It's fantasy, it shouldn't be so limited.
June 2, 2012 2:57 PM   Subscribe

There is no shortage of fantasy novels set in a fantasy world based on Europe. But what about fantasy worlds based on other cultures?

Just to be clear, I'm talking about invented worlds, not stories that take place in a real setting but with added fantastical elements. For example, a story in which someone time-travelled back to Moorish Spain would not fulfill my requirement, because that's a real setting, but Guy Gavriel Kay's book The Lions of Al-Rassan fulfills it perfectly, because it's closely based on Moorish Spain but not actually Moorish Spain.

The setting doesn't have to be that specific and detailed, though. A lot of fantasy novels are set in McEurope, so I'd settle for names of books that are set in McChina, McIndia, McJapan, McWestAfrica, etc. Even if they're not good books! (But please tell me if they suck, so I don't buy them. Especially if they are exotifying trash.)

For Japan, I can think of Dragon Sword and Wind Child, and the Tales of the Otori Series--as long as I'm remembering correctly that they're not set in real Japan. I'm not asking about anime, but Seirei no Moribito would be another great example if it were a book: Obviously based on Japan (even has fantasy!Ainu), but not Japan.
posted by Kutsuwamushi to Writing & Language (54 answers total) 139 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is a book - a series of books in fact, and I think it's been translated, so you can add that to your list.
posted by BinaryApe at 3:01 PM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's been a long time since I read these, but as far as I can remember--

His Dark Materials trilogy: set to a notable amount in Alaska or Antarctica.

Earthsea books: some Pacific island-type characteristics as well as some books or scenes in sometng like Africa or the middle east
posted by J. Wilson at 3:05 PM on June 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts have stories set in the world of Kelewan, which is very influenced by medieval Japan. 'Magician' and the other Riftwar Saga books describe a war between a fantasy European-medieval world and Kelewan, and The Empire Trilogy is set entirely in Kelewan.
posted by BinaryApe at 3:07 PM on June 2, 2012

Best answer: Pseudo-Japan: Feist and Wurts' Empire trilogy
Pseudo-Arabia: Weis and Hickman's Rose of the Prophet
posted by Paragon at 3:07 PM on June 2, 2012

BinaryApe beat me to the Empire series suggestion. You could also try C.S. Lewis's The Horse And His Boy which is set in a sort of pseudo-Arabia.
posted by fearnothing at 3:10 PM on June 2, 2012

Best answer: I should have written one bigger reply, but I keep remembering things as soon as I press Post Answer.

'Bridge of Birds' by Barry Hughart is "A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was". It's a wonderful book. Definitely fantasy, and very Chinese.
posted by BinaryApe at 3:14 PM on June 2, 2012 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Ursula K Le Guin's Always Coming Home is "about a cultural group of humans—the Kesh—who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California." (p. i) Part novel, part textbook, part anthropologist's record, Always Coming Home explains the life and culture of the Kesh people."
posted by Forktine at 3:19 PM on June 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'll assume you've plundered the Kay oeuvre because you've mentioned Lions of Al-Rassan, but if not, check out the rest of his books; most of them are in the same vein including one set in China. I also came in here to suggest Bridge of Birds, but I've been beaten to it, I see. (There are two sequels, neither of which are as good as the first.)

I haven't read but have had recommended to me a trilogy about the female samurai Tomoe Gozen, written by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. That would be older, and like the Hughart, may be out of print.
posted by immlass at 3:20 PM on June 2, 2012

I imagine you know most GGK novels do this: Sailing to Sarantium (etc.) -- Byzantium; Under Heaven -- China; Tigana -- Italy; and so on.

Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds is set in a pseudo-China and would probably count as my favorite book that does this. On preview, I'm thirding it.

Incidentally, Kelewan and the Tsuranuanni Empire have an indirect relationship to Tékumel and the Tsolyani Empire. The story as I heard it, which could be way off, was that the influence began as Feist played RPGs with the Midkemia Press guys who were the ones who actually knew about Tékumel from the RPG Empire of the Petal Throne and used some of its flavor (itself somewhat inspired by Aztec, Persian, and East Asian stuff but in an extremely original mix), and so some Tékumel elements leaked into the setting. Feist definitely made the world his own though.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:21 PM on June 2, 2012

I'm sure you know about this, but huge chunks of the Song Of Ice And Fire series take place not in McEurope but in McByzantium and McCentralAsia.
posted by Sara C. at 3:24 PM on June 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also, and this is a little different from what you were asking for, Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union takes place in an alternate Alaska where Jewish holocaust survivors were "temporarily" settled when Israel failed to materialize as a modern nation state.

That said, the geography is real Alaska and the culture is real Ashkenazi Judaism.
posted by Sara C. at 3:26 PM on June 2, 2012 [9 favorites]

The Malazan Series is based on thoughtfully rendered bespoke cultures; the author's an anthropologist so it's pretty sophisticated worldbuilding.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:32 PM on June 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: NK Jemisin's fantasy novels all have a decidedly non-European sensibility. Her most recent novels—one is coming out some time this month, I think—are set in a place inspired by ancient Egypt.
posted by col_pogo at 3:35 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's Sci-Fi, but David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series is set in a future world where China pretty much dominates the earth.
posted by jquinby at 3:38 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a huge list of non-European fantasy by women. I haven't read many, so I can't tell you which are secondary worlds based on non-European backgrounds and which have actual non-European settings, but it's a good place to start. Another big list here, although there's some SF in there as well as fantasy.

I recommend N K Jemisin's Inheritance Trilogy and David Anthony Durhma's Acacia Trilogy, although they are not so much fantasy version of particular cultures, but epic fantasy in secondary worlds with a multitude of influences including non-European ones. They are also pretty good.

I've heard good things about (but haven't got round to reading yet) Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, which has a Middle Eastern influence, and Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo, which is a retelling of a Senegalese folk tale.
posted by penguinliz at 3:42 PM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came in to suggest Bridge of Birds and see it has been suggested already.

I carry through with my comment because IT IS SO DAMN GOOD.

Also consider Legends of the Five Rings, an rpg that spawned multiple books and a living setting, that's based on feudal Japan.

Any by Europe, do you mean Bog Standarde Ye Olde Medieval Tymes? If not, there's the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher which is based on a Roman core.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:45 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The story-within-a-story-within-a-story in The Blind Assassin is set in Sakiel-Norn on the planet Zycron, which (from the intro quotes to the book, anyway) I take to be based on the Persian city of Kerman.

Also, some of the stories in Cloud Atlas are set in post-apocalyptic/dystopian versions of modern cultures. The Somni story is set in a version of Korea, for example.

Both books are really good, but I particularly loved Cloud Atlas.
posted by quiet coyote at 3:52 PM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Martha Wells' City of Bones and Wheel of the Infinite
Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan and City on Fire
Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness
Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds and The Story of the Stone

While there is much to enjoy about these works, you may find that you want something less derivative, more exotic, perhaps a fantastical tale from another culture rather than an imitation or assimilation of one. These are deep waters and I've only waded in the shallower parts.

Authur Waley's translated Monkey is a good introduction to the much longer epic Journey to the West. Mark Salzman's The Laughing Sutra may be of further interest and I recommend both to anyone who enjoyed Hughart's works. After this, there are translations available of Chinese novels Journey to the West and Outlaws of the Marsh and other classics.

Amos Tutuola's The Palm Wine Drinkard is based on Yoruba folklore.

That's all I've got for now, but there's lots more. I may check it a bit later with more.
posted by wobh at 4:21 PM on June 2, 2012

Nalo Hopkinson frequently writes books using Caribbean history and folklore. One of my favorite books ever, The Midnight Robber, is a scifi coming-of-age book written in Caribbean English and takes place on a distant planet.

Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian & Blood books take place in the Aztec Empire.

Catherynne Valente's Deathless is a reimagining of the Koschei the Deathless story and is set in Russia (specifically spanning Russia's 20th cent. history). It's very good.

Nthing Bridge of Birds and Redemption in Indigo.
posted by cuculine at 4:22 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a buttload of these, and am interested in a lot more! Excuse the lack of hyperlinks:

Arabian: Throne of The Crescent Moon
Death's Heretic,
The Desert of Souls
The Emperor's Knife

African: Who Fears Death?

Asian: The Snake Agent
Nthing Bridge of Birds
Dragon in Chains by Mark Fox

Inuit: Wolf's Brother & The Reindeer People

Russian: The Winds of Khalavoko.
posted by smoke at 4:42 PM on June 2, 2012

Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy is set in an alternate early 21st-century Alexandria, though that might not be invented enough for you.

I've just read a really good book set in an invented ancient Near Eastern city, but it's in French: Diane Meur's Les villes de la plaine. I don't know if/when it's going to be translated into English.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:56 PM on June 2, 2012

Best answer: The Moshui series by Daniel Fox is an invented world based on China/Taiwan.

Book 1: Dragon in Chains
Book 2: Jade Man's Skin
Book 3: Hidden Cities
posted by creepygirl at 5:10 PM on June 2, 2012

Maybe not quite invented, but Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart books are set in alternate France, and then Phedre wanders around most of alternate Europe and down through alternate Africa for three books. I vaguely recall that the most recent trilogy has the main character wandering around alternate Asia. I liked the original trilogy, and would hesitate to say that the rest of the books suck, but...get them from the library.
posted by sillymama at 5:10 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Alaya Dawn Johnson's Spirit Binder trilogy has a Polynesia-type fantasy setting. The first one is Racing the Dark.
posted by emyd at 5:15 PM on June 2, 2012

Best answer: Charles Saunders' Imaro series is set in a fictionalized Africa called Nyumbani.
posted by anansi at 5:43 PM on June 2, 2012

Emphasizing the rec for Liz Williams' books set in Singapore 3, starting with Snake Agent. Fantasy and future-tech and mystery all blended into great books.
Also Martha Wells' City of Bones and Wheel of the Infinite - she's an incredible writer all around, and these are great non-Euro fantasy.
Bridge of Birds and the two following (harder to find) books are fabulous.
Also, Clare Bell's The Jaguar Princess is an Aztec fantasy, and pairs well with Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian & Blood series.
posted by PussKillian at 5:57 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts (excerpt, the author explains the book here) is based heavily on Mongolia and China during the time of Genghis Khan. It's not bad, but if you dislike books that are basically setups for the rest of the trilogy you might want to wait until all the books have been released.
posted by calistasm at 5:59 PM on June 2, 2012

Dune is heavily influenced by Islamic religion in the culture of the characters, but also the lands are loosely based on the middle-east (hence, the title of the book). Although it's debatably more sci-fi than fantasy.
posted by Paper rabies at 6:13 PM on June 2, 2012

Harry Turtledove's Videssos books are set in McByzantium.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 6:35 PM on June 2, 2012

Joust and its sequels by Mercedes Lackey take place in a fictional historical Egypt. With dragons. I wouldn't say they are amazing but I did like them in high school, and I think I still own a copy of the first novel.
posted by internet!Hannah at 7:12 PM on June 2, 2012

I really can't recommend them, because it's become almost impossible to recommend Orson Scott Card given how poisonous he's become over the years (plus these books just aren't very good), but his Tales of Alvin Maker is set in a somewhat fantastical post-colonial United States (where there's also been a fair amount of historical divergence from our time, but conveniently, timelines mostly seem to have diverged around the 17th century-ish).
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:33 PM on June 2, 2012

Best answer: Dianna Wynne Jones Castle in the Air is set in part in McArabia, starting there and ending there.
posted by Hactar at 7:48 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

And I forgot to close the italics. The name of the book is Castle in the Air
posted by Hactar at 7:48 PM on June 2, 2012

Just thought of another one. Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife series (Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon are set in an invented world that's based on the Midwestern United States around the 1800s or so.
posted by creepygirl at 8:04 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a Fantasy/Sci-Fi mashup sorta thing but SM Stirling's Emberverse series. All 10 (and counting) books are set mostly in the Pacific Northwest. There is also a related series, Island in the Sea of Time, that takes place around Nantucket.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:11 PM on June 2, 2012

Also Michelle West's Sun Sword series would count, I think - it spends time with several different peoples/regions, only one of which seems Europe-ish.
posted by unsub at 8:21 PM on June 2, 2012

Naomi Novik's Temeraire series starts out with dragons in Europe and proceeds to dragons in China and dragons in Africa. The first two are good, and I haven't read the rest. I've heard that there are exotification problems in the Africa book... I thought the China book did OK on that front.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:44 PM on June 2, 2012

Hm, maybe that's too reality-related for you, though.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:46 PM on June 2, 2012

The trilogy that begins with Flora's Dare, by Ysebeau Wilce. It's an Old West setting with heavy Aztec influence. I really enjoyed them.
posted by Surprised By Bees at 9:12 PM on June 2, 2012

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy is obviously influenced by his chidhood experience and later studies of China, in the ritualistic way the earl's daily life and activities are scheduled and so forth.
posted by Abiezer at 9:20 PM on June 2, 2012

Best answer: Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet has a setting that's Asian-influenced, I think mostly Indonesian. Jo Walton has a nice summation of it. I loved the setting and culture.
posted by dragonplayer at 9:24 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: J. V. Jones's series that begins with -A cavern of black ice- (I think ) has a lot of focus on a couple of northern cultures---sort of pseudo-Athabascan and pseudo-eskimo.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:54 PM on June 2, 2012

Gaslight Dogs starts in mcarctic and has a deeply alienated protagonist from there wandering in the mcsouthwest amongst mcamericans dealing with mcindians. Book 1 of 3 ends with bad pacing; your mileage may mcvary.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:01 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would heartily second Bujold's Sharing Knife series. They are set in a fantasy region directly inspired by the Ohio valley and Mississippi regions of the US.

Also, Bujold is one of the best writers of fantasy and SF today. Her other fantasy novels are set in countries remarkably like 15th century Spain (Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls) and Medieval Northern Europe (The Hallowed Hunt), but are fresh and original, and not at all derivative.

Robin Hobb's Soldier's Son books are set in a country which has both a European-like culture, but also non-European, and focuses on colonial conflicts.
posted by jb at 10:06 PM on June 2, 2012

Terry Pratchett's semi-satirical Discworld novels are mostly set in the setting's equivalent of Europe, but he does venture outside it occasionally. In particular, Interesting Times is set in the Orient -- or at least, the Orient as it looks from the outside. It's a mixture of Chinese and Japanese, ancient and modern, that seems weird until you remember that this is how it all seemed to you when you were a child and didn't understand these distinctions yet. The Discworld, "world and mirror of worlds", has always been rather suggestible by perceptions of this sort.

Its followup, The Last Continent, is set in a rather silly version of Australia.
posted by baf at 10:59 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Brust's Jhereg series is Hungarian influenced. Card's Ender books are sci-fi, but once you get past the first book they feature planets heavily influenced by Portugese, Chinese, Japanese and Pacific Island culture. I'd second the recommendation for his Alvin Maker books. Also, King's The Stand is more fantasy than horror and very much American. Gaiman's American Gods draws on a number of cultures. If you're looking for something in a sub-Saharan Africa analog, you might look at Resnick's (sci-fi) "Africa" books: Paradise, Ivory and Kirinyaga.
posted by zanni at 12:09 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. The basic premise is that a girl from a Europe-sort of country moves to a desert outpost town and gets swept into a nomadic desert tribe. I love this book so much that I've read it upwards of 12 times (I will admit that while some people may have comfort foods, I have comfort books and The Blue Sword is one of them).
posted by colfax at 2:33 AM on June 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

And The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley is set in the same world.

(Colfax, that book is comfort food for me, too!)
posted by ocherdraco at 3:49 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The first four of the Twelve Kingdom novels by Fuyumi Ono have been translated to English. Japanese author (and main character from our world); mythological China type setting.
posted by harujion at 4:07 AM on June 3, 2012

Seconding the earlier recommendation of Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian and Blood trilogy. She also has a fair amount of short stories available through her site if you want a flavour of her writing.
Also I have just started the second in Elizabeth Wein's Arthurian books, A Coalition of Lions, and it is set in Africa.
posted by Fence at 5:24 AM on June 3, 2012

(I will admit that while some people may have comfort foods, I have comfort books and The Blue Sword is one of them).

What perfect timing! Just the other day I was telling someone about those books, but couldn't remember the title or author. I haven't read them in decades, but they were total comfort books for me, too; I must have read them a dozen times or more.
posted by Forktine at 6:11 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I really enjoy Sean Russell's duo "The Initiate Brother" and "Gatherer of Clouds." They're Asian-inspired (McChina-Japan?) epic fantasy, fairly subtle and brainy, with lots of characters.
posted by linettasky at 9:39 AM on June 3, 2012

Across the Nightingale Floor and its sequels, by Lian Hearn, is excellent, and set in a fantasy version of Japan.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:57 PM on June 3, 2012

Best answer: If YA fantasy is ok, I love Lloyd Alexander's The Iron Ring, which is set in a version of India.
posted by naoko at 7:47 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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