This week’s Top Five Wednesday is one that I have been looking forward to – Talk about books that are set outside of the Western World (so outside of North America and Western Europe) or if they are SFF, books that aren’t inspired by those places (so no medieval setting fantasy!)
Admittedly a lot of the fantasy, YA, and historical fiction I read is set in North America or Western Europe, but I’ve been making an an effort to read more diversely (and would love recommendations if there are books with diverse settings you think I should check out!) recently. In fact, some a few of the best books I’ve read this year are set outside of these places! For this week’s countdown, I’ve stuck to books that are very clearly inspired by or set in places outside of North America and Western Europe, not books that don’t seem to be inspired by anywhere in particular.
1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Japan/South Korea)
Setting and history figure heavily into this multigenerational family saga, which takes place between 1910 and the late 1980s. Lee’s novel follows four generations of an ethnic Korean family living in Korea under Japanese rule and then in Japan itself. It’s a beautifully written book that doesn’t shy away from depicting the discrimination and hardship that Koreans living in Japan during this period, who were seen as foreign residents and shut out of many traditional occupations, faced. Knowing as little as I did about this time and place before I picked up Pachinko, the opportunity to learn about this period in history was part of the appeal for me. I was not disappointed. Lee has a wonderful ability to make history come alive on the page, and the details of a myriad of twentieth century Korean and Japanese settings are richly rendered in elegant but simple prose. What I really love about Pachinko though is how realistic its characters are. Although they make mistakes, most of them are hardworking people trying to make good, and it’s incredibly moving to be taken on a journey through their successes and failures. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction!
2. The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden (Russia)
Rarely am I hooked by a novel as quickly as I was by Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale. This gorgeous debut, a medieval Russian folktale/fairytale about the winter king and a brave and wild maiden absolutely enchanted me. Arden writes with lyrical prose and uses imagery to richly recreate the world of medieval Russia with all of its magic. It’s a style of writing that appeals to the senses, and you can almost feel the residual warmth of the giant oven on which the family sleeps and the cold foreboding of the nearby woods as winter approaches. As someone who enjoys mythology and folktales, I love the way that she brings the spirits, from the meek domovoi and the steady vazila to the more mercurial rusalka, to life. Additionally, this book contains a new favourite character of mine in Vasya, a free-spirit who is happier riding a horse or playing in the forest than she is performing needlework. Watching her grow from an impulsive child to an honest, compassionate, and bold young woman, is a joy as a reader and I look forward to returning to medieval Rus’ and to Vasya’s story when the sequel arrives early next year!
3. The Dreamblood Duology by N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy inspired by Ancient Egypt)
As much as I loved The Fifth Season and Obelisk Gate, my favourite N.K. Jemisin books so far belong to this lesser known duology. Set in the desert city-state of Gujaareh, loosely based on Ancient Egypt, the plot deals with Gatherers, who are Priests of the dream-goddess. Gatherers maintain order in this peaceful city by harvesting the dreams of citizens, healing the injured, and guiding the dreamers into the afterlife… whether they’re ready to die or not. When Ehiru, the most famous of the city’s Gatherers, is sent to harvest the dreams of a diplomatic envoy, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to drag the dreaming city into war. Fantasy that is based on a non-Western setting is still uncommon, and I have an interest in mythology, so I loved this unique duology. If you’ve never read anything by Jemisin before, she’s one of the best worldbuilders around and writes beautifully, so this series is worth checking out.
4. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See (China)
This was my first Lisa See novel and I cannot wait to read more of her books! The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of Li-yan, an Akha ethnic minority girl in Yunnan, China and her family, who align their lives around the farming of tea. The arrival of a stranger in a jeep (the first automobile anyone in the village has ever seen) it marks the entrance of the modern world into the lives of the Akha, and Li-yan begins to reject the superstitions and rules that have shaped her existence. Setting is a huge part of Lisa See’s work of historical fiction, and she describes the Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, with care and in rich detail. Again, this was a place and time in history that I knew nothing about before reading this book, but I found it an engaging read and I rooted for Li-yan through her joys and her hardships.
5. And I Darken by Kiersten White (The Ottoman Empire)
Set in the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey and beyond), this gender-swapped YA alternate history of Vlad the Impaler sees Lada Dragwlya and her younger brother Radu held as pawns by the Ottoman courts. While Radu begins to adapt to their new setting, Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Part of the appeal of this duology for me was the fact that I’d never seen anything quite like it before, including the setting. Sure enough, I enjoyed the first volume in this series and will be reading the second part later this month.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have any recommendations for me on books set outside the western world that I should read? Let me know in the comments!