Best Asian Fantasy Books
So you like fantasy with martial arts, swords, ninjas, or just something different that’s not set in the same old ‘knights, lords, and wizards duking it out in some generic middle ages’ milieu that’s been recycled more times than a Britney Spears dance song, then this list is for you. Sadly, this subgenre has not been well explored (yet) by western authors, perhaps because it’s quite difficult for the western mind to accurately represent foreign concepts (Asian cultural values and thoughts are often not at all similar to the western idea of things). Quite often you get a standard fantasy novel set in an ancient Japanese/Chinese landscape with Asian names, but characters who could be ripped straight out of any standard epic fantasy.
There are a few fantasy books that do a good job at depicting the Far East accurately. For some, this may not be an issue, but you should at least be aware of it.
There is in fact an entire subgenre of oriental fantasy called Wuxia (see our Wuxia Fantasy Guide here). Wuxia fantasy is heavily steeped in oriental mythology, with names, places, and the setting inspired from eastern cultures like China and Japan. This Best Asian Fantasy list may include some Wuxia fantasy, but also more general fantasy that does not include specific Wuxia elements yet still maintains an oriental feel in culture or setting.
While even in 2015, there are quite a few oriental-inspired fantasy worlds out there in the genre, though still just a drop in the bucket compared to the common medieval themed fantasy.
We've scoured the genre to give you a list of the best fantasy inspired or set in an oriental milieu.
Books in Initiate Brother Series (1)
On paper, this is the perfect setup for a grand fantasy novel: Guy Gavriel Kay (Tigana, The Fionavar Tapestry, Lions of Al-Rassan) applies his considerable literary talent to crafting an alternate fantastical China, loosely based on 8th century China during the Tang Dynasty. This is the China you’ve always dreamed of: deadly ghosts that haunt battle fields, ninja assassins and brutal warriors, conniving kings and traitorous royal families. From start to finish, Under Heaven is an epic journey of one unremarkable man who becomes something remarkable. It’s haunting, beautiful, and a tale that will stick with you after you’ve turned the last page. Kay is one of the best wordsmiths in the fantasy genre; every book he puts out features delicious prose; this man knows how to write beautiful English prose and Under Heaven keeps with his high standards of writing. Highly recommended.
Books in Under Heaven Series (1)
For other alternative history with the same lyrical style and emphasis on historical detail, though altered to fit a fantastical version of them, check out Kay's other books. You absolutely want to read the direct sequel to Under Heaven, River of Stars. which was released this year (2014). It's not as masterful as the first, but a very good read indeed and more of the same. The Fionvar Tapestry, Kay's version of Lord of the Rings. Last Light of the Sun is Kay's foray into Norse history and culture and an outstanding read. Lions of Al Rassan is a tragic yet powerful tale about a painter who's get caught up with the affairs of an Empire (Kay's take on Roman history). Song of Arbonne is a beautiful and haunting tale about two jongleurs. Ysabel is Kay's YA version of American Gods.
Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. In many ways Under Heaven stands next to this great masterpiece on equal footing. Both are historical fiction with outstanding narratives.
If you like the whole fantastical mythical Asia, you should read Sean Russel's Brother Initiate. Russell in a lot of ways is similar to Kay both are outstanding writers who relish beautiful prose. Russell's work is more along the lines of a traditional fantasy, just using the trappings of ancient Chinese culture for the tale. The hero of his tale is a fighting monk and the tale is more heroic about heroes with amazing abilities who impact the fate of a kingdom.
The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham, is another series with a huge emphasis on literary types being the heroes of the day. This series is very much unique, the prose and characters are rich. It's a series that's not for everyone (if you are looking for traditional action heavy epic fantasy in the vein of Sanderson or Jordan, you probably won't like this series), but if you like to read and enjoy rich characters and a different setting and a different sort of fantasy than your usual run-of-the-mill, read it.
Master Li series by Barry Hughart. One of the best Asian fantasy series ever. It doesn't get the recognition it deserves. Not your standard fantasy novel, but it's a hell of a read and funny as hell.
The Folding Knife by KJ Parker. A series rich on details and characterization. Not so much on action. Parker is an author you love or hate. But if you enjoy Kay and a different style of fantasy, you'll enjoy Parker.
Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. This 5 book series starts with a bang. It centers around an alternate Feudal Japan where magic works and stars ninjas, Samurai's, and warlords as the main characters. Kind of a fantasy version of Shogun.
Alma Alexander's The Secrets of Jin-shei takes place in a similar mythical Chinese setting and centers on a princess and her friendship with a lower-class servant. It explores friendship and class systems in a changing world. An interesting read.
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. One of the best-written, well-plotted historical fantasy tales. This one is set in the 18th century and follows the story of Jonathan Strange, the last magician of his time. Well written, dense, and a superb story. If you like Kay, you will absolutely love this one.
A recent work but a phenomenal one. If you like the beautifully written Under Heaven with the rich themes about what it means to be human than you'll like this very different, yet equally enthralling work. The Golem and the Genie is a work you should read.
A completely different type of story than Kay's Under Heaven yet both are stories where the way words sounds are just as important as the story itself. Both are very much lyrical works, full of beautiful words and, if you dig, complex themes. If you like well written lyrical works, you'll like The Name of the Wind.
Books in Tales Of The Otori Series (3)
Books in The Empire Series (2)
Books set in an Asian fantasy landscape are pretty rare. If you liked the sort of mystical Asian landscape portrayed in this series, you might Find Sean Russell's Brother Initiate and Gather of Clouds a good read as well. Guy Gavriel Kay also has a new book, Under Heaven, that's sort of an alternative version of China (with elements of magic to it).
Books in Eon Series (1)
Books in Long Price Quartet Series (4)
You may want to check out Abraham's newest fantasy series, The Dagger and the Coin. Quite a few people are saying it's nearly as good as his The Long Price Quartet series and it's a more "standard epic fantasy" which many of you are used to by now (dragons, elder gods, trolls, magic).
If you like the whole economic aspect of The Long Price Quartet, you should take a hard look at KJ Parker's works. Start with his Colors in the Steel. Both JK Parker and Daniel Abraham both write what's called economic fantasies -- fantasy that deals with economics in some major way.
For another writer who writes beautiful, character driven prose where the heroes are not always warriors but poets and scholars, is Guy Gaverial Kay. Try his Under Heaven, Tigana, or Lions of Al Rassan though all his works are good. Not the same style as Abraham, but he does focus a lot of characters, slow complex plots that build up, and masterful prose where the writing itself is just as important as the story.
China Mieville. One of the founders of the New Weird movement. This guy can write beautiful and unique stuff; the questions is then if you can understand what he's writing about. His world and characters are absolutely bizarre and often grotesque. But, like Abraham's The Long Price Quartet, his stories are very much different than the run-of-the-mill fantasy. You may enjoy him. I do and I feel he's a bit underrated. If you need a point to start, you can start with Perdido Street Station.
Another series that evocative in prose and character is Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series. You might just love it if you are the type of person who falls head over heels with The Long Price Quartet.
Neil Gaimen. OH yes. Everything by him. Wonderful writing, thematic, and all round compelling tales. Start with American Gods, the book he's most famous for or Neverwhere. Note that ALL of his books are good though.
Gene Wolf. You can check out his Book of the New Sun series. Beautiful writing, beautiful descriptions, deep thoughts, deep writing, unique scenarios.