16 awesome Asian-inspired fantasy worlds

Books with Asian-inspired faNtasy worlds 2

I should’ve called this 16 plus books, since so many of these are series…es?! In any event, I’m here with some bookish representation for those always in search of more. These 16 books represent places throughout Asia and Polynesia through fresh takes on mythology, settings and retellings. Check them out below!

The Chanter’s Blade, by A.A. Lee – When I found this Philippines-inspired fantasy, it went on my TBR list. So far, the writing has grabbed me.
 

Sunbolt, by Intisar Khanani – The intersection of cultures (and monsters) features prominently in this book. Set in a West Asian-inspired country with a feisty FMC whose mother came from an East Asian-inspured country, Hitomi is sure to steal readers’ hearts. (My review here.)

Six Crimson Cranes, by Elizabeth Lim – A coming of age story for the ages–or maybe just a few days for a dragon. (My review.)
 
The Singing Hills Cycle, by Nghi Vo (The Empress of Salt and Fortune; When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain) – Literary, whimsical and inventive, Vo’s stories get me every time. (Read my review of book one and two.)
 
The Jasmine Throne, by Tasha Suri – This India-inspired world is as haunting as its characters.
 
The Priory of the Orange Tree, by  Samantha Shannon – Part of this story is set in an East Asian-inspired country. I thought the plentiful storylines thin in this novel, but it’s a favorite for others.
 
Maiden of Candlelight and Lotuses, by Anastasis Blythe – Blythe’s first book outside of Vella is a magic academy homerun, filled with sweet romance and convincing martial arts action. As of writing this, it’s free for her newsletter subscribers. (Check out my review here.)
 
The Pler Series, by Anna Velfman (Snowblind; Icedancer; Avalanche) – A fused East-Asian setting is the last great civilization in Velfman’s exciting, science-fantasy-leaning novels with a protagonist from the “uncivilized” south. (My review of Snowblind, Icedancer and Avalanche.)
 
Gunpowder Alchemy, by Jeannie Lin – Another novel on my TBR list! This one promises steampunk and I can’t wait to read it.
 
The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang – Steeped in World War II history (chapters on city warfare are rooted in an actual battle), this one can be hard to stomach, but is undeniably a true fantasy epic. (My review.)
 
Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho – Okay, so this one is urban fantasy, but its expert fusion of myth, tradition and modern Malaysia are not to be missed. (My review here.)
 
The Daevabad Trilogy, by S.A. Chakraborty – I haven’t had time to read The Empire of Gold yet (each of these books is LONG) but this series just gets better as it goes. I highly recommend it. (Read my review of The City of Brass.)
 
Desert Nights series, by Helena Rookwood and Elm Vince – The fairytale retelling duo tackles the story of Aladdin in this fun series. (Read my review of Throne of Sand here.)
 
The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera – One of my all-time favorite books is a quick a read as it is memorable. I’m including this because of its magical realism. Forget the movie and grab the heartwarming book!
 
Red Winter, by Annette Marie – Rooted in Japanese mythology, I picked up this book after multiple recommendations.
 
Tales of Akatsuki, by Nicolette Andrews (Kitsune; Yuki; Okami) – Fairytales are retold and blended with Japanese myth in this series I can’t wait to read.

Of Heists and Hexes review

If you like your fantasy romances extra spicy, my Of Heists and Hexes review is here! This is the first time I’ve read anything by S.L. Prater, and she certainly knows how to turn on the steam. Read on!

Of Heists and Hexes review graphic

Note: I received a free copy and have voluntarily written this honest review. Contains steamy open-door scenes, disturbing violent content and depictions of capital punishment.

Noah is an honest, likable sheriff. Robin is a witch and a thief on a mission to feed the people of Arm. The two are fated mates thanks to their magic, though Noah knows he should arrest her. The last thing he wants is for his young sister Marian and his nan to get caught up in Robin’s rebellion against the political status quo.

I loved the world-building, the witches and the cat and mouse game between Robin and Noah. Seeing Robin thwart him is genuine fun, and the tension, between them and throughout the kingdom, make it binge-worthy. There is a very serious side, too, as Noah brings depraved criminals to justice (the crimes are heartbreakingly real). Combined with depictions of poverty, these scenes show how broken their society is, because Noah and the witches are practically the only ones to do anything about it. With all he has to face, it is a challenge for Noah to be an honest law man.

Of Heists and Hexes book cover

I wish there’d been more in-person emotion between the two love interests. Much of the heart is in the form of notes, and when together they’re all heat (and yes, the heat level is VERY high). I was waiting for an emotional breakthrough to back the fated romance between these two that I never quite got, though they sometimes came close. I also thought the climax came up suddenly. Though the ending didn’t disappoint me, I’d invested enough in the characters that I wanted the epilogue to be longer, so I could learn the particulars of what they did next. And really, is that such a bad problem to have?

My rating:
4/5

To learn more about this author, visit streetwitch.net.

Crown of Midnight review

For my review of Throne of Glass #1, click here.

Did you love Throne of Glass? In this Crown of Midnight review, we’ll take a look at how the tone of the series majorly shifts in book two of the series.

Crown of Midnight
The legend of unparalleled assassin Celaena Sardothien continues with a double dose of revenge, intrigue and romance.
 
Crown of Midnight finally gives us glimpses of Celaena’s life before she was captured and taken to Endovier. Though still spare with details of her past, Celaena shows more of her hidden abilities and becomes emotionally vulnerable. Stuck doing the evil king’s bidding, she is stagnant in other ways, too: BFF Nehemia is angry she won’t do more to stop him, and Celaena only knows how to work in the shadows.
Crown of Midnight

I thought the romance, grief and anger unfolded beautifully from Celaena’s perspective. Dorian’s POV becomes more of a placeholder and Chaol sometimes verges on bland (for a captain of the guard, the dude needs some backbone), but Celaena (and her sharp new frenemy Mort) shines as she struggles to solve more supernatural riddles. It’s an exceptional second book.

My rating:
5/5

To learn more about this author, visit sarahjmaas.com.

Skin of the Sea review

African mermaids and dragons, mythological odysseys and mortals versus the gods, oh my! In this Skin of the Sea review, I delve into this spectacular book (and what other popular YA fantasy I’d compare it to).

Skin of the Sea review graphic
In case you thought epic mythological adventures only happened in ancient Rome and Greece, Natasha Bowen is here to set the record straight. Bowen throws down the gauntlet with the Yoruba legends-based Skin of the Sea, an action tale of an unwittingly disobedient mermaid who must set things right.
 
At it’s core, Skin of the Sea is a story of love, sacrifice and forgiveness. It’s also an odyssey full of mythological creatures from Nigeria and beyond. (Note: Bowen’s inspiration is discussed at the end of the book and should not be missed). With the help of humans she can’t fully trust (and one she’s almost instantly drawn to), Simi must seek forgiveness from the supreme deity for interfering in human affairs. Unfortunately for Simi, an embittered trickster-slash-messenger god stands in her way. 
Skin of the Sea cover

This wonderful book has beautiful writing and true heart. Though it’s not for those who prefer a tidy ending (book two can’t come fast enough!), it should be required reading for mythology fans. Anyone who loved Six Crimson Cranes should likewise pick up Skin of the Sea.

My rating:
5/5

For more on this author, visit natashabowen.com.

Only a Monster review

This one is for fantasy, romance and time travel fans. This Only a Monster review takes a look at the fast-paced YA fantasy by Vanessa Len, including the unusual romance and the one thing that might turn readers off.

Only a Monster

This book was such an unexpected surprise for me! Full of heartache, adventure and moral dilemmas, Only a Monster takes its MC, Joan, from life as a history-loving teenager (admittedly, one who often reads as younger than 16) on a journey through recent history.

When one tragic night leaves Joan on the run with the strikingly dapper Aaron, it sets the stage for star-crossed but understated drama. Aaron is an Oliver and Joan is a Hunt; the two London Monster families don’t mix. Life was far simpler for Romeo and Juliet.

Only a Monster

It was refreshing to see an earnest heroine with two love interests without a love triangle forming. In fact, all the tropes in Only a Monster are subverted. Joan has been told she’s the savior of all monsters, yet she’s clueless. The hero is the bad guy, there are gray areas galore, and destined love is all but impossible.

Fans of Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks will enjoy this well-paced, heartfelt book, as will romantic fantasy fans. I’m excited to see what the rest of the series will bring.

My rating:
4.5/5

For more information on this author, visit vanessalen.com.

For the Wolf review

For readers who like their fairy tale retellings a little darker, For the Wolf should be high on your TBR list. Keep reading my For the Wolf review to find out why!

For the Wolf
As a second daughter in her country’s royal family, Redarys was born a sacrifice to the Wilderwood. Despite her twin’s best efforts, Red wants to accept her fate. A piece of the Wilderwood’s magic is in her already, and Red is sick of holding it back.
 
With themes of fanaticism and false religion (as well as a surprisingly large subplot of delightful romance), the power of nature, described here as neither good nor bad, squares off against dark, evil magic in For the Wolf. As Red’s twin tries to save her, profound grief becomes an obsession until twin is (unwittingly) pitted against twin.
For the Wolf book cover

The writing is equal parts plot and character driven and is dense with descriptive detail. It took a little getting used to for me, but there were many great lines and I appreciated that it delved into grief, actually making it a cornerstone of the plot. One caveat: this book is not for those squeamish about blood.

My favorite part of For the Wolf was the romance. The Wolf in question, Eamon, is almost literally set up with Red by the Wilderwood. Though they are essentially fated mates, the development of their relationship is gradual and sweet. Book two has very much earned its place on my own tbr.

My rating:
4.5/5

To learn more about this author, visit hannahfwhitten.com.

Retellings to thrill any fantasy reader

Do you love retellings? Whether of classic books or fairy tale retellings, they make up a large portion of my reading list. I’ve reviewed quite a few, so now it’s time to put them in one place!

Retellings to Thrill any Fantasy Reader

Note: This list will be updated as I review more titles.

Fairy Tale Retellings
Enchanting Fate cover

Enchanting Fate – This Beauty and the Beast retelling by debut author Ashley Evercott has a Downton Abbey-style romantic twist. When the servants get POVs, you know you’re in for a fun and thoughtful retelling!

An Enchantment of Thorns – Veteran retelling team Helena Rookwood and Elm Vince take on Beauty and the Beast with the A Court of Fairy Tales series, bringing serious action, swoony romance and cottage core vibes to the tale.

The Fox and the Briar – Understated, Darcy-esque, a villain with swagger—all ways I’ve described the contents and characters of this fae Sleeping Beauty retelling by Chesney Infalt. The Fox and the Briar also has slow burn romance and the arranged marriage trope.

Of Silver and Secrets cover

Of Silver and Secrets  – Famous for her romantic fantasy stories, author Sylvia Mercedes puts her unique spin on Rumpelstiltskin. Though the retelling part comes in toward the end, this tale of a dream-walking witch and a trained mage is filled with non-stop action and major romance.

Six Crimson Cranes cover

Six Crimson Cranes  – Elizabeth Lim takes on The Six Swans in an East-Asian inspired fairy tale world of dragons, curses and truly lovable characters.

Spindle  – W.R. Gingell’s madcap take on Sleeping Beauty has a unique thread-based magic system and no shortage of quirk.

Thorn – Now a traditionally published book, clean YA fantasy writer Intisar Khanani takes on the Goose Girl fairy tale with a Middle Eastern-inspired setting and a princess torn about her duty.  

Throne of Sand This is the first retelling by the powerhouse writing team that is Helena Rookwood and Elm Vince.One Thousand and One Nights(specifically the story of Aladdin and the lamp) gets a female lead with a penchant for trouble.

Classic Book Retellings

Ariadne  – Jennifer Saint gives Ariadne and her sister Phaedra a voice in the Theseus myth with unforgettable imagery.

The Chosen and the Beautiful The Great Gatsby gets a queer, female makeover with dark bargains, lusty Roaring Twenties party animals and secret magic, courtesy of the wonderful and creative fantasy author Nghi Vo (her Singing Hills Cycle books are also some of my favorite recent reads.)

 

Music of the Night, by Angela J. Ford, book cover

Music of the Night – Angela J. Ford writes two types of fantasy: steamy romances and epic. This The Phantom of the Opera retelling is the former, with two narrators who are instantly attracted to one another. Unfortunately, one carries a terrible secret involving the local theater, and the other must become its star in order to survive.

Within These Wicked Walls cover

Within These Wicked WallsJane Eyre is the love story that defied social class and the idea that only pretty, accomplished young women could be the object of love stories. Author Lauren Blackwood adds a super creepy cursed house and a streetwise spell-breaking protagonist to this tale of love that goes beyond the superficial.

Black Water Sister review

A review of Black Water Sister, by Zen Cho

Note: This book has a recurring theme of violence against women and intimate partner violence that may be triggering for some readers.

Black Water Sister is a vivid and engaging read that perfectly fuses the ancient with the modern. And it’s a page-turning story to boot. Narrator Jess is easy to identify with, and I could practically hear the overlapping chatter of the aunties and uncles visiting Kor Kor’s house. Through twists and turns, it delivers a message of family, empathy and redemption.
 
Raised in America, Malaysian-born Jess is forced to return to Penang with her parents as her family’s fortunes take a turn. A recent Harvard grad, Jess has no job prospects and is separated from her very understanding and supportive girlfriend. Jess is not out to her parents (or anyone with the slightest chance of contact with her family) and keeps their long-distance relationship going through covert messages and video chats at odd hours. Living under her Christian aunt and uncle’s roof adds another layer of tension to the balancing act that is new adult Jess.
Black Water Sister Cover

She’s isn’t the only one keeping secrets in her family, either. When Jess’s recently deceased grandmother begins haunting her, Jess’s Ah Ma, whom she never met, becomes a dangerous reality for Jess. Jess is quickly drawn into Ah Ma’s quest for vengeance, which involves saving an old temple from a determined and ultra-wealthy developer. That temple is home to the equally vengeful god known as the Black Water Sister.

In this fascinating and deadly world of spirit mediums and Chinese gods, Jess is just as lost as I was. She makes a wonderful guide, without sacrificing any of her character. She reads as an actual college grad struggling with major life changes and to find her life’s direction. All the while, the world seems to be closing in on her in every direction.
 
The writing gave me a crystal clear image of Jess’s Penang. Sizzling food, decaying temples and blazing heat felt real through author Zen Cho’s descriptions. I was so impressed with Cho’s ability to fuse Jess’s contemporary language with the ancient and mysterious, giving Black Water Sister a strong fantasy atmosphere even as Jess comments on hipster cafes.
 
Black Water Sister is both action-driven and emotional, and filled with relevant (yet timeless) messages. Abused characters are given agency and compassion in a thoughtful way, so that each character, and their pain, felt as real as the settings without ever approaching grimdark status.
 
This story rolls on convincingly and with a lot of heart, no matter how Jess’s life screeches to a halt. By the end, I felt like I went on the journey with her, in the best possible way.

To learn more about this author, visit zencho.org.

Review of Avalanche (Velfman)

A Review of Avalanche, by Anna Velfman
(Note: I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. This book also contains mature content and allusions to non-consentual encounters.)
 
Lanna of the Clans is back–or at least she would be, if life at the palace didn’t have her so confused. This hard-hitting third installment of what used to be the Pler Trilogy brings readers a more introspective Lanna alongside true science-fantasy and an impeccable balance of action and character development. On top of that, it’s an excellent and binge-able read.
 
The main cause of the Southerner-turned-Imperial seer’s confusion is handsome Emperor Ashioto, who Lanna must marry after a period of seclusion. Nothing is black and white about their relationship. Ashioto can be tender and caring, yet dangles the fate of her old friend Mika, and the village she and Lanna came from, as bait whenever he wants something from her (and those things are never small). Still, Lanna is drawn to him and conflicted about her plans to bring down the Empire. Her background in the Machiavellian South doesn’t help that either. If Ashioto is cruel, it’s just a reminder that Southerners aren’t meant to bond anyway.
Avalanche (cover shown here) arrives November 20, 2021

A steamy scene very early in the book (there’s no dawdling in Avalanche, and the bedroom door is open) leaves Lanna to reckon with the truth: she’s sold herself to the Emperor, just as Lucas, the Augmented voice of reason who is literally in her head, warned her she would. Lanna has a price, and as she begins to question what she thought she wanted, we see her greatest development as a character.

As promised by Icedancer (review forthcoming) it’s also her biggest play for agency, even as the forces against her true freedom prove stronger and more calculating than she’d guessed. She’s also in her own way: forced into the position of sacrificial lamb, Avalanche takes time to ask what Lanna is worth to herself.
 
This, combined with her increasingly heart-warming relationship with Lucas, makes Avalanche Velfman’s most character-driven book yet. Given that Lanna is in seclusion, that seems natural–but the constant action and complications are unexpected and wonderful surprises. There is no shortage of action or plot twists in this book, even as Lanna’s character is fleshed out into the fifth dimension. We learn more about the midlands, too, as Lanna’s concerns stretch ever further from the Flower Hall. Even Chowa, who is mostly absent in the book, gets a fresh look.
 
Avalanche also lands firmly in science-fantasy territory (at last!). Gone are the teasers of another civilization; readers learn a whole lot more about where Lucas came from and how their world functions (hint: it involves more than a little tech). Both technology and its breakdown are to be feared in the Pler Series, as the marvels of that civilization behind the curtain may prove to be horrors for Lanna. Absolutely nothing in her world is simple.
 
This is one of the many reasons why I finished the book wishing I had the next title in the series already. Once again, I’m left eagerly awaiting whatever Lanna (and the charming Lucas) does next.

To learn more about this author, visit her website, annavelfman.com.

Review of Phoenix Heart: Ashes

Phoenix Heart Episode One #1 Ashes Review Graphic

I’m so pleased to see more books coming out with disabled and chronically ill protagonists these days. Phoenix Heart: Season 1, Episode 1: Ashes (yes, a mouthful, but these novellas are being released episodically) has a wonderfully realistic heroine in Sersha, a mute teen at the mercy of her inn-running family. Sersha, whose troubles will feel familiar to many chronically ill/disabled readers, worries about her place in the world, how she’s perceived and what will happen when her family can’t support her any longer.

Ashes can easily be consumed in one sitting (though I recommend savoring Wilson’s emotional writing, if you can stand not seeing what comes next). It follows Phoenix Hope, a free short story available to the author’s mailing list subscribers. I highly recommend reading Phoenix Hope, too, possibly before sitting down with Ashes (the moving story of Sersha’s unlucky patients upstairs at the inn, when their ill-fated journey began).

Phoenix Heart Season 1 Episode 1: Ashes Cover
Cover of Season 1, Episode 1: Ashes

When Sersha finds herself the unwitting friend of grieving phoenix named Kazmarev (described as “A name with an adventure inside it”), for once, someone knows exactly what Sersha wants to say. She identifies with Kazmarev, but has no idea what’s in store for her, or that flame riders even exist.

When Kazmarev perishes with the dawn, Sersha assumes her own brief adventure is over. “It was like owning a pearl necklace for a day. Couldn’t you just enjoy it instead of being angry that you couldn’t keep it?” Sersha asks herself. She then returns to her precarious, uninteresting life helping her relatives at the inn—just as raiders arrive on the nearby shore.

Ashes shows Sersha, an overlooked young woman and a keen observer, finding an unexpected place in the world, and unexpected friends—both of which put her at the heart of the action. Though there is a complete story arc in Season 1, Episode 1, it’s clear her adventures are just beginning.

Phoenix Heart promises to be a relatively expensive series, which makes me want to ration each episode (readers who get in on the pre-orders will get a better price; as of writing, the first episode of season 2 still up for pre-order). Though uniformly short, the length of each episode varies. The bother comes because I’d love to consume them all at once without worry about the cost. Still, I look forward to reading more of Sersha and Kazmarev’s adventures, even if I wish they could each last—even just a tiny bit—longer.

To learn more about this author, visit Sarah K.L. Wilson’s website.