This week’s topic is books that were inspired by non-western locations, or else set in a non-western location. I decided to narrow it down to Fantasy books inspired by non-western settings as those are pretty few and far between (in English at least). But first, I have a number of thoughts on this topic.
Have you ever wondered why English literature is dominated by western thought? The answer is simple. Because English is a language of the west. So it really isn’t surprising, nor, I think, necessarily a negative thing. However, because the US is a melting pot of cultures and with how our world has expanded into a global community rather than just a national one, it is important to learn about cultures beyond what we know in the west. So, I am happy that authors of non-Western background have been gaining recognition in recent years.
This brings me to my second point: non-Western based worlds written from a western perspective. If there is one thing living in China taught me, it is that everything I had thought to be a base part of all human thought actually was not. For instance, in the west we have a very black and white way of looking at the world: yes and no, right and wrong, good and evil. Whether you are religious or not, this kind of thought is a deep part of who we are and how we engage with the world. Yet, even just looking at the structure of the Chinese language you encounter a far more gray mode of thought. Chinese has no words for “yes” and “no.” Rather, to express a negative you negate the verb, and for a confirmation you confirm the verb. The question “Are you an American?” would be responded to by confirming the verb: “Am.” This points to a greater mode of thought that is spread through most Eastern culture–of a cyclical nature to the world, of no true right or wrong, of multiplicity (where two opposing things can be true at once).
Individuality is valued above almost anything else in the west–being your own person, expressing yourself, not being a part of the masses. Yet, in Eastern thought, to be a part of a collective is highly desired. You conform and are proud of that conformity as it denotes you as part of a greater whole–a family, a community, a nation. In the US, if two girls showed up to a homecoming dance wearing the same dress, drama would ensue. In China, if two girls showed up to a dance wearing the same dress, they were probably best friends or sisters or cousins and had planned it that way to show their relationship.
So, all that to say that there are a plethora of books popping up in English with Eastern culture basis but western culture values. The Disney movie Mulan has the facade of Eastern family values, but in reality is excessively American in value: “true to your heart,” “when will my reflection show who I am inside.” I am not sure if most Westerners even realize this and if they did, would they see it as a problem? That is a discussion I would be interested in hearing.
But, anyway, here are my top five books with non-Western inspiration.
Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara
A beautifully written fantasy adventure of 15-year-old Saya as she discovers her true heritage as a Princess of Darkness. Written by a Japanese author, Dragon Sword and Wind Child is set in a rich world heavily influenced by Japanese lore. Excellent read.
Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott
Also influenced by Japanese lore, Shadows on the Moon follows 16-year-old Suzume who has the power to weave herself from shadow. She is a master of illusion and takes on many forms. Part “Cinderella” retelling, Shadows on the Moon not only draws from Japanese lore, but also from an African setting as well, making it a unique, diverse read.
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
It is hard to tell exactly where Taylor draws her inspiration from, but it is decidedly not western. I got a feeling of Middle Eastern lore, but older, more primal. This was a lyrically written book with one of the most interesting worlds I’ve ever encountered in fantasy.
Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner
A delightful, surprising read full of twists and turns as always from Turner. Thick as Thieves (the 5th book in The Queen’s Thief series) turns away from the Greek inspiration of her previous novels and instead delves into the lore of North Africa, and pays homage to Babylonian and Sumerian myth.
Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
While never explicitly stated, Girl of Fire and Thorns seemed to take quite a bit of influence from South American culture. Perhaps the most “western cultured” of all the books I’ve mentioned, I highly enjoyed the flavor of the series with its Spanish and South American influences.