While I love a good epic fantasy read where an unassuming, usually male, usually white farmboy learns of his great destiny to save the world, there are so many fantasy stories that exist outside of that framework.
One of my favorite ways to see fantasy genre tropes subverted is by taking the usual feudal European-like setting of the “traditional” epic fantasy saga and throwing it out the window in favor of mythic tropes that are less familiar to western fantasy readers. After all, Game of Thrones is great, but we tend to overrepresent Eurocentric, medieval-inspired stories in the epic fantasy world. There are so many other kinds of stories out there waiting to be told and heard.
It’s an exciting time to be reading fantasy, as mainstream publishing makes more space for epic sagas told through the lens of cultures, perspectives, and storytelling traditions that have developed outside of the western world. Here’s a collection of some of the fantasy books we’re most looking forward to in 2019 that fall into that exciting, vital, and extremely broad category.
Can’t wait to pick up something good? Check out these fantasies that have already hit the shelves.
The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty
In The City of Brass, Nahri learned that the magic she’d always dismissed (in favor of running her own cons in 18th century Cairo) is real, powerful, and dangerous. She’s had to use all her instincts as a con artist to survive the royal court of Daevabad and embrace her true heritage.
In her return in book two, she’s without the allies she thought she could trust, and any mistake could be disastrous. Add a prince defying his father, djinn, assassins, and unpredictable water sprits, and this #ownvoices adventure is sure to be a hit with readers of the first novel. (If you missed the first one, better catch up before starting book two.)
Monstress #19 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
The long awaited return of Liu and Takeda’s Eisner Award-winning Monstress hit shelves in January. Inspired by 20th century Asia, Monstress is set in a matriarchal world where magical creatures, Arcanics, have long battled with sorceresses, who use the Arcanics to fuel their own magical powers.
Maika Halfwolf is an Arcanic disguised as a human, and her adventures tackle themes of war, racism, slavery, and what it means to be human. Missed earlier issues? Two trade paperback volumes have already collected the beginning of this #OwnVoices series.
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
In this conclusion of Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, Vasya tries to save two Russias: the mortal one and the magical one. It’s no easy task when the Grand Prince seems set on war, and trusting people he shouldn’t, or when a powerful demon returns to wreak havoc.
Along with having the world on her shoulders, Vasya strives to save Morozko, the frost demon she has respected since she was a child, who has become even more important to her over the course of the trilogy. Readers who have yet to pick up the earlier two volumes should not begin with this one—go back, instead, and pick up The Bear and the Nightingale to read where it all began.
The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
Brodsky draws on both Viking lore and Inuit tradition in this fantasy set in 1000 A.D. Omat, born with a female body but raised in the man’s role of shaman, can invoke the spirits of animals, the land, the sea, and the sky. But when the spirits stop listening, Omat’s people are on the brink of starvation.
When Omat meets the Viking Brandr, who brings with him new and different gods, she sees how her whole world could be thrown into turmoil. Brodsky, who grew up in Eastern Canada, did in depth research of all the mythologies in play to present a fantasy well-grounded in real-world beliefs and legends.
Gates of Stone by Angus Macallan
Macallan launches the first in his “Lord of the Islands” novel with a blood-drenched vision of rulers vying for power in a setting reminiscent of Indonesia. The book features Katerina, the daughter of the Khevan Emperor denied her throne because of her sex; Prince Jun, a prince more interested in poetry than combat until his father is murdered; and Fahran, a spy and merchant trying to start a war between his nation’s adversaries in order to gain his country greater prominence.
Interested in more? Check out our review and interview with Macallan.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
In Shannon’s East-Meets-West doorstopper of a novel, two cultures with very different ideas about dragons meet in conflict. The nations of Virtudom, ruled by Queen Sabran IX, have at their core the myth of the Nameless One, a fire-breathing dragon defeated by their ancestor, Saint Galian Berethnet, and thrown into the Abyss with his draconic horde. So long as the royal line of Virtudom remains unbroken, the Nameless One cannot return.
On the other side of the world, in Seiiki, people revere water-based dragons, bonding with them and becoming Riders. The Seiikinese believe that the Nameless One was forced into a sleep by a comet as part of a cycle of balance: fire and water, earth and sky. Now, a thousand years later, the Nameless One is about to return, upending the world as everyone knows it.
Though much of Shannon’s dragonlore is typical of high fantasy, the different cultural views of the species—and their divergent mythologies—earned the novel a place on this list.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
Stories within stories provide the narrative landscape for James’s #OwnVoices African-set epic fantasy trilogy starter, which already has a development deal with Michael B. Jordan set to adapt.
Tracker always works alone, but when he encounters a group of mercenaries looking for the same child he has been hired to find, he breaks his rule. In the company of the shape-shifter Leopard, Tracker and the others search, sifting through stories and lies, determined to discover the truth behind the boy and his disappearance.
Lengthy and filled with cinematic violence and graphic sexuality—and sometimes a mixture of those two—this #OwnVoices novel leans heavily into pre-colonial African mythology, including vampires, witches, and necromancers, among others, and features point of view characters who circle the truth while making the reader work to figure it out as they go.
The True Queen by Zen Cho
Although this fantasy sequel is set in Regency England, Cho gives the genre a spin with her focus on main characters of color (here, Malaysian twins Muna and Sakti; in the first, Sorcerer to the Crown, African freed-slave and sorcerer Zacharias Wythe and dark-skinned sorceress Prunella Gentleman) and a willingness to engage on the unfairness of the society of the era.
When Muna and Sakti wake with no memory of how they washed ashore, they’re aided by witch Henrietta, who decides to take them to London to see the Socreress Royal for help. Sakti abruptly vanishes, and Muna and Henrietta pursue the mystery of where she’s gone—and why the fairy realm is encroaching on England.
Light hearted with plenty of Regency wit and banter, this #OwnVoices novel also offers a good helping of female-female romance, along with a return of the characters from the first novel.
The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
While many readers may know Wilson best from her fantastic run on Marvel’s Ms. Marvel, which introduced Kamala Khan, she’s also the author of the celebrated Alif the Unseen and, now, a Muslim-Iberian historical fantasy set in 1491.
The Bird King follows Fatima, the sultan’s last Circassian concubine, and Hassan, the royal mapmaker, as they travel through Spain in the company of a jinn. Hassan’s magical ability to draw maps of places he has never seen—and whose maps can change reality by how they are drawn—is viewed as sorcery by the Christian Spanish monarchy, putting both Hassan and Fatima, as his friend, at risk.
As Fatima, Hassan, and the jinn search for the safety of the island of The Bird King, the novel transforms from historical and grounded to a true fantasy about tolerance and friendship.
The Perfect Assassin by K. A. Doore
In a world of assassins and jaan, Amastan isn’t sure that he wants to follow the family business into becoming a killer. But when members of his own family start being murdered, it’s Amastan who is ordered to solve the murders, before his family is blamed for killing their own. This series starter launches “The Chronicles of Ghadid,” and is likely to appeal to Assassin’s Creed players as much as fantasy readers.
Descendent of the Crane by Joan He
Princess Hesina of Yan is uninterested in being a princess; she’d far rather have an ordinary life than be part of the imperial court. But all of those wishes are thrown away when her father is murdered. Not only must Hesina take up the mantle of queen, but she’s determined to discover who killed her father—before the murderer can turn on her as well.
This standalone YA #OwnVoices fantasy, which has the possibility of more novels to follow set in the same world, follows Hesina as she breaks the laws of her nation by enlisting a soothsayer and a criminal to help her determine who to trust, and who must be punished.
Upon a Burning Throne by Ashok K. Banker
In promotional blurbs, Banker is called a pioneer of fantasy in his home country of India, and Upon a Burning Throne is based on the ancient classic, The Mahabharata, full of demigods and demons and battles for the throne. Although princes Adri and Shvate are royals, they must pass the Test of Fire if they want to inherit the throne.
To make matters more complicated, a half-demon girl claims to have the right to take the test as well. When the girl is not allowed to claim any power after passing the Test, her demon father declares war on the Empire, threatening to tear the world apart. This #OwnVoices series is set for seven volumes, so get ready for an epic fantasy saga stretching over thousands of pages.
The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala
An assassin and a soldier get tangled in a civil war in this #ownvoices fantasy steeped in Indian history and Hindu mythology. Viper, an assassin fighting alongside the rebels, is how Esha hides her identity. No one knows that she, who lost so much in the royal coup, is the legendary assassin.
Kunal is a soldier, unquestioning in his orders to support the king, even while he longs for life outside the army. When Viper is on a mission to kill General Hotha, Kunal’s controlling uncle, the pair become involved in events on a grander scale, and no one is really sure who is directing all the pieces of this deadly game… This is listed as book one of the trilogy, so expect more cat and mouse games as the story progresses.
The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad
In this YA feminist fantasy, set along the Silk Road, the city of Noor is destroyed by Shayateen djinn; only Fatima and two other humans survived the attack. Now, a restored Noor is protected by Ifrit djinn, who represent order and reason.
But their protection does not remove all the danger: when one of the Ifrit is killed, Fatima is forever changed, and she finds herself drawn into the political intrigues of the maharajah and his sister—and onto the magical battlefield. Azad’s #OwnVoices tale features fiercely independent women, and a cosmopolitan Silk Road city striving to find harmony within its myriad cultures.
We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal
It isn’t easy to be a legend. Zafira is the Hunter; by taking on a man’s role to feed her people, she can never reveal that she’s a girl, or everything she has done will be rejected. Nasir is the Prince of Death, a deadly assassin who punishes the enemies of his father, the king, despite his own tendency toward compassion.
Both Zafira and Nasir believe that an artifact can stop the incursion of the Arz, a cursed forest that expands by the day. Zafira, as the Hunter, sets out to find it; Nasir is ordered to retrieve it—and to kill the Hunter. Set in a fantastical Arabia, filled with cultures and beliefs that reflect the diversity of the real-world region, this #ownvoices YA series starter features lyrical prose and an enemies-to-lovers romance.
Nocturna by Maya Motayne
First in an #OwnVoices fantasy trilogy set in a Latinix-inspired world, Nocturna introduces Finn, a face shifter, who has been in and out of so many disguises over the years she’s practically forgotten what her own face looks like. Unfortunately, she crosses the wrong mobster, and she’s given a choice: succeed at a heist inside Castallan’s royal palace, or have her magic stripped away.
Prince Alfehr faces the dilemma of trying to live up to his dead brother’s role as heir to the throne; feeling as though he will forever fail at that role, Alfie would far rather dabble in forbidden magics on the hope of bringing his brother back. When the two of them accidentally unleash an ancient evil, they have to become a team to stop it from destroying the entire world.
The Last Tsar’s Dragon by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple
Set during the Russian revolution, this novella features dragons as tactical weapons, giving it the feel of a historical fiction that happens to have dragons involved in the plot. Yolen and Stemple explore the Romanov family history, as well as royal conspiracies and the revolutions of Jews and Bolsheviks during the October Revolution. For fans of this mother-son duo, it’s a chance to delve into historical intrigue.
Unraveling by Karen Lord
Told in a contemporary setting, Lord’s newest fantasy could easily be called a psychological thriller. Dr. Miranda Ecouvou has helped put a serial killer behind bars, but there’s more to the world than she realized—and now Chance and the Trickster have enlisted her to look more deeply into the seven unusual murders. The plot and world are both labyrinthine, steeped in #ownvoices Caribbean storytelling.
Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells
You might have heard something about “that angry feminist bisexual dragon YA fantasy novel” on the Internet, and that’s a description that Wells has embraced wholeheartedly for her new series starter. In Shatter the Sky, Maren and Kaia expect to live a quiet life—but then the emperor’s prophets steal Kaia away to join them, and it’s up to Maren to rescue her girlfriend. She’s determined to do it, too, even if the only way to rescue Kaia is to steal a dragon from the emperor and storm the fortress of his prophets on her own. While there’s a lot in Shatter the Sky that fits into the traditions of western fantasy (including Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey), but the worldbuilding includes #ownvoices Asian influences as well.
David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
This #ownvoices urban fantasy is set in Lagos, Nigeria, in an age in which thousands of gods fell to Earth during a war. David Mogo is a demigod and a freelance Godhunter. But he takes a bad gig when he agrees to catch a god for an Eko wizard—who turns around and decides to rule Lagos himself. The three sections of the novel intertwine, but each has a distinct arc, almost like separate novellas. But together, they show David’s journey of self-discovery as he deals with his own feelings of abandonment and defines for himself what it means to be a demigod.
Jade War by Fonda Lee
The Green Bone Saga continues in this sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning Jade City. The Kaul family battles for control of the capital city of Kekon, and over the jade that allows Green Bone warriors to maintain their supernatural powers. But the conflict within Kekon is only a hint at the conflicts beyond the island’s borders. Other nations have become interested in the properties of Kekon’s magical jade, and the Kaul family must decide whether to band together, or whether to make new and more dangerous alliances to rise to the top. This #ownvoices Asian-inspired fantasy surpasses the first in the series, delving more deeply into Lee’s world.
The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter
If a Xhosa-inspired revenge fantasy sounds up your alley, this #ownvoices debut may be exactly what you’re looking for. Originally self-published in 2017, The Rage of Dragons got picked up by Orbit in a new edition for July 2019 publication. The story is set in a world of war, where those rare gifted—one in two thousand women can call the dragons, one in one hundred men can magically transform into a superhuman killer—wage battles, using the rest of their people as fodder. Ungifted Tau’s greatest desire is to get injured early on so he can settle down and raise a family. But when everyone he cares about is slaughtered, his goals change: he will be come the greatest swordsman in order to get revenge on the three people who betrayed him.
The Ascent to Godhood by J. Y. Yang
The fourth in Yang’s “Tensorate” series of novellas, The Ascent to Godhood explores how the Protector, now dead, came to power—and why her greatest enemy, Lady Han, mourns her death. Yang’s series falls into a space that is almost serial fiction (we include it in our serial roundup), because the novellas are a shorter length, and the story and world grow with each new addition.
Fans of this #OwnVoices silkpunk saga are sure to enjoy seeing how it all began—and new readers might find this a good jumping in point for the series.
Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
There’s something going on with stitching and magic in recent fantasy, but this #OwnVoices novel features both tailors and a girl-disguised-as-boy fantasy story with echoes of Mulan. Drawing inspiration from Chinese culture, Lim creates an Imperial Court where the competition over who will become the imperial tailor—and where Maia is at risk of being executed if anyone discovers that a girl is vying for the job.
Things get even worse when the court magician takes an interest in her, because he almost certainly knows the truth. Set with the task to sew three impossible gowns, one from the laughter of the sun, one from the moon’s tears, and the third from the blood of stars, Maia departs on a journey that will either save her family, or end her life.
Given that the book is marked as the first of a series, one can only hope that Maia will survive to stitch her way through future installments.
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Though this one isn’t set wholly in a fantasy world, I couldn’t miss out on including a Jazz Age underworld epic. Casiopea Tun dreams of life beyond her small town in Mexico, but those dreams didn’t prepare her for freeing the Mayan god of death and following him into the Mayan underworld to reclaim his throne.
With parts of the novel set in Mexico City and the Yucatán and other pars set in the darkness of the Mayan land of the dead, this #OwnVoices novel is at the top of my TBR list.
The Dragon Republic by R. F. Kuang
The sequel to Kuang’s celebrated The Poppy War, the novel follows shaman and warrior Rin, now addicted to opium, traumatized by her own actions at the end of the Poppy War, and hiding from her god.
In order to get revenge on the Empress, Rin allies with the Dragon Warlord to take over her home country—but Rin learns that her new ally’s motivations may not be for the good of the nation after all. Kuang uses some real-world events from twentieth century China as inspiration for an #OwnVoices fantasy full of magic and monsters.
The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan by Sherry Thomas
If you can’t wait for the 2020 live action Mulan, starring Liu Yifei, keep an eye out for this YA wuxia retelling by Chinese-American author Sherry Thomas. A cover reveal posted at Hypable also offered an excerpt packed full of martial arts action. Catching arrows? This #OwnVoices Mulan is definitely going to be our action hero.
Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron
Arrah doesn’t have the knack for her witchdoctor family’s magic. But when the Kingdom’s children start to disappear, she’s not going to let the mystery go unsolved. But this is no simple crime spree: the Demon King is waking, and Arrah may be the only one to stop him—if she’s willing to sell years of her life to gain the magic it will take to defeat him. This #ownvoices fantasy sets witchdoctors and demons and an over-ambitious mother in the path of a heroine who’s willing to tackle it all to save the world.
A Hero Born by Jin Yong
It might be a stretch to consider this classic Chinese epic truly a fantasy novel, but if you love a good kung fu epic, this is absolutely a thing you need on your list. Stretching from the Song Empire to the rule of Genghis Khan, the novel follows Guo Jing, a Song patriot who joined Genghis Khan. But a greater destiny awaits him, and he must learn from the Seven Heroes of the South in order to take up the mantle of his fate.
Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger
Krueger explores the role of colonization in this #ownvoices Asian-inspired fantasy epic. The nation of Tomoda has, until recently, been a colonial power. The Sanbunas have recently won a war that freed them from Tomoda. It means that Jimuro, heir to Tomoda’s throne, should despise Tala, one of the Sabuna soldiers escorting him back to him to his home nation. But the two of them are thrown together, along with a detective-and-Shang-princess-in-disguise, Xiulan, and her thief partner, Lee. The four of them team together to defeat a killer using more powerful magic than the world has ever seen—and, along the way, forge friendships that could change the progression of their entire world.
The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco
Climate change can be a threat even in a fantasy world, and here, a goddess has sent the world spinning into a climate shift that causes rifts between nations. Half of the world is cloaked in night, and the other half burns with daylight. The two goddesses who rule the world each have a daughter, and both have kept their secrets about which twin goddess betrayed their world.
These young goddesses are called back to the site of where it all happened… and determined to undo the damage their mothers have caused. The daytime desert setting features sandworms and sand dolphins (which is enough to put it on my TBR list right there), and the author has noted her inspiration from both Mad Max and Avatar: The Last Airbender. The worldbuilding itself is less referential to real-world mythologies, and some advance reviewers are saying it’s like nothing they’ve ever read before. We can’t help but consider that a good thing.
A River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy
Eva and her sister Isa must face each other in mortal combat to decide who takes the throne, because in Myre, only the strongest is fit to be the queen. Eva has magick of both marrow and bone, a rare power, but it means that her sister may not be the only one who wants her dead.
Eva must rely on a fey instructor and a khimaer prince to teach her how to wield her own magick before it’s too late. But Eva’s biggest challenge may be facing the sister she still loves and fighting her to the death, because only one of them can survive. Based on a North African setting, this debut fantasy doesn’t shy away from the dark and bloody, whether in magick or politics.
The Deep by Rivers Solomon
Inspired by the song of the same title, written by Hamilton original cast member Daveed Diggs and his fellow hip-hop artists William Huston and Jonathan Snipes, Solomon’s novel takes place under the water, where generations of African slave women live now-idyllic lives, their pasts forgotten.
Only Yetu, the people’s historian, remembers the truth of their past. But the weight of the memories is destroying her, so Yetu tries to flee to the surface—only to gain the understanding that if her people are to survive, they must begin to remember for themselves. Solomon, author of the science fiction novel An Unkindness of Ghosts as well as a writer on Serial Box serial The Vela, shows their versatility with this switch into this #OwnVoices fantasy.
The Impossible Contract by K.A. Doore
Doore’s Chronicles of Ghadid continue as Thana, daughter of the Serpent, takes up her first assassination contract to prove her worth. Her target, Heru, is a dangerous sorcerer, and Thana isn’t the only one who wants him dead. When a rival sends an undead horde to attach Heru and Thana both, Thana has no choice but to follow her target into the empire that threatens her own nation. Following a different main character from the first book in the series, The Perfect Assassin, the novel still relies on the world building of the first in this Arabian-flavored setting, so pick up book one before this one hits the shelves.
Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri
Last year’s Empire of Sand told the story of Mehr, daughter of an imperial governor and a mother who is one of the outcast and oppressed Amrithi people, descendants of desert spirits. Because Mehr can work desert magic, the deathless Emperor and his advisers take her captive, force her to marry, and try to break her spirit. But when Mehr discovers their plot for her magic, she stands against the tide. In Realm of Ash, Mehr’s younger sister Arwa is now an adult, widowed in a massacre she only survived due to her Amrithi heritage. To try to free the Empire from a curse, she forms an allegiance with the disgraced prince, and they travel to the Realm of Ash, seeking to to find answers in the ghostly memories of their ancestors. This #ownvoices sequel returns to the South Asian inspired desert lands of the Ambhan Empire, giving readers new aspects of its world to explore.
Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callendar
Set in a Carribean-inspired fantasy world, this #OwnVoices novel follows Sigourney Rose, last heir to a murdered noble family. Her people have been enslaved and massacred by colonizers for generations, and Sigourney, who has the power to control minds, is ready to take her revenge. But as she manipulates herself into the royal island and among the colonizers, she realizes a sinister magic is killing the ruling families, and she herself may be a target.
Callender’s excellent middle-grade novel, Hurricane Child, had an understated sense of fantasy and a beautifully grounded depiction of the islands, family, and same-sex budding romance. While I expect the fantasy aspects in Queen of the Conquered to be much stronger, I hope that we’ll see more of those earlier strengths.
Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi
If you’re like us here at Den of Geek, you’ve already taken the quiz to find out your Maji clan and you’ve put the date for this release, the sequel to last year’s Children of Blood and Bone, on your calendar in big red pen. We’re ready to get back into the world of the Orisha and find out what happens next with Zélie and Amari now that they’ve brought magic back into the world.
Step one is securing Amari’s throne—so that Orisha’s maji clans can be safe from persecution. Can’t wait until December? You’ve got time to read Adeyemi’s first #ownvoices African-centered fantasy over again!
In the Works
Choice of Games, publisher of interactive, multiple-choice novels, has two forthcoming non-western fantasy apps in production. (Disclosure: I also have multiple-choice novels published by Choice of Games, but I’m not involved in either of these projects!)
Keep an eye out for #OwnVoices Destined for Greatness, by Yasmine Fahmy, in which the reader directs the actions of a main character who keeps company with a djinn, flies magical carpets, and has to save the city of Ghariba from a nefarious dragon; and Tale of Two Cranes by Michelle and Stepanie Balaban, in which the main character helps shape the course of a battle between two warring nobles (based on the historical civil war between the Han and Qin dynasties) in an ancient China filled with magic.
What non-western fantasies are you most looking forward to this year? What did we miss? Let us know—we’ll keep updating this piece as we find them!
Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.