The best books inspired by history with queer Chinese protagonists

Who am I?

I loved books as a kid, especially fantasy books, but could never find anyone like me within their pages. I’m a lesbian Chinese writer who adores stories about messed-up, complicated queer people. I’m thrilled by the range of books available now that feature queer and Asian characters. We all deserve representation, and to me that means representation that’s complex, that encompasses the ugly and the beautiful. One of my goals as an author is to make you fall in love with monsters—brutal, flawed women who may not deserve love, but who demand it all the same.

I wrote...

The Wicked and the Willing

By Lianyu Tan,

Book cover of The Wicked and the Willing

What is my book about?

Love demands sacrifice. Her blood. Her body. Even her life. In 1920s colonial Singapore, a destitute young maidservant must choose whom to love: her white, vampiric English mistress, or the woman trying to save her life. In the Dream House meets The Ghost Bride in a provocative tale of seduction, violence, and despair, perfect for fans of S. T. Gibson’s A Dowry of Blood.

The Wicked and the Willing is a standalone, F/F historical gothic horror vampire novel with a love triangle and a choice of endings, although most of the story is not interactive. It contains potentially disturbing scenes and an abusive romantic relationship between two women. Full content warnings are on my website.

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The books I picked & why

She Who Became the Sun

By Shelley Parker-Chan,

Book cover of She Who Became the Sun

Why this book?

This book is a fantastical retelling of the Hongwu Emperor’s rise to power, with the emperor re-imagined as a non-binary afab person. It’s billed as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles, but I vastly preferred it to both those narratives; the nascent emperor, Zhu Chongba, becomes gloriously ruthless in a way that defies their gender. There’s also a gay eunuch point-of-view character with an incredibly tragic backstory, who almost steals the show.

It’s very character-driven, which helps temper its epic scope. I don’t usually love stories with this much military/political scheming, but I absolutely loved this book. It’s a duology, with the second book expected in 2023.

She Who Became the Sun

By Shelley Parker-Chan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked She Who Became the Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

British Fantasy Award Winner
Lambda Literary Award Finalist
Two-time Hugo Award Finalist
Locus Award Finalist

"Magnificent in every way."—Samantha Shannon, author of The Priory of the Orange Tree

"A dazzling new world of fate, war, love and betrayal."—Zen Cho, author of Black Water Sister

She Who Became the Sun reimagines the rise to power of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor.

To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the female monk Zhu will do anything

“I refuse to be nothing…”

In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…


Book cover of Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Why this book?

I’ve been reading Malinda Lo for over a decade, but this is my all-time favorite of hers. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is set in 1950s San Francisco, during the Red Scare, and has a coming-of-age plot with a Chinese American girl (Lily) falling in love with her white baby butch classmate (Kath). Lily wants to work in STEM, which is almost as impossible as her budding sapphic desires for an interracial relationship. The titular Telegraph Club is a lesbian bar where Lily and Kath find people like them—representation that’s still precious and revelatory, even 70 years later. 

This is the only book on the list that doesn’t have a fantastical bent, but you won’t miss it, because the 50s were weird enough. It’s a beautiful Bildungsroman that made me grateful for the societal progress we’ve made, but it’s also a warning about how governments still use paranoia and fear of the others to divide communities.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

By Malinda Lo,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Last Night at the Telegraph Club as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"That book. It was about two women, and they fell in love with each other." And then Lily asked the question that had taken root in her, that was even now unfurling its leaves and demanding to be shown the sun: "Have you ever heard of such a thing?"

Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu can't remember exactly when the question took root, but the answer was in full bloom the moment she and Kathleen Miller walked under the flashing neon sign of a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club.

America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall…

One Last Stop

By Casey McQuiston,

Book cover of One Last Stop

Why this book?

One Last Stop is an example of why I rarely read blurbs, because I’m allergic to spoilers, but it’s impossible to talk about this book without spoiling the premise (which is on the blurb), so here it is: a floundering Southern plus-sized bi white girl meets a Chinese butch on the train in New York, and said butch turns out to be displaced in time from the 1970s.

It’s a new adult sapphic rom-com, with fated love, grumpy x sunshine, and found family tropes, plus the whole “teaching a time traveler about the internet” thing. It was cute and heartfelt, like everything from McQuiston, with a side dose of queer history lessons.

One Last Stop

By Casey McQuiston,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked One Last Stop as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For cynical twenty-three-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don't exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can't imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there's certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures.

But then, there's this gorgeous girl on the train.

Jane. Dazzling, charming, mysterious, impossible Jane. Jane with her rough edges…

Iron Widow

By Xiran Jay Zhao,

Book cover of Iron Widow

Why this book?

China only ever had one empress regnant: Wu Zetian, who reigned from 690 to 705CE. Iron Widow recasts Zetian as a mech pilot, battling misogyny from the cockpit of a giant, transforming robot.

Iron Widow is a YA science fantasy with an FMM poly triad. It’s joyously high-energy, and at points, you have to turn off your sense of disbelief and just go with it, because it’s YA. Historians treated Zetian more harshly than her male counterparts; I’m grateful for this homage that literally puts her in the pilot’s seat of her own story.

Iron Widow

By Xiran Jay Zhao,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Iron Widow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An instant #1 New York Times bestseller!

Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid's Tale in this blend of Chinese history and mecha science fiction for YA readers.

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn't matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it's to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister's death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through…

Book cover of Black Water Sister

Why this book?

Jessamyn Teoh was raised in the US, but when her family moves back to her birth country of Malaysia, she’s forced to deal with culture clash, her extended family, being in the closet, and getting haunted.

Set in contemporary Malaysia, Black Water Sister invokes history via dreams from Jess’s ghostly grandmother, who has passed on a bunch of intergenerational trauma. Cho writes much of the dialogue in Manglish (Malaysian English), which was so nostalgic for me—disapproving aunties surround poor Jess, showering her with both their expectations and their love.

The Black Water Sister herself is a deity of female vengeance and rage, and that theme echoes throughout the book. It’s a new adult urban fantasy that made me feel so seen as a Third Culture Kid.

Black Water Sister

By Zen Cho,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Black Water Sister as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A sharp and bittersweet story of past and future, ghosts and gods and family, that kept me turning pages into the dark hours of the night' - Naomi Novik, author of Uprooted

This mischievous Malaysian-set novel is an adventure featuring family, ghosts and local gods - from Hugo Award winning novelist Zen Cho.

Her grandmother may be dead, but she's not done with life . . . yet.

As Jessamyn packs for Malaysia, it's not a good time to start hearing a bossy voice in her head. Broke, jobless and just graduated, she's abandoning America to return 'home'. But she…

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