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10 Novels Inspired by China and Southeast Asian Culture

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

According to the traditional Chinese calendar, today marks the start of the Year of the Pig and the celebration of Lunar New Year in China and other countries in Southeast Asia (including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand)—and, indeed, around the world. To celebrate the new year, here are 10 new and recent sci-fi and fantasy books that draw from or are set in the cultures that celebrate Lunar New Year.

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (aka The Three-Body trilogy), by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
The 2015 release of the English version of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem became a publishing sensation. A huge hit in Liu’s native China, where it has inspired everything from cosplay to theme parks, it became the first translated novel to win the Hugo Award and the flashpoint that ignited a small boom in Chinese sci-fi in the West. It couldn’t have happened to a better book: though it incorporates the tropes of the so-called Golden Age English-language sci-fi novels Liu grew up loving, The Three-Body Problem and its sequels approach the genre from a distinctly Chinese angle, centering the action in Chinese characters; the opening of the first novel is even set during the Cultural Revolution, a time when academics like the protagonists were persecuted for promoting science. As a whole, the trilogy explores a first contact scenario between humans and aliens on a vast scale, but the lens through which it is viewed is distinctly Chinese. The Redemption of Time, a continuation of the series penned by a fan and later sanction by the author will be released in the U.S. later this year.

The Dandelion Dynasty, by Ken Liu
Ken Liu is a prolific short story writer, and many of his speculative tales—including those in his marvelous collection The Paper Menagerie— draw from his Chinese heritage, but with his series the Dandelion Dynasty, he’s doing something truly different within the confines of epic fantasy. Though unabashedly epic in scope—an account of the rise and fall of empires in a world filled with magic, monsters, and inventive technology—The Grace of Kings and its sequel The Wall of Storms don’t fit the Western fantasy mold. The novels incorporate a fair amount of both history and folklore about the fall of the Qin dynasty and the rise of the Han way, way back in Chinese history, and enhance them with a silkpunk aesthetic, but the way the narrative unfurls, favoring the sweep of history over the intimate and the personal, sets them apart from so many A Game of Thrones readalikes. Chinese history—with its sweep of millennia and dynastic machinations—is perfectly suited to epic fantasy, a genre which has heretofore largely cribbed from medieval and renaissance Europe (with notable and important exceptions, of course). Liu tells something like a national origin story, with all of the attendant tall tales, mythologizing, and invocation of the gods such an enterprise incurs.

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang 
In a world inspired by the recent history and culture of China, the Nikan Empire defeated the Federation of Mugen in the Second Poppy War, and the two countries have since coexisted in a fragile state of peace. Orphaned peasant girl Rin lives a life of misery in Nikan, but when she sits for the Keju, the empire-wide examination designed to find talented youth and assign them to serve where they will be most useful, she scores in the highest percentile and is shocked to be assigned to the prestigious Sinegard military school, home to the children of the Empire’s elite. At Sinegard, Rin is bullied for her dark skin and low social status—but with the help of an insane teacher, she also discovers she is a shaman, able to wield powers long thought lost to the world. As she grows into her power and communicates with living gods, Rin sees clearly that a third Poppy War is coming—and she may be the only one who can stop it. Kuang is Chinese-American, and the book’s worldbuilding is informed by her study of twentieth century Chinese history (particularly the horrific Rape of Nanking), but this is no mere academic exercise—the characters are flawed and true, and the choices they face are impossibly compelling. The story continues later this year in The Dragon Republic.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
King’s scarily good debut does what sci-fi does best, extrapolating a plausible future from real-world reality. In a future China where the one-child policy has led to a population with 40 million more men than women, middle aged Wei-guo struggles through a life in which he is considered unnecessary. He maintains his optimism and conviction that as long as he continues to improve he will be rewarded with love, and finally saves a dowry that enables him to join an “advanced family” as a third husband—the lowest rank—to the lovely May-ling. The family is imperfect, harboring an “illegal spouse,” but Wei-guo finds kinship and friendship in this unusual arrangement. But the rulers of the nation know they are sitting on a powder keg, and have become more intrusive and authoritarian than ever. Someone is always listening, and Wei-guo knows no matter how happy he is, he will always be an “excess male,” and thus disposable. If this sounds like grim dystopia to you, never fear: though the circumstances Wei-guo faces are often harsh, the novel is ultimately affirming—heartwarming, romantic, and even sweet.

The Tensorate series, by JY Yang
Billed by Publishing as a silkpunk fantasy saga, the linked novellas of JY Yang’s Tensorate series take place in a secondary world incorporating a myriad of Asian cultural traditions (while the author is Singaporean, the books cannot be so narrowly classified). They are a masterclass in worldbuilding. The pan-Asian fantasy setting pieces together the familiar (mosques, congee, and guns are all touchstones of our reality, and yet…) with elements that are truly strange: nagas, velociraptors, megafauna, and much else dwelling alongside humanity; prophecy as a talent used to guide nations; a culture where children control nothing of their own destiny, yet can choose their own genders. Each novella follows a different protagonist and explores different aspects of the world; they stand largely along, but we’d recommend starting with The Black Tides of Heaven. The next entry in the series, The Ascent to Godhood, arrives in July.

Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Marjorie Liu’s acclaimed graphic novel series is a phantasmagorical horror story-cum-bildungsroman following Maika Halfwolf, a teenage girl who shares a bond with a mythical monster in a world inspired by the cultures and history of Asia in the early 20th century. While this is distinctly a secondary world—blood magic, wolf children, and talking cats abound—it deals with issues intrinsic to the grimmest history of the region: racism, slavery, and cultural warfare inspired by Liu’s grandmother’s experiences during World War II (the writer is half-Chinese, and her grandmother escaped the Japanese occupation of China as a teenager). Thanks to Sana Takeda’s darkly gorgeous, stunningly detailed artwork and endearing (and fearsome) character designs, the series is easy to pick up (which is probably why it has won multiple Eisner Awards for young adult comics), but the themes the narrative grapples with are weighty indeed.

In the Vanisher’s Palace, by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard is of French and Vietnamese descent, and she weaves elements of her cultural heritage into pretty much everything she writes, including her epic space opera series set in the Xuya Universe, the future of an alternate history in which the Chinese came to the Americas before the Europeans, which resulted in Asian powers dominating the globe and, thus, the future of intergalactic space travel. de Bodard’s most recent work is in an entirely different vein—a queer retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story that draws heavily upon Vietnamese culture in which the beast is a dragon and the world is still reeling from the fallout of colonialism after friendly visitors from an alien race brought disease and destruction with them on their starships. As a reframing of a classic fairy tale, In the Vanisher’s Palace is subversive and bold; as a romance, it is tentative, touching, and sweet.

The True Queen, by Zen Cho
The long-awaited sequel to Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown explores new angles of her Regency-Era-with-magic world. It’s set on the enchanted island of Janda Baik in the Malay Archipelago (including the modern-day Brunei, Singapore, East Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and East Timor), a place that has long been home to witches in Cho’s alternate history. Sisters Muna and Sakti wash up on the shores of the island with no recollection of how they got there—and indeed, they seem to be suffering under a curse that has stolen most of their memories. They hope to find help from the great magicians of England, but they are waylaid on their journey west, which takes them through the fae lands, where Sakti vanishes.  To save her sister, Muna must convince the British magicians that she is a gifted magic user herself, running up against cultural prejudices in the process—no doubt informed by the author’s own background as a Malaysian woman living in the U.K. If you enjoy the way Zen Cho weaves Asian cultural traditions into her fiction, her story collection Spirits Abroad is an absolute must—and we’ll also tout the lovely novelette she published here on this blog, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again.”

Jade City, by Fonda Lee
The elevator pitch for YA author Fonda Lee’s first novel for adults is pretty catchy: it’s The Godfather meets Hong Kong martial arts films in a world inspired by the cultural traditions of China and other Asian communities. The titular Jade City is the capital of an island nation a generation or so past occupation by a foreign power. This occupation was repulsed by the Green Bone warriors, an ethnic minority who have the cultural lore and genetic predisposition to wield jade, a mineral resource that can confer superhuman powers on its wearers. Without adequate training or natural disposition, jade can drive a person to suicide. Two generations ago, Green Bone warriors were hungry freedom fighters with bonds forged in blood; now they are warring clans presided over by both cautious old men and hungry young upstarts. The Green Bone warriors are at war with themselves. Jade City is a sprawling story of crime families in conflict, set in a cosmopolitan city with a nevertheless deeply traditional culture. Sequel Jade War arrives later this year.

Gates of Stone, by Angus Macallan
The final entry on our recommended reading list is the only one that wouldn’t be considered an “own voices” work—though author Angus Macallan was born in China and lived, worked, and studied in Asia for much of his life, including a stint as a journalist in Hong Kong, he is not of Asian descent himself. His epic fantasy Gates of Stone draws from Indonesian culture as well as other Asian cultural traditions to tell the story of a princess who is denied the throne she stands to inherit by right due to her sex. She proceeds to murder the foreign-born lord she’s been ordered to marry and set out on a campaign of conquest to reclaim what is hers. Princess Katerina’s journey takes her to the tropical islands of Laut Besar in search of the wealth she’ll need to muster an army. There, her path intersects with that of a prince whose own island kingdom was destroyed by an evil sorcerer; the fiend then fled to Laut Besar in possession of the magical sword of the prince’s ancestors. To this Western reader’s eye, this series-starter seems to engage with its Asian inspirations beyond using them as mere exotic window-dressing. Hopefully readers of all different cultural backgrounds will agree.

What Asian-inspired fantasy novels do you recommend for Lunar New Year reading?

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Myths Made Modern: Announcing The Mythic Dream, a New Anthology from the Creators of The Starlit Wood

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe are the genius editing minds behind two of the most acclaimed anthologies of recent years. The Starlit Wood, a collection of new and reimagined fairy tales, was winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, a finalist for numerous other honors, and the place of first publication for Amal El-Mohtar’s Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning story “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” as well as “Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik, later expanded into the bestselling novel of the same name.  Six of the entries in last year’s Robots vs. Fairies (which is… pretty much what it sounds like: a volume of stories in which authors were asked to pick a side between the magical and the mechanical) are on the 2018 Locus recommended reading list (as is the anthology as a whole).

Naturally, we’ve been excited to see what the partnership of Wolfe & Parisien has in store for us next… and now we know.

Today we are pleased to announce the immanent arrival of The Mythic Dream, which, like The Starlit Wood, makes old stories new again. It is billed as an anthology of reimagined myths: 18 stories that are “bold reimaginings of the stories we tell about gods and kings, heroes who shaped nations.”

Below, we’ve provided a first look at the cover, with art by Serena Malyon and design by Michael McCartney, as well the complete lineup of contributing authors. But first, here’s the official summary…

These are dreams of classic myths, bold reimaginings of the stories we tell about gods and kings, heroes who shaped nations, the why and how of the world.

Journey with us to the fields of Elysium and the Midwest, through labyrinths and the space between stars. Witness the birth of computerized deities and beasts that own the night. Experience eternal life through curses and biochemistry.

Bringing together stories from the world over, eighteen critically acclaimed and award-winning authors reimagine myths of the past for the world of today, and tomorrow.

The collection will feature stories by the following all-star authors:

John Chu
Leah Cypess
Indrapramit Das
Amal El-Mohtar
Jeffrey Ford
Sarah Gailey
Carlos Hernandez
Kat Howard
Stephen Graham Jones
T. Kingfisher
Ann Leckie
Carmen Maria Machado
Arkady Martine
Seanan McGuire
Naomi Novik
Rebecca Roanhorse
JY Yang
Alyssa Wong

The Mythic Dream will be published August 27, 2019.

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11 Works of Trans-Positive Science Fiction & Fantasy

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Science Fiction and fantasy have explored with different ideas of gender for decades, but in the last few years, we’ve finally begun to see an increased number of works in which transgender characters (very often created by writers who are themselves queer) have taken on leading roles in some genuinely great books. They aren’t there to serve as metaphors or walking thought experiments, but fully realized people, with agency.

Here, for no special reason (everything’s fine, why do you ask) are 11 recent novels with positive transgender representation. [Editor’s note: This list originally included seven titles, but we expanded it thanks to some great suggestions received on social media—follow us on Twitter and Facebook!]

The Red Threads of Fortune, by JY Yang
The first two books (of three thus far) in the Tensorate Series, from queer, non-binary author JY Yang, were released simultaneously, in what was a unique publishing experiment for Tor’s novella imprint. Both The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven, which can be read in either order. take place in the lush silkpunk fantasy world of Ea, and each focuses on a different child of the Protector—Ea’s supreme ruler. Black Tides follows Akeha as he abandons his family to become a rebel and an outlaw, while Red Threads is the more action-oriented tale of Mokoya, a hunter of the fierce, winged naga. What makes the world unique is the role of gender: in Yang’s imagining, no one is assigned a gender at birth, and one may decide at any point later in life (or not at all) to take on a particular gender and, if desired, related physical characteristics. Which is a stunningly beautiful vision of what gender expression truly means. The Descent of Monsters is the latest in the series.

Dreadnought, by April Daniels
It’s taken some time for queer superheroes to become more than mere anomalies, and they’re still certainly not the norm. Even more rare are trans people with powers, which is why April Daniels Nemesis series is so wonderful. Fifteen-year-old Danny Tozer inherits the abilities of the world’s greatest superhero. For Danny, who is trans, with great power also comes her ideal body—inheriting the dead hero’s power is literally transformative—an invitation to join the local superhero legion, and an archnemesis. It also introduces new problems: the physical change outs her to her friends and family, including an abusive father and a one-time best friend who rejects her. Even the Legion Pacifica includes a cruel TERF (if you’ve had no reason to learn the meaning of that particular acronym, consider yourself lucky). Trans author April Daniels’ super-origin tale dovetails with the story of Danny coming out and coming into own.

Not Your Sidekick, by C. B. Lee
In a similar vein, but with more of an emphasis on fun, Lee’s YA series takes place in the 22nd century, when solar flares have ignited humanity’s latent superpowers. The first book introduces bisexual teen Jess, a high school student who finds herself interning at a tech giant run by her parents’ archenemies. She’s joined by her friend Bells Broussard, a trans teen with shapeshifting powers. Though his story begins here, Bells takes center stage in the second book, Not Your Villain, in which he and his crew uncover a massive superhero cover-up.

When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore
McLemore’s lush YA fantasy works on several levels, not least of which is as a fable of love and acceptance. Miel and Sam are inseparable, even when pursued by the Bonner girls—four sisters, widely believed to be witches, who are hunting Miel for the roses that grow from her wrists. Sam, an Italian-Pakistani trans boy, paints moons that he hangs in trees to brighten the forest. The story unfolds like a fairy tale, but there’s real-world poignance in the relationship between the two leads, and in Sam’s growing acceptance of himself, a narrative thread informed by the real-life transitioning of the author’s husband.

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Trans author Caitlin Kiernan’s novel The Drowning Girl similarly works on the level of fable, but of a much darker sort. It’s the fictionalized memoir of India, a wildly unreliable narrator who encounters a mysterious woman hitchhiking by the side of the road. The strange encounter puts significant strains on India’s mental health and on her relationship with her girlfriend, a trans woman named Abalyn Armitage. It’s a dense, rainswept psychological thriller that might be about an encounter with the supernatural, or might be a story of mental illness. Either way, Abalyn remains the steady center of India’s world, a woman who paints a picture of her own trans life that is by no means entirely rosy, but very real.

Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone
This is the third book in Max Gladstone’s popular Craft sequence, and takes place fifth chronologically, but each installment more or less stands alone, and every fan has their own idea about where to start and in what order to read. So you’d might as well start here, with the story of Kai, who builds gods to order. The smart, fast-paced series takes place in a world where humans have thrown off the yoke of the old gods (by killing them) and worked to master their magic—the Craft—themselves. These are relatively recent developments, though, so the workaday world of magic is very much in flux, with different cultures adapting very differently. In Full Fathom Five, the kickass transgender protagonist uncovers a conspiracy when her godly creations start to die.

Annex, by Rich Larson
Celebrated short fiction author Rich Larson’s debut novel, Annex, stars Violet, a young transgender teen who, alongside fellow survivor Bo, becomes the last hope to save her city from alien invaders who’ve cut off them from the rest of the world and turned everyone over 16 into cybernetic zombies. Crucially, Violet being trans isn’t incidental: the apocalypse left her alone to be who she wants to be. Freed from unsupportive parents, and with access to looted hormones and makeup (the novel opens with a pharmacy smash-and-grab), Violet makes the best of the apocalypse while beginning a journey to recognize her own power.

Treason of Hawks, by Lila Bowen
Shapeshifters, sasquatches, and unicorns wander the weird west in the just-concluded four-book series The Shadow from Bowen (the weird fantasy nom de plume for bestselling author Delilah S. Dawson), the story of a young trans man coming into his destiny in the gritty state of Durango. In the first book in the series, Wake of Vultures, we meet Nettie Lonesome, a black and indigenous slave with abusive parents who escapes her horrid life and joins up with the monster-fighting Rangers. In the process, Nettie takes on the mantle of the Shadow, a chosen protector that whispers to her of dark threats on the horizon. Bit of a spoiler here: though the character uses female pronouns in Wake of Vultures, Nettie’s journey over the course of that book inspires him to a greater level of understanding, self-acceptance, and power, and for the rest of the series, our hero is Rhett Hennessey, who continues his interior journey across the rest of the series, even as he becomes an integral member of a crew that includes queer individuals of all stripes, people of color, and people with disabilities, none of whom is to be trifled with, not even by the fearsome monsters that stalk these strange lands.

Provenance, by Ann Leckie
Like JY Yang’s Tensorate novels, Ann Leckie’s recent standalone sci-fi novel, set in the same universe as her award-winning Imperial Radch trilogy, had a ground-up conception of gender identity that’s wonderfully inclusive. On Hwae, a minor planet in a galactic network of worlds linked by interstellar gates, gender is completely self-determined. That is to say, gender is treated as neutral, despite physical characteristics, until a person decides what gender they wish to identify as (and some never make that choice at all). Leckie, whose first novel generated much discussion over her decision to use the pronoun “she” to identify every character, regardless of gender, chooses to represent this non-binary reality through the use of non-gendered pronouns (e/eir/em) for those characters who have yet to choose a gender, or whose gender is indeterminate. While the protagonist has already determined her own gender prior to the start of the novel, issues of personal identity are deeply woven into the novel, which is structured something like a cozy sci-fi murder mystery-cum-political thriller, with stolen artifacts, a case of mistaken identity, and a complex plot to disrupt the political status quo all hinging on the very personal decisions of a group of flawed, relatable characters.

Escapology, by Ren Warom
Here’s another example of a book that is laudable for its representation not because of a particular way the protagonist’s trans identity is factored into the plot, but because it is simply part of his identity. Escapology is a deeply weird hybrid of cyberpunk tropes, cosmic horror, and weird fantasy, Warom’s debut overflows with ideas and world-building that push it well beyond its premise, which follows Shock, a socially awkward console cowboy who takes a gig stealing some corporate data and sees the seemingly innocuous hack quickly turn into the job from hell. With its meme-spouting hivemind savants, AIs who behave more like eldritch abominations than computer programs, high-speed monorail chases, and megaship-to-megaship battles, the book grabs cyberpunk by the throat and drags it into deeper, stranger waters. And tucked into this madness, and revealed only partway through the novel, is the fact that Shock is transgender. It isn’t a source of angst for the character (though he is ostracized from his family due to their close-mindedness), nor is it a plot point; it is simply a fact of Shock’s existence.

Starless, by Jacqueline Carey
This new standalone epic from the author of the beloved Kushiel novels centers on Khai, chosen at birth to be a shadow—one bonded to the Sun-Blessed Princess Zariya of the royal house of Zarkhoum, and sworn to protect her. He has spent his whole life in the desert, preparing for his duty, but as his presentation to the princess draws near, however, Khai discovers he is actually bhazim—born genetically female, and raised as a male—even as learns of a prophecy of a fallen god rising in the west, whom the Sun-Blessed is destined to fight. We watch Khai struggle with the Zarkhoum’s ideas about the rights of different genders, and how gender performance is an integral part of being allowed to do the things a shadow is raised to do. Khai’s sexual and gender exploration is ultimately a celebration of life and growth, and we are witness to moments of joy around the discovery of the possibilities of the flesh—especially the discovery that limits that looked like impassable brick walls are actually illusory veils that can be passed through at will.

What’s your favorite trans-positive SFF novel?

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