I read a lot, obviously, and sci-fi is one of my favorite genres. But I like a very specific kind of sci-fi—generally realistic space adventures—and I’m not a big fan of fantasy.
There are always a few standout hits—Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time—but in general I don’t like fantasy. I think part of the problem is no clear delineation of the stakes. When you use magic, suddenly anything is possible. Can that tiny guy beat the big guy? I don’t know. The drama is undermined because the rules of magic are unclear. With realistic space adventures at least they have to pretend to scientifically explain some new technology.
Sidebar: This is one of my frustrations with the Transformers movies (among many). There’s no sense of which robot is stronger. Optimus Prime is always able to pull out some new reserve or strength to fight back, even if he just had his arm chopped off (why didn’t you use that move to keep your arm?). It’s always used as a dramatic climax, but it actually undermines the tension.
Cultural Diversity in Fantasy
Anyway, back to my dislike of fantasy. While I’m not a fan of the wider genre, some of those hits are great. So I’m not opposed to reading some fantasy in the hopes of finding more hits. And I’ve read interesting stuff over the years.
One element of fantasy that’s particularly interesting is the way fantasy differs among cultures. I’m totally over-generalizing, but for much of Western culture we like our fantasy to be dark ages England with magic. We go back to castles and knights, we mix in magic (maybe some weird creatures) and call it good. That’s effectively Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia right there.
Another thread of fantasy in the Western world seems to be all the various stories of fantastic creatures—vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts, etc.
That’s about as diverse as we get in the Western world. But when you explore supernatural and fantasy stories from around the world, you get what feels like a much broader and very different supernatural world. Certainly they’re not limited to dark ages England, but they don’t even stick to the cultural equivalent. It’s a whole new world of fantastic stories.
My Trouble With Non-Western Fantasy
But I have a hard time with these non-Western fantasy stories. I don’t generally like them. And that’s a problem when I’m trying to read more diverse books. It’s also kind of weird if I’m all for fantasy books featuring white characters, but as soon as we get some diversity I check out.
I think part of the problem is that I give a pass to Western fantasy. This general complaint I have about not knowing the rules of a fantasy world—it applies to worldwide fantasy as well, if not more so. I’m used to stories of vampires, I understand the rules. The magic of Harry Potter is OK because they explain the magical rules and I go along with the willing suspension of disbelief.
But for non-Western fantasy I’m not as willing to go along with it. It’s unfamiliar territory and I want to know the rules right away (on my terms), and when the story doesn’t deliver like I think it should, I get put off.
I have a hard time giving non-Western fantasy a fair chance, while I accept Western fantasy because of my own cultural biases.
I don’t know if I’m explaining this well, but I think this is an example of my own white privilege in the books I read and enjoy.
At any rate, I’ve been reading more non-Western fantasy, and I’m seeing the connecting threads of these unfamiliar fantasy worlds. Maybe as I read more of these stories, become familiar with the rules of the worlds, I’ll begin to enjoy them more.
Examples of Non-Western Fantasy
So here’s a list of some of the non-Western fantasy I’ve read recently and a taste of some very different fantastic worlds:
- Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older – Appears to be based on Caribbean or Latin American stories of mediums who could communicate with shadow spirits.
- Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor – Kind of a Nigerian Harry Potter story, where these teens discover their spiritual powers. Unlike Harry Potter, it’s an even wider spiritual world with spiritual site, realms and more, drawing heavily on African (I’d assume Nigerian) spirituality.
- Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson – I described this as Cory Doctorow meets C.S. Lewis. A teenage hacker in a Middle Eastern security state stumbles into the spiritual world as seen through Islamic eyes and interacts with jinn (spirits) who are working to help or hinder him.
- Boxers by Gene Luen Yang – This retelling of the Boxer Rebellion in China follows the peasants who harness ancient Chinese gods to expel the “foreign devils”.
- Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi – A story of two teens dealing with death and depression that dips into Hindu views of the afterlife.
- Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac – Probably the most realistic of these stories, this one stars a Native American warrior woman with telepathic powers fighting mythical beasts.
Interestingly enough, these are all YA books. I didn’t set out to do that intentionally, but I stuck with it, in part because 90% of the examples I could think of were YA, but also because YA can be more approachable. I wonder if that also means the YA industry is more open to diverse books or different forms of spirituality (I think all of these books were published in the last five years).
Another thing that’s interesting about this list: While I describe this as non-Western fantasy and you can see the worldwide source material (Latin America, Africa, Middle East, China, India, North America), three of the six examples take place in the U.S.
Which means “Western fantasy” is going to change as we become more of a global culture. All the more reason to start understanding these new-to-me forms of fantasy.