10 #OwnVoices, Asian-inspired Fantasy YA Books of 2019

by Margaret Kingsbury

This year brings a lot of amazing Asian #OwnVoices YA fantasy. While Asian characters and settings have been a part of fantasy for a long time, often these settings and cultural practices have been appropriated by white authors, and stereotypes abound. That’s one reason why it’s so important for more #OwnVoices Asian authors to be published, and for readers to read and talk about their books. According to a study conducted by The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), while more diverse characters are appearing in books, less diverse authors are being published. It’s vital this changes. It matters how representation occurs, and how and who gets to tell a story.

These ten books, all told by authors of Asian descent, present amazing and diverse worlds, unique and sometimes frightening magic, and rich and complicated characters. These books deserve more readers. 

The Girl King by Mimi Yu

This is a politically wrought fantasy with two sisters and a cousin vying for power. Raised knowing that Lu would someday be queen, sisters Lu and Min are thrown for a loop when their father declares their male cousin the heir instead. But these sisters aren’t about to abdicate their birthright. Rich in mythology and politics, this book is perfect for fans of Game of Thrones but looking for a YA, female-centered version. While I like romance in my fantasy, the one in the novel felt a little clichéd, but overall the book is an intriguing and dark read. 

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, Translated by Cathy Hirano

I’m almost finished with this one, and it’s so heartwarming! While I love dark YA fantasy, I miss heartwarming. Translated from the Japanese, it was originally published as four volumes, but the English version contains the entire set. Uehashi is very popular in Japan, but I’m sad to see not many ratings for this book on Goodreads. Let’s change that! The Beast Player is a veterinarian fantasy. That’s right, it’s set in a fantasy universe with fantasy animals and the main character, Elin, becomes a veterinarian. I’m actually surprised this isn’t a more common theme in YA. But the animals in The Beast Player are also symbolic representations of two countries at war, so when Elin bonds with the ferocious and highly intelligent griffin-like Royal Beasts, while also having in-depth knowledge of the enemy’s serpent-like Toda, she places herself solidly in the middle of a war. The pastoral themes soften the political drama and are my favorite bits from the book. For fans of Studio Ghibli.

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Another feminist, political drama, this time with a cover that I want to frame and hang on the wall. I’m disappointed I read this as an ebook and don’t own a physical copy just so I can oogle the cover. Seventeen-year-old Hessina always knew she would be queen, but she never expected it to happen so soon. But when her father dies mysteriously, she must take charge and unwind the threads of deception and prejudice that threaten to strangle her kingdom. So while attending court to discover who is behind her father’s possible murder, she also must investigate who in the court is conspiring with their neighboring kingdom and try to protect the magic users in her country, who are systematically oppressed. With courtroom drama, a slow burn romance, and social injustice, this book is hard to put down. It’s a stand-alone fantasy, with possible companion novels in the future. 

The Tiger at Midnight by Swati Teerdhala

Inspired by ancient Indian history and Hindu mythology, The Tiger at Midnight is the first book in what will be a trilogy. Esha is a legendary assassin charged with murdering General Hotha. But when her path crosses with Kunal, the general’s nephew and a soldier, everything changes. And you can probably already guess that an enemy-to-lover relationship develops. This is a novel where there are no good or bad sides; everything is morally gray. It’s also action-packed and thrilling.

The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

This is one of my favorite novels of the year (so far). As a child, Fatima is unknowingly imbued with djinn magic. When the city of Noor is attacked by a chaotic faction of the djinn, she, her adoptive sister, and an older lady who hides with them are the only three to survive. All because of Fatima’s blood. But the city rebuilds, with the help of the Ifrit, and becomes one of the most diverse and interesting fantasy cities I’ve read. Yet despite the city’s prosperity, chaos threatens again. What I love best about this novel are the wonderfully complex and delightful relationships between women. It’s so rare to see women’s relationships in fantasy novels. But I also love the djinn magic, that it’s an #OwnVoices Muslim fantasy, and that it’s a standalone. 

Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon by Mary Fan

This is another book not getting enough love. Not only is the entire cast Chinese, the main character is also dyslexic. Stronger Than a Bronze Dragon takes a lot of fantasy tropes and turns them on their heads. Aneli is an acrobatic warrior whose village has been under attack by the Ligui, or evil spirits, for years. The emperor refuses to send help, but then a powerful viceroy saves the village with a fleet of bronze dragons. To solidify their alliance with the viceroy, the villagers give him a precious river pearl and ask him to marry one of their own, and he chooses to wed Aneli. Even though marriage isn’t what she wants, she accepts. Her village’s safety is more important than anything else. But when a thief threatens the alliance by stealing the pearl, Aneli must track him down to recover it in order to keep the viceroy’s protection. This is a delightful book with excellent character development. 

Wicked Fox by Kate Cho

Gumiho are nine-tailed foxes that feast on the souls of men, yum yum. But Gu Miyoung decides to only feast on evil men, and in modern-day Seoul, there are plenty of options. But then one day she saves Jihoon, a boy who’s attacked by a goblin, and by violating gumiho law, she loses her fox bead. Now she looks like a mere human. This is at the top of my TBR. I love animal transformation stories and I’m excited to read a book infused with Korean mythology.

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim (July 9th, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers)

This book is pitched as Mulan meets Project Runway, and I’m all about that! And the cover meets every expectation of that pitch. Maia Tamarin’s famous tailor father is ailing, so when a royal messenger summons him to court, he’s unable to attend. Instead, Maia poses as a boy and goes to court in his stead, because in the world of Spin the Dawn, women aren’t allowed to be tailors–they’re expected to marry and bear children only. But once at court, Maia realizes she’s one of twelve tailors vying for the job of royal tailor, and much backstabbing and drama ensues.

Casterby Elsie Chapman (September 3rd, Scholastic)

I first came across author Elsie Chapman in A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, a collection of YA, Asian folklore-inspired short stories she helped edit. It’s one of my favorite short story anthologies. In Caster, even though magic has been banned after causing clatamistic climate change, underground casting still occurs. After her sister dies, Aza becomes immersed in a web of gangs and a secret and dangerous magical tournament. Meanwhile, she’s also trying to save her family’s tea shop. This looks like an intriguing combination of magic in a post-apocalyptic, Chinese setting.

The Light at the Bottom of the World* by London Shah (October 29th, Disney-Hyperion)

In this post-apocalyptic London, to survive an unlivable land, the city moves underwater. Leyla  McQueen, a British-Muslim submersible racer, decides to enter the most prestigious racing marathon in an attempt to save her father, who has recently been arrested. But then there are also sea creatures living in the depths, and other dangers Leyla fears. Another book I’m looking forward to reading! It’s the first in a series. 

* This work combines sci fi and fantasy elements.

Margaret Kingsbury
Margaret Kingsbury writes about fantasy, science fiction, and fairy tales for Book Riot, Star Trek, and other websites, and she’s co-creator of Baby Librarians where she, a friend, and their children write about the children’s books they love. Her fairytale fiction has been published in Nonbinary Review, Devilfish Review, and Expanded Horizons, among other places. She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, daughter, and their many, many books. Find out more on her website and follow her on Instagram @babylibrarians or Twitter @areaderlymom

Other articles by Margaret Kingsbury:

Not Your Disney’s Cinderella

Recent Latina Books Inspired by Folklore and Mythology