You know me, I adore Fantasy that takes place in or is inspired by all the different and beautiful cultures in the diverse Asian region. While Asian Fantasy is becoming more common these days, that definitely wasn’t always the case. Now you can find Asian Fantasy in YA and Adult age groups, featuring characters from China, Japan, the Philippines, India, and more!
Today my post is going to focus specifically on Young Adult Asian Fantasy in traditional publishing, specifically a couple of different books that I’ve already read. In the future, I’ll do another post on indie Asian Fantasy and Adult Asian Fantasy in trad publishing, as there are so many amazing books out there. But I’m still eager to read more of them. Surely, I will never get enough!
So, here are a couple Young Adult Asian Fantasy books that I’ve read and recommend for certain types of readers. Let’s go!
A Thousand Steps Into Night
In the realm of Awara, where gods, monsters, and humans exist side by side, Miuko is an ordinary girl resigned to a safe, if uneventful, existence as an innkeeper’s daughter. But when Miuko is cursed and begins to transform into a demon with a deadly touch, she embarks on a quest to reverse the curse and return to her normal life. Aided by a thieving magpie spirit and continuously thwarted by a demon prince, Miuko must outfox tricksters, escape demon hunters, and negotiate with feral gods if she wants to make it home again. But with her transformation comes power and freedom she never even dreamed of, and she’ll have to decide if saving her soul is worth trying to cram herself back into an ordinary life that no longer fits her… and perhaps never did.
I started reading A Thousand Steps Into Night during the summer of 2022 as a beach read. When I was walking from my parents’ house to the river, I’d go for a quick (or not so quick) swim, and then sunbathe for a bit to dry off. And while I did, I was reading this book!
There are many things to love about this story. One of my favourites is that while there are many Chinese-inspired Fantasy books out there these days, ones inspired by Japan (like mine!) are a little less common. But A Thousand Steps Into Night is also inspired by Japanese lore, and there are many creatures, demons, and gods that are, too. These creatures play a key role in the story, as Miuko slowly becomes a demon, and her primary companion throughout the book is a trickster magpie spirit!
I recommend this book for someone who wants a YA fantasy novel that isn’t driven by romance, but rather a young woman’s independent spirit and her drive to find her place in the world.
Spin The Dawn
Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.
Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.
And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.
Spin the Dawn is marketed as Project Runway meets Mulan which accurately describes the stakes of a young girl pretending to be a boy so she can become the emperor’s personal tailor and save her struggling family. The magic in this book was simple and yet vivid, and in the relatively short book, the author managed to introduce us to several different regions in the world in varying levels of detail. Maia’s goals of becoming the best tailor become conflicted when she encounters magic for the first time and is met with a forbidden romance with the court’s resident sorcerer.
I recommend this book for readers looking for a quick fantasy romance with stakes that don’t involve the destruction of the known world.
The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.
When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.
To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.
Iron Widow is definitely more of a sci-fi book than fantasy, but it includes enough speculative elements that fantasy readers will enjoy too. Pilots require significant mental strength (qi) to pilot their mechas, which transform through a psychic link between the two pilots. The mechas, while described as robots, act almost like enormous fantasy creatures in battle rather strictly like robots. The worldbuilding is inspired by Chinese history, and yet it is so utterly unique and unlike anything else I’ve read before. And because it was so unique, I did find myself wishing for more, but the lack of deeper explanations will only bother some people when there is so much else about this book to celebrate.
This book reads very fast once you get into it, and it’s easy to lose yourself in Zetian’s crazy circumstances and her new life.
I recommend this book for people who like books that cross boundaries between sci-fi and fantasy, LGBTQ+ romance, and uncompromising feminism.
Descendant of the Crane
For princess Hesina of Yan, the palace is her home, but her father is her world. He taught her how to defend against the corruption and excesses of the old kings, before revolutionaries purged them and their seers and established the dynasty anew.
Before he died, he was supposed to teach her how to rule.
The imperial doctors say the king died a natural death, but Hesina has reason to believe he was murdered. She is determined to uncover the truth and bring the assassin to justice.
But in a broken system, ideals can kill. As the investigation quickly spins out of Hesina’s control, she realizes that no one is innocent. Not the heroes in history, or the father she thought she knew. More blood will spill if she doesn’t rein in the trial soon—her people’s, her family’s, and even her own.
Descendant of the Crane is a whirlwind, light fantasy read filled with royal political intrigue and a murder investigation. It’s unique in that unlike any other YA fantasy I’ve read, it has an emphasis on this fantasy world’s legal system, the creation of that system, and how that system now ensnares Hesina throughout her mission to uncover the truth behind her father’s death. All the while, there are threats from within and without. Hesina is an independent woman who is not perfect, but that imperfection adds depth and layers to the story as her mistakes leave her vulnerable. In the end, she is forced to decide where her priorities lie or risk losing everything.
I recommend this book for readers who enjoy political intrigue, mystery, light fantasy, and romance that isn’t the main focus of the story.
Swordplay, dragon magic–and a hero with a desperate secret
Twelve-year-old Eon has been in training for years. His intensive study of Dragon Magic, based on East Asian astrology, involves two kinds of skills: sword-work and magical aptitude. He and his master hope that he will be chosen as a Dragoneye–an apprentice to one of the twelve energy dragons of good fortune.
But Eon has a dangerous secret. He is actually Eona, a sixteen-year-old girl who has been masquerading as a boy for the chance to become a Dragoneye. Females are forbidden to use Dragon Magic; if anyone discovers she has been hiding in plain sight, her death is assured.
When Eon’s secret threatens to come to light, she and her allies are plunged into grave danger and a deadly struggle for the Imperial throne. Eon must find the strength and inner power to battle those who want to take her magic…and her life.
By far the oldest book on this short list, but Eon has a special place in my heart for being the first Asian Fantasy book I ever read. The duology takes place in this world where there are twelve energy dragons and students work tirelessly to become their avatars/companions. However, female Dragoneyes have been forbidden for centuries, Eon is a girl masquerading as a boy for the chance to become a Dragoneye regardless of the rules.
There were many things about this book that drew me in when I first read it. The dragons, the magic, Eon(a)’s drive to become who she was meant to be in a world that was determined to strike her down just for being a girl.
I recommend this book for fans of epic sword battles, dragons, politics, and a blend of Chinese and Japanese cultures.
These are just five of the YA Asian Fantasy novels I’ve read, but there are so many more out there! Elizabeth Lim and Joan He are already at work on new series, and there are countless other new releases that I haven’t even had the chance to read yet! But one of these days, I’ll read them, too, and let you know my thoughts.
Don’t let that stop you from going out there and exploring the other treasures!