Traveling the world and seeing new places is great, but if you can’t do that, for whatever reason (money is usually a big one, although we’re also still in a pandemic and traveling isn’t most people’s top priority right now), there are always books. In recent years, the fantasy genre has branched out more and more, and is giving us stories inspired by places other than Medieval Europe and cultures other than white Eurocentric or North American ones. Here are some of my favorite authors and books that let you travel around the world. With magic!
Fantasy From Around the World
For this post, I’ve chosen not only books that I really enjoyed and would recommend, but also ones where the setting and sense of place is more than just window dressing. There are many, many books that are “set in XYZ” where “XYZ” turns out to be just a name that has no bearing on the characters or plot. These are books that have a proper sense of place and culture. I found all of them to be great reads that transported me far away from home.
If you still haven’t read Fonda Lee‘s mindblowingly good Jade City and its equally fantastic sequel Jade War, then you are in for a treat. The third and final book in the Greenbone Saga is coming out later this year, so you won’t even have to wait that long.
It’s about the Kaul family, one of the two ruling mafia-like families on the island of Kekon. They use magical jade to enhance their abilities. These books are all about ancient feuds, secret betrayals, political alliances, and cool martial art battles. But it’s told through the eyes of the younger Kaul generation who are brilliant characters in their own right and will steal your heart in no time. It’s like the Godfather with magic!
Our next stop will lead us to alternate Russia where The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden takes place. These books tell the story of Vasilisa Petrovna, Vasya for short, who can see the spirits that protect her village. It’s the little house ghosts that people leave some food out on the window sills for and the creatures of the forest that talk to Vasya. When a young and charismatic priest comes to live in the village and plans to convert everyone to Christianity, two belief systems clash. And Vasya is right in the middle of a battle between old gods and new ones.
This is such an atmospheric trilogy that has a little bit of everything. It starts out set mostly in Vasya’s home town but in the second book, she visits Moscow and other places in Russia – both real and magical. There’s a beautiful romance, court intrigue, female empowerment, and this brilliant atmosphere that makes you believe there really could still be a little magic left in the world.
Look, I could throw all of Nnedi Okorafor‘s books at you and I really want to, but that seems unwise and also a bit impolite, so I’ll just go with one of her YA books which is set in Nigeria. If you like super immersive fantasy worlds that exist alongside our mundane human world, then Akata Witch and Akata Warrior are an excellent choice.
Sunny Nwazue is Nigerian by birth, has lived in the US and has now returned to Nigeria. She is also albino and feels like she never really fits in. That is, until she finds out she is also a Leopard Person – someone with a magical gift – and will be learning how to use these new powers alongside a group of great friends. Oh and there’s also a dangerous serial killer on the loose, a book of lessons that seems to mock its reader, teen drama, and lots of original, cool, fun magic to discover. I adore these books and I cannot wait for the third part to come out.
Also, if you’re into audiobooks, I highly recommend going that route. The narration is stunning!
All the way down in South Africa, we find the setting for Lauren Beukes’ fantastic novel Zoo City where people who have committed a terrible crime are marked by an animal companion. It may sound cool to have you rvery own pet companion but you can’t be separated from it without feeling pain and seeing it shows everyone else that you have done something terrible…
Set in Johannesburg, Zoo City tells the story of Zinzi December, who has a sloth and is also very good at finding things. This book has so much to discover. Zinzi takes a job to find the missing half of a famous pop duo, has to try and pay her drug debts by participating in 419 scams, and also lets us see what life is like for an “animalled” person in this alternate South Africa.
Don’t let the words “horror novel” scare you off. Even if you’re not a great reader of horror (neither am I), this could still be for you. In Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno Garcia sends her plucky socialite heroine off to the creepy mansion where her cousin lives with her new husband and his family. As soon as she arrives, she knows something isn’t right and she is determined to figure it out. Things get creepy fast and it’s delightful to follow Noemí through the crumbling old house, looking for clues, unsure whether she can trust anyone but herself.
This book is so damn immersive and readable that you can eat it up in one sitting. At the end, things do get a bit gross and there’s some body horror there. But for the most part, the creep factor relies on humans acting weird, things not making sense, and the casual everyday racism of the family’s patriarch.
For another trip through Mexico that reads much more like YA (although apparently, it is supposed to be adult fantasy), go for the fairy tale like cute road trip novel Gods of Jade and Shadow. There’s lots of mythology and a lovely coming-of-age tale here. I still feel it reads super young, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun book.
Ah, finally another chance to recommend one of my all time favorite underdog books. This novel should be getting so much love but it seems to have gone under the radar. So let me tell you why The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson is so brilliant and you should all be picking it up.
It’s set in a futuristic Brazil in the city of Palmares Tres where every few years a Summer King is chosen who then gets to select the future Queen. And then he’s killed. Don’t question it, just read the book. Young June Costa is a graffiti artist and she’s also quite taken with the newest Summer Prince, Enki. But there’s much more to this book than a teen romance. First of all, most characters seem to be bisexual in this book and there’s very little teen drama. Instead, there is political unrest, the clash of old and young generations, new technology versus traditional methods, and it’s also about the importantce of art. I adored this book for its great atmosphere, its amazing world building, and its characters.
There are many, many more fantasy books set in all sorts of different places around the world but these are some of my favorites. I hope you enjoy traveling via book as much as I do and these recommedantions offer new and interesting places to visit.
I can’t wait to go and see what everyone else is recommending for this seventh day of Wyrd and Wonder. 🙂