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Best Asian Fantasy Books

Fantasy Set in an Oriental Milieu

So you like fantasy with martial arts, swords, ninjas, or just something different that’s not set in the same old ‘knights, lords, and wizards duking it out in some generic middle ages’ milieu that’s been recycled more times than a Britney Spears dance song, then this list is for you. Sadly, this subgenre has not been well explored (yet) by western authors, perhaps because it’s quite difficult for the western mind to accurately represent foreign concepts (Asian cultural values and thoughts are often not at all similar to the western idea of things). Quite often you get a standard fantasy novel set in an ancient Japanese/Chinese landscape with Asian names, but characters who could be ripped straight out of any standard epic fantasy. 

There are a few fantasy books that do a good job at depicting the Far East accurately. For some, this may not be an issue, but you should at least be aware of it. 

There is in fact an entire subgenre of oriental fantasy called Wuxia (see our Wuxia Fantasy Guide here). Wuxia fantasy is heavily steeped in oriental mythology, with names, places, and the setting inspired from eastern cultures like China and Japan. This Best Asian Fantasy list may include some Wuxia fantasy, but also more general fantasy that does not include specific Wuxia elements yet still maintains an oriental feel in culture or setting. 

While even in 2015, there are quite a few oriental-inspired fantasy worlds out there in the genre, though still just a drop in the bucket compared to the common medieval themed fantasy. 

We've scoured the genre to give you a list of the best fantasy inspired or set in an oriental milieu. 

These are the best books you’ve never read. A vastly underrated fantasy series that’s as funny as it is genius. It’s a mouthful to try and explain these books, but they are without a doubt hilariously funny, heart-achingly touching, and outstandingly beautifully written. The real tragedy here is that Hughart never wrote anything else besides this series. I’ve heard some describe it as “outlandish fiction,” which is an apt term for the masterpiece this work of fiction is. Keep in mind that his is the western interpretation of the Far East and this comes off in the writing; those expecting a truly authentic narrative journey to the Far East won’t necessarily get what they are looking for, but regardless of its shortcomings this is a must read series for EVERY fantasy fan, not just those looking for a joyride into an alternative Far East – and certainly by those looking for something a bit different from the grand kill-the-dark-lord-save-the-world epics. The book centers around a simple country lad named Number Ten Ox who hails from a small village called Ku Fu, and who journeys through a mythical China with the great sage Master Li to save the children of Ox’s village. In the course of the journey, Number Ten Ox and Master Li are forced to outwit all manner of villains through clever tricks. Sounds pretty simple, but the execution of these dastardly plots concocted by Master Li, and brought to fruit by Ox, are downright hilarious.

Books in The Chronicles o... Series (3)

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The Initiate Brother

(Sean Russell)
(Initiate Brother)

This duology has flown under the radar in the fantasy world, which is a shame – it’s perhaps one of the richest fantasy tales out there, made all the more interesting by the exotic Asian landscape, mythology, and characters. Sean Russell is a very talented author who’s produced a number of standout fantasy books (and most of them underrated); Russell is an author who knows how to write quality; the pacing tends to be slow, and the world slowly revealed, but if you like to read books with richly drawn characters and a deep mythology, Russell knows how to deliver. Russell does not write simple fantasy, nor does he develop simple characters and relationships; every stroke of his narrative brush is slow and measured, but the whole tapestry fits together perfectly in the end. For those who love to read well-written, character-driven fantasy set in uniquely crafted worlds, you won’t go wrong with any fantasy book written by Russell. Brother Initiate is the story of a young Shaolin-like monk who, despite his simple upbringing in a martial monastery, becomes entangled in the dangerous and complex politics of the imperial palace and ultimately, the internecine warfare between kingdoms. If you are a big fan of martial arts fantasy, this is the best you’re going to find.

Books in Initiate Brother Series (2)

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Comments (14)
Award Nominations:2011 LocusF, 2011 WFA

On paper, this is the perfect setup for a grand fantasy novel: Guy Gavriel Kay (Tigana, The Fionavar Tapestry, Lions of Al-Rassan) applies his considerable literary talent to crafting an alternate fantastical China, loosely based on 8th century China during the Tang Dynasty. This is the China you’ve always dreamed of: deadly ghosts that haunt battle fields, ninja assassins and brutal warriors, conniving kings and traitorous royal families. From start to finish, Under Heaven is an epic journey of one unremarkable man who becomes something remarkable. It’s haunting, beautiful, and a tale that will stick with you after you’ve turned the last page. Kay is one of the best wordsmiths in the fantasy genre; every book he puts out features delicious prose; this man knows how to write beautiful English prose and Under Heaven keeps with his high standards of writing. Highly recommended.

Books in Under Heaven Series (2)

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With a Martin-esque plot and Jim Butcher pace, The Axe and the Throne is a definite "must read" for even the pickiest fantasy fans.

In his stunning debut, Ireman has built the type of world so vivid and engrossing that leaving it at the end is agony. In spite of leaning toward grimdark, where authors often enshroud every scene in depressing darkness, there is no lack of cheerful moments or brilliant scenery. Yet the pangs of near-instant nostalgia that come after you put down a book like this have less to do with the inspired setting, and far more to do with those who inhabit it. 

From savage, unremorseful heroes, to deep, introspective villains, the cast of this story is comprised of believable characters capable of unthinkable actions. And it is these characters -- the ones you wish you could share a drink with or end up wanting to kill -- that forge the connection between fantasy and reality. Keethro, Titon, Ethel, Annora. These are names you will never forget, and each belongs to a man or woman as unique as they are memorable. 

No book would be complete without a its fair share of intrigue, however, and there is no lack of it here. Each chapter leaves you wanting more, and Ireman's masterful use of misdirection leads to an abundance of "oh shit" moments. Do not be fooled (or do -- perhaps that's part of the fun) by storylines that may appear trope-ish at first. This is no fairytale. 

Available on Amazon & Audible, Barns & Noble, iTunes, Google, and Kobo.


Across The Nightingale Floor

(Lian Hearn)

(Tales of the Otori)

Fantasy set in an ancient Japan where magic works; from the introduction, this one has the feeling of some sort of samurai anime tale: there’s a hero with magical powers who’s trained in secret by a clan of badass ninjas and taught how to be an assassin. There’s a Japanese princess who’s trapped in a life she doesn’t want, being forced to marry a man she detests, there are samurai clan lords plotting to overthrow the Kingdom, and of course, ninjas. Somehow, the whole tale works and it’s very well written to boot. Overall, Across the Nightingale Floor is an exotic tale that will have you reading at a furious pace.

Books in Tales of the Oto... Series (4)

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Daughter Of The Empire

(Raymond E. Feist)
(The Empire)

A not-so-simple fantasy trilogy set in an exotic, otherworldly landscape, partly tied to Feist’s Midkemia universe. This is the best stuff Raymond Feist has ever written and likely the best he’s ever going to write, in part because he tag-teamed it up with a much more talented character author, Janny Wurts. Actually, I personally think Wurts wrote the whole thing and Feist tagged his name to it – it’s vastly superior to any of the other books Feist has written. However the writing union came about between the two authors, the end result is good –very, very good. I have yet to find anyone who hasn’t loved this series. Unlike Feist’s other Midkemia books which are set in, well, Midkemia, the prototypical middle ages with magic fantasy kingdom, this series is set in Kelewan, which has a very strong Asian-Indonesian-Pacific milieu with the Tsurani race a mishmash of Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Aztec culture. Even the names are inspired by Japanese or Nahutal. The writing and world building is fantastic, as are the characters, all made even more interesting by the pseudo-Asian culture and world the narrative is based in.

Books in The Empire Series (3)

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Eon: Dragoneye Reborn

(Alison Goodman)

Dragons, magic, emperors, girls and gender-identity issues sums up this fascinating vision of a pseudo Chinese/Japanese fairy tale. An interestingly unique novel about a girl who is forced to live as a boy to fulfill her destiny. Fortunately, the novel never descends into a pulpit of feminist teaching; the gender twisting aspect of the story plays perfectly into the whole premise of the novel (men have all the magic, or do they?). What’s interesting is that the novel is a two-level story – on the surface you have the struggle of a girl pretending to be a boy to achieve a destiny, but on another level it’s a study of how female culture has been repressed, only to break through the chains during periods of desperate need. If you are a big fan of some original oriental-flavored fantasy (specifically, Chinese) heavily influenced by Chinese mythology with a wonderfully fascinating oriental vision of dragons, read this book. You’ll of course want to pick up the direct sequel, Eona, which addresses one of the major complaints (which the first book sort of directly cuts off for the sequel, which is now out).

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A superb book that received a number of accolades when it came out. In fact, the series itself made this site’s Top 25 list. There is a distinct Asian feel to the book.

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Heavily influenced by Asia, the Braided Path is a long, but very rewarding read. It’s loosely categorized as Young Adult, but a read through this series had me seriously questioning that classification. The series features a pair of strong female characters who get caught up in some Empire-changing events. The ancient empire of Saramyr is ruled by evil, controlled by a group of sinister magicians who kill off any child with magical talent who may challenge their shadowy rule. But change is in the air when the empress herself gives birth to a child of magic, and the seeds of a revolution are born. This is sort of a pseudo-Star-Wars tale set in an Asian landscape, with one of the characters a female version of Anakin Skywalker dealing with her developing magic powers. No lightsabers, but plenty of dark magic abound. Be warned, this is no kiddie fantasy tale – explicit sexual and child-abuse scenes do occur during the story. It may also take a while to get the story rolling (the second and third books are when the plot and story really start to pick up). Overall, an excellent tale for the adults; not so much for the kiddies.

Books in Braided Path Series (3)

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A surprising cocktail of Chinese Fantasy, detective fiction, and science fiction that manages to still taste good. The novel is set in a futuristic China (future Shanghai) and incorporates high technology and the supernatural. Overall it’s a clever and pretty absorbing novel. The best description for this would be the Asian version of The Dresden Files. Inspecter Chen is a cop assigned to special cases that involve Hell; basically, he’s the go-to guy for dealing with anything supernatural. Normally, humans wouldn’t stand a chance against the forces of Hell, but Chen has an ace up his sleeve – he’s been granted the protection of the goddess Kuan Yin and well, his wife is a demon. This series won’t blow your socks off, but I recommend it because it manages to smash a bunch of genres that normally never touch into something that works and works well.

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Paper Mage

(Leah R. Cutter)

An exotic historical fantasy heavily influenced by Chinese with some well-developed world. What’s quite interesting about this novel is that the characters reflect Chinese/Eastern values as opposed to the usual western values that dominate fantasy novels (and even oriental fantasy written by white men who clearly don’t understand Asian culture). Key aspects of Chinese culture such as luck and family are heavily emphasized in the novel. Some have compared this to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I agree with the comparison (and there literally are Tigers and Dragons in the novel). The author meticulously details an alternate 9th century China fantasy world that’s exciting and quite believable at the same time. So for an “Asian fantasy” that actually accurately represents Asian cultural mindsets and values, this is the book to read.

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The Paladin

(C.J. Cherryh)
Comments (1)
Award Nominations:1989 LocusSF

A fantasy based in an oriental world. The emperor’s son’s former tutor flees after the death of his master to escape the killing spree of the new regent. Several years later, his solitude is disturbed by a young woman who seeks his training for one purpose: revenge against the regent. This is a low fantasy (no magic) tale that takes a lot of the common male-centric conceits found in standard fantasy novels, replaces the male with a female protagonist, and dumps the plot into an oriental-style world.

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There is a distinct Asian flavor to this trilogy (called Crossroads). True to Kate Elliot form, there’s quite a bit of attention to world-building and plenty of strong characters. While not as ambitious as your Crown of Stars series, Crossroads is certainly an interesting read.

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The Prince Of Shadows

(Jennifer St. Clair)
(The Shadows)

I like to call this the Wheel of Time set in a fantastical China which about sums up this series. Overall, the series that integrates an impressive amount of Chinese mythology into the fabric of the tale. This series has a very strong oriental feel to it  you never once forget that you are in an exotic landscape surrounded by exotic characters who often act in a manner consistent with eastern mindsets.

A good series that's pretty much flown under the radar for a lot of people. It doesn't compete with some of the new fantasy epics (Martin, Erickson, Abercrombie) or some of the best oriental fantasy books like Bridge of Birds, but if you are looking for a strong Asian epic fantasy version of The Wheel of Time, this series is probably the closest you'll find.

Books in The Shadows Series (2)

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Dragon In Chains

(Daniel Fox)

An interesting book that’s quite recent. It’s set in an alternate Chinese fantasy landscape which includes emperors in exile, dragons, monks, and magical stones. The pace is slow, but the world building is rich as is the setting. I’d compare it to Kay’s Under Heaven in style and form but with more fantasy elements to the story. The story is inspired by Chinese history and mythology but does not take place in a specific period (i.e. it’s not a rewrite of Chinese historical events as some asian-flavored fantasy novels are).

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The Assassins Of Tamurin

(S. D. Tower)

This one reminded me a bit like Across the Nightingale Floor, but with less special affects; it’s more of a subtle, character driven story. The setting is an invented pseudo Japanese culture and features a strong female protagonist. There’s plenty to love in the story – assassination, ninja training, intrigue, and romance.

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