When you think of fantasy books, the first titles that come to mind are Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, and while these books are regarded as classics for good reason, they’re also very Western-centric and don’t leave much room for representation. Asian representation can be found in plenty of popular books these days, although they are usually in the contemporary or coming-of-age genre, which might not be everyone’s favorite. So if you’re looking for a book with elements of fantasy interwoven with Chinese culture, here are 6 fantasy books that take place in Chinese-inspired settings.
1. She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
This book was described as a Mulan retelling, but at the core, it’s more of a retelling about the founder of the Ming Dynasty. The story takes place during the Yuan Dynasty and revolves around Zhu Chongba, a girl who initially stole her dead brother’s name in order to be admitted to a monastery and avoid the fate of dying from famine. But then circumstances force her to leave the monastery and join the Red Turban Rebel army for survival. Still under the ruse of her brother’s identity, Zhu manages to climb her way to the top of the army, but not without invoking the personal ire of the eunuch General Ouyang of the Yuan Dynasty. The rest of the story is an exploration of gender because you have Zhu who thinks she has to disguise herself as a man in order to be great, Ouyang who isn’t respected despite his achievements simply because he’s a eunuch, and another character who is constantly ridiculed for being a scholar instead of a warrior. She Who Became the Sun is definitely more character-driven, so you might find it difficult to get through if you want a fast-paced plot, but it’s still worth a read for the characters alone.
2. Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
This is another book inspired by Mulan, although this one is described as a mix between Project Runway and Mulan. The story is about Maia Tamarin, who has ambitions of becoming the greatest tailor some day, but since tailoring was traditionally a man’s job, she had no place in the industry. One day, Maia’s father was invited to become the Emperor’s official tailor, but since her father is sick, Maia disguises herself as her brother and takes his place instead. When she arrives at the palace, she discovers she has to compete against twelve other men for the job, which raises the stakes since she would be killed if her secret was discovered. The author’s writing style is gorgeous, the setting is rich in culture and mythology, and the dynamic between the main characters Maia and Edan was fun to read. However, this book did feel like two stories merged into one, with the first half leaning into the competition aspect, and the second half focusing more on romance. It’s something to keep in mind if you’re more interested in a Project Runway-esque story.
3. These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong
This book is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1926 Shanghai. It offers you a glimpse of what Shanghai was like at that time, which was fractured by different gangs after the Opium War. Juliette Cai and Roma Montagrov are from two opposing gangs, and at the beginning of the story, they already had a complicated relationship built on lies and betrayal, but they are forced to work together again to investigate a mysterious disease that has been ravaging their territories. The plot is definitely something you’ve heard of before, but Juliette and Roma’s dynamic is what carried this book. Juliette is strong-willed and deadly in this retelling, and Roma’s kind and compassionate personality acts as her counterbalance. It was fun to read their interactions and watch them slowly begin to trust each other despite the blood feud between their families. This book also delves into issues like sexism, mental health, and LGBT+ relationships. The downside is, the writing felt a bit awkward and stilted at times, but it can be overlooked once you get attached to the characters.
4. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
This book is heavily inspired by the Opium War and the Sino-Japanese War, but you don’t have to be knowledgeable about the historical events in order to enjoy it. The story revolves around Rin, a war orphan who was about to be married off by her adoptive parents for their personal gain, but Rin manages to escape her fate when she gets accepted into a prestigious military academy. While in training, Rin also discovers that she has the power to converse with the gods; a power that might be instrumental to winning the war but at the cost of her own morality. This book takes you on a deep dive into cultural history, and it definitely reads like an epic war drama. The characters were also refreshing because of their moral ambiguity, since they are not the classic hero-type, which makes their actions more unpredictable. One fair warning about this book is that it’s darker than typical fantasy books. It does not glorify war and definitely doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of violence, so look up the trigger warnings first before you decide to read it.
5. Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
This book is a relatively new release, so it might be a little difficult to track down the physical copy, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for. It’s more science fiction than fantasy, and it’s basically a retelling of Wu Zetian’s story, except it takes place in a futuristic world reminiscent of Pacific Rim. The premise is that men and women must team up to pilot a robot and combat creatures that lurk beyond the Great Wall, but the psychic strain from piloting these robots usually kills the women. After her sister was killed, Zetian volunteers to be a pilot and assassinates the man responsible for her death using a rare psychic technique. This earns her the reputation of Iron Widow, and while the government sees her as a threat, they also recognize how invaluable her power is, so they pair her with a ruthless and controversial male pilot named Li Shimin to tame her. Despite this, Zetian will stop at nothing to make sure that no more girls will be sacrificed. It’s important to add that the author Xiran Jay Zhao is a renowned history buff on YouTube, so most of the characters in this book are a reimagining of historical and folklore figures. This book also features a polygamous relationship, which might make some people uncomfortable, but the story is definitely worth reading if you’re willing to overlook that.
6. Jade City by Fonda Lee
This is the first book of an urban fantasy series that takes place in a setting inspired by 70’s Hong Kong. It’s a product of the author’s love for classic Chinese gangster movies, and it is described as a story that’s similar to The Godfather, except with kung fu and magic. The plot revolves around two rival syndicate groups: the Kaul and the Ayt families. They control the Island of Kekon, which produces the world’s only supply of a rare magical jade that can give people superhuman abilities. For the longest time, Kekon has been protected by the selected warriors called Green Bones, but as their world continued to modernize, the Green Bones, like the Kauls and Ayts, became more concerned with industrialization and trade, leaving the island susceptible to foreign invasion. The book is praised for its rich world-building that’s steeped in East Asian culture, unique magic system, and an ensemble cast of characters. If you’re craving for a fantasy book that’s not about warring European monarchs for once, then this is the book for you.