Why you should care
East Asian authors are challenging the West’s dominance of the fantasy genre, offering tales of magic and adventure from the Far East.
Jin Yong had to wait six decades to see his fantasy trilogy, Legends of the Condor Heroes, translated into English earlier this year — nevermind that 300 million copies of his books had sold in the Chinese-speaking world by then. It took Ken Liu just a year since the 2015 publication of his book The Grace of Kings to emerge as a finalist for the prestigious Nebula award for best novel. The difference between them is no coincidence. The Eurocentric world of fantasy is changing, and the West is finally embracing epic fiction rooted in East Asia, particularly China.
Since The Lord of the Rings was published almost 70 years ago, epic fantasy has grown into a powerful current in mainstream pop culture. Successes like HBO’s Game of Thrones series, based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, have built on a fantasy market long dominated by stories deeply rooted in European culture and myth. Now a new guard of authors is challenging that supremacy by bringing to life a universe of fantastical worlds inspired by the legends and history of East Asia.
Nobody in the core fantasy readership cares that much about elves or orcs anymore.
Carl Engle-Laird, Tor.com Publishing
Some marry contemporary history and fantasy. R.F. Kuang’s 2018 The Poppy War, described as “the best fantasy debut of the year” by popular European review site BookNest, follows the journey of a war orphan who becomes a supernatural warrior. Fonda Lee’s Jade City is a finalist for the Nebula Award for best novel. In the book — set on an island inspired by mid-20th-century Hong Kong — jade empowers warriors with superhuman capabilities. Other authors blend technology — lightning guns, zeppelins, submarines — with epic empires reminiscent of imperial China. Ken Liu calls the genre “silkpunk.” Jin Yong’s trilogy traverses generations of battles, mysterious fighting techniques, love and betrayal, with historical wars from the 12th century as the backdrop. And Singapore-based writer JY Yang’s Tensorate series of East Asian fantasy has been nominated for the Nebula Award for best novella in 2017, and for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle and Hugo awards this year.
Never before has East Asian fantasy competed for — and frequently won — Western literary honors year after year. Suddenly, critics, publishers and longtime fans are devouring tales of magical jade cities, mythic island empires and wars fought with divine interventions and opium-fueled kung fu.
“Asia as a whole has such a rich and varied tapestry of history and culture to draw from — seeing them reflected in these books really excites me as a reader,” says Aentee, who runs the book review blog Read at Midnight and goes by a single name.
This sudden embrace of East Asian fantasy in the West has come about because of a combination of factors, say industry analysts. The shift from paper to digital submissions makes it easier for international authors to submit their work, says Carl Engle-Laird, associate editor at Tor.com Publishing, a New York–based science-fiction and fantasy publisher. “The biggest factor is the evolution of the genre conversation on Twitter,” Engle-Laird says. Asian authors, he says, have been tireless both in pushing their own work and in supporting their community: “Authors that make it use their platforms to hold the door open for others.”
Within the publishing industry in the West, there are greater calls for diverse voices. There’s a simultaneous demand for fresh fantasy and a growing tiredness with the cultural sameness of Europe-driven novels, say industry insiders. “Nobody in the core fantasy readership cares that much about elves or orcs anymore,” says Engle-Laird. “We’re as far beyond The Hobbit as literary fiction is beyond Of Mice and Men. Both those books are foundational, but they’re not what we’re doing these days.”
For readers like Aentee, who is Vietnamese and lives in New Zealand, these East Asia–inspired fantasy novels carry echoes of childhood stories and references to beloved comfort dishes. For readers less familiar with the cultural references, fantasy is often the best medium to learn about new societies.
“Fantasy readers are used to diving into alien worlds,” says Engle-Laird, citing readers’ abilities to “make leaps of imagination” and involve themselves in worlds with novel systems for everything from politics to physics. Robert Jordan’s magical wheel spinning to weave reality, George R.R. Martin’s decadelong winters and J.R.R. Tolkien’s own symphonic creation myth have all required readers to suspend their critical thinking during visits to these worlds.
Subtly, these books are also serving as reminders to the West of how East Asian culture has in the past been appropriated by Western storytellers. And some of these books — like The Poppy War, a reference to the Opium Wars — touch upon the history of European imperialism in Asia.
That doesn’t mean that East Asian fantasy can’t co-exist with its Eurocentric counterparts. Singapore-based Yang says The Lord of the Rings movies were their “gateway drug” into fantasy literature.
Compelling stories in those settings are still possible, Yang says, ”if they’re done well.”
The next leap for East Asian sci-fi and fantasy novels — onto television screens and into film theaters — may still take time. Amazon’s $1 billion Lord of the Rings series and a prequel series to Game of Thrones are already in the works. But these authors have already shown they know how to wait for their moment.