Monday, April 8, 2013

Beyond the same-old fantasy culture: Nine authors worth reading

I've been reading some really amazingly cool books lately (and I'm proud of myself, because for me, finding reading time always takes effort). One of the things I've been doing to get inspired is looking for books that take me outside the tried-and-true Tolkien-inspired fantasy model, which is heavily inspired by Iceland - details here!. One of Nancy Marie Brown's points in her article is that introducing the legend and narrative quality of the Icelandic sagas made Tolkien's work seem recognizable yet fresh:

By “fantasy” Tolkien meant “a quality of strangeness and wonder” that frees things and people from “the drab blur or triteness of familiarity.” The Hobbit does all that—thanks to its Icelandic roots.

This was back in 1916. By now the world of elves and dwarves has become so familiar that authors are starting to look further for cultural inspiration, which seems to be exactly what Tolkien was doing and indeed is exactly what we should be doing! The more cultures we incorporate into our fantasy mythologies, the better, as far as I'm concerned - so long as we're doing it with respect. Here are some books you might like to look into:

1. The work of Nnedi Okorafor. Everything I've read of hers has been fantastic, and her fantasy-Africa settings are rich and fascinating. Absolutely inspirational. The books I'd recommend (besides just saying "all of them") are The Shadow Speaker and Who Fears Death

2. The work of Nora Jemisin. Another author I just love. The world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is wonderful, diverse and rich, not to mention that it turns all kinds of expectations on their heads. I'm also loving the complexity and detail of the world in The Killing Moon, a current Nebula nominee, which is a great example of how you can take an underlying culture (in this case, ancient Egypt) and thoroughly convert it into a fantasy setting that stands on its own merits.

3. Howard Andrew Jones' series The Chronicles of Sword and Sand. He's doing some really wonderful work of high fantasy adventure inspired by the cultures of the Islamic world. I particularly liked the way the characters in The Desert of Souls incorporated their cultural beliefs into all of their actions and judgments.

4. The work of Saladin Ahmed. I'll point you specifically to his novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is on the Nebula nominee list this year. It's taunting me in my to-be-read pile at the moment, but the sneak peeks I've taken at its pages are making it hard to wait, and his cultural worldbuilding is fantastic. This is also Islamic-inspired fantasy.

5. Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox. This is a really interesting book, and in particular I love the way Fox handles the culture of China. It's a fantasy world, but not the kind of dreamy fantasy alt-China you may have come to expect. Very gritty, with characters who judge and act based on what they've learned from rock-hard choices they've made in the past.

6. The Lays of Anuskaya series by Brad Beaulieu. Brad does a great job of creating a fantasy world based around Russian culture. There are other cultures in the book, too, which have been inspired by the real world, and I think he's done a fine job creating a flavor that's really exciting and refreshing. The Winds of Khalakovo is the first book in the series, followed by The Straits of Galahesh.

7. Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. I'm in the middle of this one right now. It's also Russian-inspired fantasy, and includes some surrounding groups inspired by other cultures of Europe. It manages to feel familiar on one level but very refreshing, and the parallels with known cultures enhance our sense of the supernatural adventure and war.

8. The Fallen Queen by Jane Kindred. Here's a third Russian-inspired book that I've come across - no surprise that people are reaching out to this culture, because it's just wonderful and full of ideas that aren't like the ones we see every day. This one manages to merge Russia and the realms of Heaven into a sexy, adventure and action-filled book. I really enjoyed it.

9. The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson. This isn't as new as the other books listed here, but was one of the first books that really inspired me as a writer. Kij Johnson reaches deep into Japanese mythology and culture and creates an incredibly rich, moving story. Highly recommended.

Of course, these aren't the only people who are writing wonderful things right now, and moving outside "the usual suspects" culturally. Please feel free to comment with your own recommendations below.


  1. OOOO! Nice post. I was curious about your reading list ;)

  2. I've been reading a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay's books over the last couple of months. There you have an author that uses interesting cultures that step away from the generic medieval Europe model.

    I like how he writes these historical fantasy analogues of certain time periods and then adds a little magic.

    Below is a quote from R. Scott Bakker about world building that I like.

    "The analogy I always like to use when discussing world building is sculpture: when you build a world, what you’re doing, it seems to me, is taking a lifetime of shared cultural and historical associations and sculpting them into different shapes. When writing contemporary fiction, you simply say New York and all the associations come ready made. But when you say, Carythusal or Nenciphon, the words are meaningless. The fantasy author really has one of the most difficult jobs in fiction: he or she has to make the meaningless deep with meaning, the more authentic the better, as far as I’m concerned. This is one of the things, I think, that makes Tolkien such a genius.

    Some fantasy authors, Guy Kay comes to mind here, take things ready-made from that quarry of shared associations. The advantage is that much of the work is already accomplished: once the reader realizes that Sarantium is an alternate Constantinople, the associational image is immediate and clear. Others mine the collective quarry in a more eclectic, fragmentary, or mysterious fashion, here the work can be more difficult, since nothing comes ready-made. "

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sam! That's a great quote, and I agree. Much of worldbuilding is taking advantage of previous knowledge, even if you're recombining it in novel ways. Thanks also for the recommendation!

  3. I second Sam's comment re: Guy Gavriel Kay -- his latest, River of Stars, is quite good, and draws on Chinese history.
    Interesting side note -- he worked with Christopher Tolkien on the original preparation of The Silmarillion. Even if he hadn't gone on to write The Fionavar Tapestry, A Song for Arbonne, and Tigana (among many other novels) you don't get much better fantasy street cred than that.

    1. That sounds great, David. Thanks for recommending it!

  4. I'm going to shamelessly plug my DM and buddy Jason King who self published his first novel "Valcoria: Children of the Crystal Star". I haven't finished it yet because school kinda got in the way, but I mowed through the first 100 pages and loved it!

    There. Plugged.

    And thanks for the link to more Tolkien goodies! I'm totally following her now. You always share/post the best stuff XD

  5. I'm kind of amused that I've read about half of the authors on that list, and half of the remaining ones are already on my list of authors whose books I want to read. It is definitely nice reading fantasy that has something other than medieval Europena overtones!

    I also recommend Mazarkis Williams's "Tower and Knife" series, which has a distinct Middle Eastern flavour that makes for really interesting reading.

    1. Sounds great, Bibliotropic! Thanks for sharing your recommendation.