In 2009, Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix was the only Asia-inspired YA fantasy released by a major publisher. Thankfully, there has been a definite increase of Asian-inspired fantasy books in the publishing industry. Because they are some of my favorite fantasy reads ever for their unique and rich worlds, I decided to put together this list of Asia-inspired fantasy books for you to read!
I just want to get one thing out of the way before we start. There are many Asia-inspired fantasy books out there that I don’t mention but that are absolutely worth reading. So I had to narrow it down quite a bit. Therefore, this list is by no means a complete or definitive account. The 12 books I did choose for this list were published recently-ish. Most of them in the past few years (2020 onward) — with probably one or two exceptions. I also decided to focus on five specific countries, knowing that each book is inspired by their culture/mythology. These countries are Japan, China, Korea, Malaysia, and India.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan
This YA fantasy is a mix of Romeo & Juliet with the Chinese myth of Houyi & Chang’e (AKA the moon goddess). An Arrow to the Moon follows Hunter and Luna, two Asian American teens who meet in their senior year of high school. They both struggle with the weight of their families’ pasts and expectations. Which brings them closer together. Soon, Hunter and Luna find themselves falling for each other despite the feud between their families. Even if fate has other plans.
Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan
I mentioned the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e before because she’s also an important character in this book! Daughter of the Moon Goddess follows her daughter Xingyin, who was kept hidden from the Celestial Emperor for years — until her powers started to manifest, that is. That’s when Xingyin is forced to flee her mother’s palace, only to end up in the Celestial Kingdom, and as a close friend of the Crown Prince no less. But Xingyin won’t forget her mother, and she’ll endure blistering winds and scorching deserts to free Chang’e from her curse.
A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin
This is a very special YA fantasy not only because it incorporates Chinese history and mythology, but because it also has a unique magic system based on tea-making! A Magic Steeped in Poison follows Ning, who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her mom. Now, the same poison threatens to kill her sister. So Ning travels to the imperial city in hopes of winning a tea-making contest which will earn her a favor from the princess — and possibly save her sister’s life.
A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee
A Thousand Steps into Night is a fantasy book full of adventure and a fairy tale–esque vibe. The story follows Miuko, an ordinary girl who lives in the magical realm of Awara. One day, a curse befalls Miuko, and she starts to turn into a demon. This sends Miuko on a quest to reverse her curse and recover her normal life. But on the journey she’ll learn that maybe this curse comes with the power and freedom she’s always craved — and that maybe her old life never suited her at all.
The Keeper of Night by Kylie Lee Baker
Next comes a historical fantasy full of Japanese mythology, complete with deities and demons. The Keeper of Night follows Ren Scarborough. She’s half British Reaper and half Japanese Shinigami. When an accident reveals her Shinigami powers in London, she escapes to Japan with her half-brother Neven. There, she wishes to join the ranks of the Goddess of Death. But to do so, she must kill three Yokai demons to prove her worth — a task easier said than done.
Alliana, Girl of Dragons by Julie Abe (August 2nd, 2022)
Next comes the only middle grade novel I included on this list — although that could very well be in a list of its own! Plus, for those familiar with Eva Evergreen, Semi-Magical Witch, this book is set in the same world and retells the story of Chūjō-hime — who is considered a sort of Japanese Cinderella. Alliana, Girl of Dragons follows the titular Alliana. She’s forced to attend to her stepmother’s every whim. But her life changes when she meets a young witch and a nightdragon, who enlist Alliana’s help to navigate a mysterious abyss. Jumping at the opportunity to leave her life behind, Alliana joins them in an epic quest.
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh
The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a gorgeous YA retelling of the Korean folk story “The Tale of Shim Cheong” with some serious Spirited Away vibes. The story follows a girl named Mina. She lives in a village that sacrifices girls to the Sea God in hopes of appeasing his wrath. This time it’s Shim Cheong’s turn. She’s the beloved of Mina’s older brother, so when he interferes, Mina sacrifices herself to save his life. Mina’s swept away to the Spirit Realm, where she finds the Sea God in an enchanted sleep. Determined to wake him, Mina embarks on a quest of epic proportions.
Last of the Talons by Sophie Kim (September 27, 2022)
This book is a mix of dark fantasy romance with Korean mythology! Last of the Talons follows a trained female assassin named Shin Lina, AKA the Reaper of Sunpo. She’s tasked with stealing a priceless tapestry from a Dokkaebi temple. But her mission goes sideways, and she finds herself trapped inside the dreamlike Dokkaebi realm. The only thing standing between her and the way out is the realm’s cruel emperor, so she can get her life back if she manages to carve Haneul Rui’s heart out. But well, things never go quite as planned, do they?
Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel
Next on this list of Asia-inspired fantasy books, this one reimagines the queen of the Ramayana’s story. Her name is Kaikeyi, and she was depicted as a jealous woman and a villain — much like Circe. But not in this book. Here, we see her as a woman craving independence and to leave her own mark in the world. So when she discovers her own brand of magic, she turns herself into a powerful warrior, queen and diplomat. But her new world threatens the plans of the gods — and an ancient evil straight from her childhood stories lurks in the shadows.
The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri
Next comes a high fantasy book full of magic and political intrigue. The Jasmine Throne is a romance-heavy fantasy book that follows a princess named Malini and a maidservant named Priya. Malini was imprisoned in an ancient temple by her tyrannical brother. Priya is her maidservant, and hides a magical secret. But when Malini sees Priya’s power, the two strike a deal. Priya will help Malini escape and dethrone her brother. Malini will help Priya find her family — and thus their fates will be irrevocably linked as they also rewrite the fate of the empire.
Black Water Sister by Zen Cho
This amazing adult urban fantasy book is set in Malaysia, and it draws heavily from the country’s mythology. Black Water Sister follows a woman named Jessamyn Teoh, who just moved back to Malaysia when she starts hearing voices. She thinks it’s just stress, but soon it becomes clear that it’s nothing as mundane as that. The voice claims to be her estranged grandmother Ah Ma, who was a spirit medium for the Black Water Sister deity. Someone has offended the deity, so Ah Ma enlists Jessamyn’s help in order to enact her revenge. But Jessamyn is fighting a war on two fronts, for the Black Water Sister wants to claim her body as its next avatar.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
Last but not least on this list of Asia-inspired fantasy books comes this historical fantasy. It’s definitely the oldest one on this list, seeing as it was published in 2013. But because it’s set in Malaysia and it’s absolutely worth reading, I refuse to overlook it. The Ghost Bride is set in 1893, when Malaysia was still known as Malaya. It follows the story of Li Lan, the daughter of a bankrupt family with few marriage prospects. Fate smiles on her when she’s chosen to be a ghost bride for the Lim family’s son, which would at least guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her life. She accepts, but the deal comes with a terrible price.