliché indicators of Chinese culture while absolutely capturing the soul of Chinese culture. 

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The Beast Player

By Nahoko Uehashi, Cathy Hirano

Book cover of The Beast Player

Why this book?

This wonderful Asian fantasy (the first of a duology) is about a young woman who has the rare ability to control flying wolf-like creatures. This ability plunges her into the middle of political intrigue as forces push her to weaponize this ability and use the beasts as battle mounts. The most unique thing about the book is how it questions the ethics of humans using animals for their purposes. Most fantasies unquestioningly use animal mounts as weapons/vehicles or at most use an animal’s death to trigger a cheap emotional response. This book puts the ethics of using magnificent creatures for human concerns at its very heart. It demonstrates a respect for the natural world that seems consistent with Shinto teaching and that I find too rare in fantasy.

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Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori Book One

By Lian Hearn

Book cover of Across the Nightingale Floor: Tales of the Otori Book One

Why this book?

This book, the first in the rollicking The Tales of the Otori series, has been called “Shogun meets The Lord of the Rings.” The first book centers on a young man with some special abilities who is groomed to become an assassin due to one special talent — the ability to walk silently across a special floor composed of boards that chitter like birds when stepped on, which warlords sleep in the middle of as an alarm system. The series is one of the most gripping, wildly entertaining, and moving fantasies I’ve ever read. It is proof that it is possible for an artist to come to understand a culture deeply enough to honor its spirit, even if they weren’t born into that culture.

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The Arrival

By Shaun Tan

Book cover of The Arrival

Why this book?

This wordless book is told in sepia-toned pastels starring a character who resembles the Chinese-Australian author/illustrator himself. It appears at first to be an account of early 20th century immigration across an ocean until we arrive at the destination city, which is wondrously unlike any place any of us has ever seen. Everything in it is strange and beautiful, from the writing system to their money to the shapes of their vegetables to the ubiquitous animals that people keep as pets. Because no one has seen anything like this culture before, the book gives everyone the gift of knowing what it’s like to feel like an immigrant. Every time I read a new Shaun Tan book, I become a slightly but permanently better person. An utter masterpiece.

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