Best Asian Fantasy Books

Fantasy Set in an Oriental Milieu
Enchanted Realms: The Best Asian Fantasy Books Explored

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. 


Master Li and Ox â the main characters in this work â are easily some of the most loveable characters in fantasy. Aside from these charming protagonists, the book is a lot of fun to read.Why it made the listHughart's writing is never too flowery or too simple. This book is like a Thai food dish, every element is balanced so that none of them are overpowering, take away from the overall taste or from the eating experience. In Bridge of Birds, the ingredients â action, description, character development and humor â come together in a satisfying literary version of delicious pho.Watching the action through Ox's naïve eyes means that the reader can experience the wide-eyed wonder that he does, when he does. It's a refreshing departure from the more serious titles of the 80s. Hughart is a master of humor. He's not obvious about it like Pratchett, but it is as effective as anything you'll read in the Discworld series.There aren't many fantasy titles where the end feels right. Mostly, they fall flat and leave you disappointed. The conclusion is just like that bowl of pho â it fills you up, warms you up and leaves you with the desire for more like it.

Books in The Chronicles Of Master Li And Number Ten Ox Series (2)

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This duology has flown under the radar in the fantasy world, which is a shame – it’s perhaps one of the richest fantasy tales out there, made all the more interesting by the exotic Asian landscape, mythology, and characters. Sean Russell is a very talented author who’s produced a number of standout fantasy books (and most of them underrated); Russell is an author who knows how to write quality; the pacing tends to be slow, and the world slowly revealed, but if you like to read books with richly drawn characters and a deep mythology, Russell knows how to deliver. Russell does not write simple fantasy, nor does he develop simple characters and relationships; every stroke of his narrative brush is slow and measured, but the whole tapestry fits together perfectly in the end. For those who love to read well-written, character-driven fantasy set in uniquely crafted worlds, you won’t go wrong with any fantasy book written by Russell. Brother Initiate is the story of a young Shaolin-like monk who, despite his simple upbringing in a martial monastery, becomes entangled in the dangerous and complex politics of the imperial palace and ultimately, the internecine warfare between kingdoms. If you are a big fan of martial arts fantasy, this is the best you’re going to find.

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)

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More Books by Kay

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.

The Name of the Rose

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.

Brother Initiate

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

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.

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox

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

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

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. 

The Secrets of Jin-Shei

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.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

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.

The Golem and the Genie

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.

The Name of the Wind

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.

Assassin fantasy set in a distinctly Japanese milieu. This one’s got everything you want in a good martial arts fantasy tale: ninja assassins, samurai warriors, beautiful princesses, evil lords, deadly battles and even deadlier magic. It’s a coming of age tale with a lot of “kick” to it and one that you won’t want to miss – as a teenager or as an adult.

Books in Tales Of The Otori Series (3)

This collaboration proves that you don't have to wade neck-deep in magic to make a great fantasy. This series showcases the other side of Feist's Riftwar Saga, which is a great read, but pretty standard as far as fantasy lore goes with the typical magician, orphan, dragon, elf, combo. Empire is something entirely different. Set in Asian-inspired Kelewan, we ditch the medieval European landscape for once, and enter a world where Akoma Honor drives the politicking of the ruling class. Mara is the new empress after her father and brother are killed, and learns to navigate these deadly waters with alacrity driven by need. She is one of the most multidimensional and fearless characters I've read, rising from precariously clinging to her title to a truly powerful contender. The synergy between these two masterful authors yields up something richer than either alone. Even seemingly small characters have big ambitions and impact the story in surprising ways. Intrigue, murder, fantastic creatures, fervent love, and battle; Empire is everything that makes fantasy worth reading.

Books in The Empire Series (2)

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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).

Features a dragon theme. Complex characters and relationships make this a compelling read. The author really plays around with gender identity issues here, but does so in a way that's not too hamfisted. It's a great read for anyone who likes fantasy that takes a bite out of some of the social issues we have.

Books in Eon Series (1)

Western settings. Farm boys. Spoilt rich kids. Often, coming of age fantasy hits you over the head with unsubtle interactions and world-building. Abraham's Long Price Quartet does not fit into that category. It's a gentle piece. There's intricate world-building, a heavy focus on character progression, and little need for action. The World consists of city states with an asian inspiration, each looking to gain political influence. This is where much of the novel lies. Not in fighting, or magic, though both are present, but human interaction. Part of that is presented in the growth of characters, which is presented in an entirely unique way. Each book in the series is spaced fifteen years apart, presenting a change in the characters that can only be achieved by time. The central character is Itani, a laborer who is much more than he pretends to be. The Long Price Quartet follows him from the age of 12 through to 80, and from a young boy to an emperor. Ambitious in its timeframe, the series is much more than the sum of its parts, and far more nuanced than can be described in a short summary. Read if you like: Subtle fantasy, character-oriented stories.

Books in Long Price Quartet Series (4)

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The Dagger and the Coin

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).

Colors in the Steel

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.

Books by Guy Gaverial Kay

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.

Books by China Mieville

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.

Books by Neil Gaimen

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.

Book of the New Sun

Gene Wolf. You can check out his Book of the New Sun series. Beautiful writing, beautiful descriptions, deep thoughts, deep writing, unique scenarios.

Heavily influenced by Asia, the Braided Path is a long, but very rewarding read. It’s loosely categorized as Young Adult, but a read through this series had me seriously questioning that classification. The series features a pair of strong female characters who get caught up in some Empire-changing events. The ancient empire of Saramyr is ruled by evil, controlled by a group of sinister magicians who kill off any child with magical talent who may challenge their shadowy rule. But change is in the air when the empress herself gives birth to a child of magic, and the seeds of a revolution are born. This is sort of a pseudo-Star-Wars tale set in an Asian landscape, with one of the characters a female version of Anakin Skywalker dealing with her developing magic powers. No lightsabers, but plenty of dark magic abound. Be warned, this is no kiddie fantasy tale – explicit sexual and child-abuse scenes do occur during the story. It may also take a while to get the story rolling (the second and third books are when the plot and story really start to pick up). Overall, an excellent tale for the adults; not so much for the kiddies.

Books in The Braided Path Series (1)

A surprising cocktail of Chinese Fantasy, detective fiction, and science fiction that manages to still taste good. The novel is set in a futuristic China (future Shanghai) and incorporates high technology and the supernatural. Overall it’s a clever and pretty absorbing novel. The best description for this would be the Asian version of The Dresden Files. Inspecter Chen is a cop assigned to special cases that involve Hell; basically, he’s the go-to guy for dealing with anything supernatural. Normally, humans wouldn’t stand a chance against the forces of Hell, but Chen has an ace up his sleeve – he’s been granted the protection of the goddess Kuan Yin and well, his wife is a demon. This series won’t blow your socks off, but I recommend it because it manages to smash a bunch of genres that normally never touch into something that works and works well.

Books in The Detective Inspector Chen Series (4)

An exotic historical fantasy heavily influenced by Chinese with some well-developed world. What’s quite interesting about this novel is that the characters reflect Chinese/Eastern values as opposed to the usual western values that dominate fantasy novels (and even oriental fantasy written by white men who clearly don’t understand Asian culture). Key aspects of Chinese culture such as luck and family are heavily emphasized in the novel. Some have compared this to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I agree with the comparison (and there literally are Tigers and Dragons in the novel). The author meticulously details an alternate 9th century China fantasy world that’s exciting and quite believable at the same time. So for an “Asian fantasy” that actually accurately represents Asian cultural mindsets and values, this is the book to read.
A fantasy based in an oriental world. The emperor’s son’s former tutor flees after the death of his master to escape the killing spree of the new regent. Several years later, his solitude is disturbed by a young woman who seeks his training for one purpose: revenge against the regent. This is a low fantasy (no magic) tale that takes a lot of the common male-centric conceits found in standard fantasy novels, replaces the male with a female protagonist, and dumps the plot into an oriental-style world.
There is a distinct Asian flavor to this trilogy (called Crossroads). True to Kate Elliot form, there’s quite a bit of attention to world-building and plenty of strong characters. While not as ambitious as your Crown of Stars series, Crossroads is certainly an interesting read.

Books in Crossroads Series (2)

I like to call this the Wheel of Time set in a fantastical China which about sums up this series. Overall, the series that integrates an impressive amount of Chinese mythology into the fabric of the tale. This series has a very strong oriental feel to it  you never once forget that you are in an exotic landscape surrounded by exotic characters who often act in a manner consistent with eastern mindsets.A good series that's pretty much flown under the radar for a lot of people. It doesn't compete with some of the new fantasy epics (Martin, Erickson, Abercrombie) or some of the best oriental fantasy books like Bridge of Birds, but if you are looking for a strong Asian epic fantasy version of The Wheel of Time, this series is probably the closest you'll find.

Books in The Shadows Series (1)

An interesting book that’s quite recent. It’s set in an alternate Chinese fantasy landscape which includes emperors in exile, dragons, monks, and magical stones. The pace is slow, but the world building is rich as is the setting. I’d compare it to Kay’s Under Heaven in style and form but with more fantasy elements to the story. The story is inspired by Chinese history and mythology but does not take place in a specific period (i.e. it’s not a rewrite of Chinese historical events as some asian-flavored fantasy novels are).

Books in Moshui Series (2)

This one reminded me a bit like Across the Nightingale Floor, but with less special affects; it’s more of a subtle, character driven story. The setting is an invented pseudo Japanese culture and features a strong female protagonist. There’s plenty to love in the story – assassination, ninja training, intrigue, and romance.