I decided to talk about books set outside the United States. I tried to find as much ownvoices books and books not written from a tourist’s PoV (I’m not interested in those) as I could.
Why I Chose This Topic
I’m Italian. Almost all books set on Earth I read are set in the United States, but I think American books, as they are the most likely to be read and translated worldwide, should represent a wider variety of settings, from an insider PoV (if they’re about American tourists who have no cultural tie to the country they’re visiting… you’re still reading about Americans). This especially matters to me with SFF.
Also, not all people writing books in English are from America or the UK either!
Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popović is a very underrated, beautiful book following two sisters living in contemporary Montenegro whose magic is tied to glasswork and music. It means so much to me, even though it’s not and has never been one of my favorite books: it’s a story about two Southeastern European girls, one of which is queer, that isn’t written from a tourist PoV. I’m so glad it got published in the US, I thought books like this just got ignored. I’m partially of Southeastern European descent (not from Montenegro, though) and this is the only time I’ve seen Southeastern Europe in a book, and this is also the only book I’ve ever read whose setting truly felt like home – it takes place in a town on the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, just like my hometown is.
Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle is a contemporary fantasy novel set in an Irish small town where, after the night of the bonfire, everyone lost something. It’s the kind of book in which you don’t know whether the magic is actually real or an illusion, it’s one of the most atmospheric novels I’ve ever read, and it’s about a beautiful found family in which most characters are queer (two bi girls and a lesbian out of five people. There’s a very cute f/f couple). The more I think about it, the more I love it. The author is Irish and French!
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan is a beautiful contemporary fantasy story book a Taiwanese-American girl reconnecting with her mother’s side of her family in Taiwan after her mother’s death by suicide. It’s a beautiful story about art, family and the importance of mental health awareness. I loved everything about it, but what I liked the most was seeing Leigh’s interactions with her grandparents and her feelings about being biracial and American in Taiwan. It’s so different from a Tourist Experience™ book, and it means so much to me to see this kind of stories published.
Want by Cindy Pon is a near-future sci-fi story set in Taiwan about teens fighting against an evil corporation to defend themselves and the environment, and they do so by kidnapping a heiress and infiltrating the rich. I loved it so much. One of my favorite aspects were the descriptions of sci-fi Taiwan, it was so interesting to see the old side-by-side with the new. I can’t wait for Ruse, the sequel, which apparently will take place in Shanghai!
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard – if you like diverse SFF, you should read this series. It’s an awesome political fantasy story about feuding Houses of fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons set in post-apocalyptic historical Paris, and it gets more queer with every book! It’s really atmospheric and very creepy at times, and I love it – so much that the second book will be on my end-of-the-year list of favorites, I already know. It’s also written by an author who lives in Paris, and you can feel that.
The Prey of Gods and Temper by Nicky Drayden are two delightfully weird books set in South Africa. The first is a near-future sci-fantasy book which involves ancient vengeful gods, drug-induced superpowers and religious AI revolutions. The second one is more of an alt-history fantasy story set in a Cape Town in a world in which colonialism didn’t happen, and it’s one of the most twisted stories I’ve ever read. If you like weird books that will make you think “WTF did I just read” at least ten different times and will surprise you with their plot twists, you need to try these two books.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor is a novel set in – and as you discover, about – Lagos. It’s a very ambitious, original multi-pov story, and I can say I have read nothing similar. It wasn’t really my thing and I found it confusing sometimes, but I found the marine horror in it very interesting to read about. It’s a very fascinating read and a very unusual alien “invasion” (but is it?) story.
Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a noir vampire novel set in Mexico City, and it’s both unlike every urban fantasy and every vampire book I’ve ever read. It subverts the usual bad boy vampire/good human girl dynamic: it has an (awesome) bad & bisexual girl vampire, Atl (Tlāhuihpochtli, descendant of Aztec shapeshifting vampires) and a soft human boy, Domingo, as the main characters. I can’t believe how underrated this is, there are so many different kinds of vampires here and it needs more hype. And it’s by a Mexican author!
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is a fantasy novel that starts in 18th Century Cairo, a setting I had never seen before in a book (when we talk about Egypt, people always think about things older than Cleopatra for some reason) and continues in a magical city inhabited by the Daeva. It’s slow-paced and atmospheric and an all-around beautiful book, and it’s also political fantasy at its best. So much well-written intrigue.
The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco is a YA horror book told from the point of view of a vengeful Japanese ghost girl. I don’t know how common it is to read horror from the PoV of the horror itself as I don’t know the genre well, but I had never seen this before. Half of this book is set in America, the other (far more interesting and creepy) half in Japan. It’s a solid creepy YA.
I wanted to end this list with a translated SFF novel, because this rarely happens. Anyway, there are a lot of books about fake fantasy Russia, and I enjoyed many of them too, but Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko is a novel set in Russia and Ukraine written by Ukrainian authors. I usually don’t put books I two-starred in recommendation lists, but I truly think this is worth reading if you’re fine with not understanding half of what you read.
Apparently, it’s a story about the creepiest, ugliest magical school in fiction, but it’s so much more than that. This book is as weird as it gets without being totally incomprehensible, and I still don’t think I got it as much as I should have, but it’s also a portrayal of modern Russia and modern Russian culture that I hadn’t seen in fiction yet. It is boring, and it does often leave a bad taste, but it’s also very addicting? So I think I don’t not recommend it, personally. It exists. If it sounds like something you could – not enjoy, because I don’t think that’s the point – be interested in, maybe pick it up? I kind of hated it and I’m still glad I read it.
What are your favorite SFF books set outside the US?