Fonda Lee's Epic Picks | BackTalk

Here are 12 fantasy novels and series inspired by cultures and eras that will take readers far from the Middle Ages.

Photo by Elena Rose Photography

For many readers, the fantasy genre conjures images of kings and queens, knights on horses, dragons, wizards, and sword battles. However, there’s far more to the genre than stories set in worlds reminiscent of medieval Europe. My adult fiction debut novel, Jade City (LJ 10/15/17), a modern-era gangster family saga, has been described as “The Godfather with magic and kung fu.” It’s set on an island loosely inspired by the four “Asian Tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) in the latter half of the 20th century, a period of rapid growth and transition from colonial pasts to modern economic prosperity. Although, in the case of the fictional island of Kekon, that growth is both fueled and challenged by the existence of magic jade and the rival warrior clans who wield it.

Here are 12 fantasy novels and series inspired by cultures and eras that will take readers far from the Middle Ages.

Bear, Elizabeth. The Stone in the Skull (Lotus Kingdoms, Bk. 1).

With this series launch, Bear returns to the world of her “Eternal Sky” trilogy, a rich setting inspired by the steppes of Central Asia. This new book moves southward to the Lotus Kingdoms with a pair of unlikely friends—the Gage and the Dead Man. (LJ 9/15/17)

Chakraborty, S.A. City of Brass.

This 2017 debut is making waves. A Middle Eastern fantasy set in 18th-century Cairo, it is the story of a young con artist who accidentally summons a mysterious djinn warrior. The first entry in a planned trilogy, Chakraborty’s novel is being touted for its spellbinding worldbuilding, backed by a wealth of historical detail. [A 2017 LJ Best Sf/Fantasy; see LJ 12/17, p. 28.—Ed.]

De Bodard, Aliette. “Obsidian and Blood” series.

De Bodard’s Aztec fantasy trilogy is also a noir mystery that follows the adventures of Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, as he investigates mysterious crimes. Originally published more than a decade ago, all three books (Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and Master of the House of Darts) have recently and thankfully been rereleased as ebooks through the ­JABberwocky Literary Agency.

Gladstone, Max. “The Craft Sequence” series.

Gladstone deftly twines capitalist allegory, legal thriller, and inventive magic in this urban fantasy series. While the books feature recurring characters and places, they can be read in any order. The most recent novel, Ruin of Angels (LJ 9/15/17), depicts a world where wizards wear pin-striped suits and godly magic is traded on market exchanges.

Jemisin, N.K. “The Broken Earth” trilogy.

Jemisin won back-to-back Hugo Awards for The Fifth Season and its follow-up The Obelisk Gate. With The Stone Sky (LJ 7/17), she concludes her saga set in the world of the Stillness, whose inhabitants are regularly subjected to apocalyptic earthquakes. That doesn’t even begin to describe the series, which must be read to be appreciated.

Kearney, Paul. “Macht Trilogy.”

Starting with The Ten Thousand, and followed by Corvus and Kings of Morning, the story of the Macht warriors on the planet Kuf is a retelling of the classic Greek tale The Anabasis as recorded by Xenophon. Kearney doesn’t skimp on gritty battlefield scenes in this “sandalpunk” trilogy.

King, Stephen. “The Dark Tower” series.

Let’s take a moment to remember that King’s massive, genre-bending, eight-book magnum opus featuring the Gunslinger Roland Deschain, is, at its heart, fantasy that harkens to the American Old West. Pass on the recent movie adaptation and pick up the novels (again) instead.

Liu, Ken. “The Dandelion Dynasty” series.

Liu has won about every speculative fiction prize there is, including a Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award. In this epic series (The Grace of Kings, LJ 3/1/15; The Wall of Storms, LJ 10/15/16), he uses tales of the founding of China’s Han Dynasty as a starting point. His wholly original “silkpunk” fantasy mixes Eastern and Western traditions into a folklore-ish tale with silk-bamboo airships and battle kites.

McClellan, Brian. “The Powder Mage” trilogy.

McClellan’s epic flintlock fantasy trilogy, including Promise of Blood, The Crimson Campaign (LJ 4/15/17), and The Autumn Republic (LJ 12/14) mixes swords, guns, and magic in a thoroughly engrossing world of battles and political intrigue. McClellan has also written eight short stories and novellas set in the same universe.

Okorafor, Nnedi. Who Fears Death.

Okorafor’s award-winning science fantasy evokes a postapocalyptic Africa and doesn’t shy away from heavy themes of trauma, war, identity, and culture. With the recent announcement that the novel will be developed as an HBO series, with George R.R. Martin as producer, why not read the source material before it hits screens? (LJ 6/15/10)

Rivera, K. Arsenault. The Tiger’s Daughter.

A sign that the fantasy genre continues to break out of its fixation on medieval Europe, 2017 brought several exciting entries onto the scene. One of them is Rivera’s debut novel, a Mongolian-­inspired epic fantasy with a powerful love story between two women at its core. (LJ 8/17)

Wexler, Django. “The Shadow Campaigns” series.

Beginning with The Thousand Names (LJ 6/15/13), Wexler’s military fantasy series is a standout in the “flintlock fantasy” subgenre, in which Colonial-era wars are waged with muskets and magic. In January, Ace Books will release the fifth volume, The Infernal Battalion, so there’s no time like the present to lose oneself in the military and political struggles of the Vordanai Empire.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing