Representation matters. At Bookish, we believe that it isn’t enough just to have diverse voices in some genres: We need diverse books in all genres. Sci-fi and fantasy are no exception. Natasha Ngan, author of Girls of Paper and Fire, is a big believer in this. Her book draws inspiration from Asian mythology and her own childhood in Malaysia to tell the story of a girl named Lei who is taken away from her home and brought to the king’s palace where she must train to serve him, along with eight other Paper Girls. Here, to celebrate the book’s release, Ngan shares her favorite empowering Asian sci-fi and fantasy novels for teen readers.
I was recently asked in an interview about my favorite books growing up, and whether any had characters and worlds I felt well represented by. While I could happily list many Chinese and Japanese novels and mangas I’d bought in Malaysia on trips to visit my family there, thinking of English-language books published in the west, I struggled to name even one. I can think of a few now—mostly translated from other languages—but not a single one in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. There might well have been some, but I didn’t manage to find them. And if a voracious reader who spent every weekend nose-deep in the shelves of their local library couldn’t find them, then what about young people without access to libraries, without parents and teachers who encouraged their reading habits from youth? What about young people who might have become readers—writers, creators, even—if only they found the right books to empower them, books full of people who looked and thought and felt and lived like them?
Happily, the YA market has been seeing an influx of diverse SFF over the last couple of years. I’m delighted, and delighted to be contributing in a small part with my own book. But we still have long, long way to go. Fantasy and sci-fi especially remain predominantly white genres, in terms of both content and creators, and most of the diverse books that do make it through have a difficult life pre- and post-publication. And what an intense shame this is, as these are brilliant, bold, brave books, with the ability to empower and inspire so many readers.
Below are just a handful of my recent favorites. Bonus: They’re all own voices.
I read an early copy of this book way back when, and am so excited to see it getting the love and admiration it deserves. A fantastic blend of sci-fi and fantasy, this is an epic space-opera inspired by the Mahabharata and other ancient Indian stories with a heroine you’ll be rooting for from page one. Mandanna’s writing and world are incredibly approachable for readers of all levels and tastes. I could not put this one down.
From one brilliant diverse sci-fi to another! Milan’s book has the same accessible quality as Mandanna’s, expertly entwining heart-pounding action scenes and swoony romance with real-world themes of imperialism and prejudice. The military academy setting brings those perfect boarding school vibes and every character sings on the page. I also love the realistic portrayal of female friendship, complete with all its problems and unique merits.
A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman
This is a brilliant short-story collection based on mythology from many different cultures across East and South Asia. One of the difficulties of there not being many Asian-inspired books published is that they all get lumped together under the umbrella category of ‘Asian’. The more diverse stories that are published, the more the incredible variety of what it means to be ‘Asian’ can be represented, and this book’s diverse diversity is a fantastic demonstration of that.
While more of a contemporary novel with light magical realism touches, Pan’s book has to get a mention thanks to its fantastic representation of a mixed-race Asian-American and the elegant way it tackles the stigma of mental health in Asian families, a very real issue. This is a great novel for contemporary YA fans looking to dip their toes into fantasy.
This is a completely unique, wonderful book inspired by Southeast Asia during French colonization. Heilig’s writing is always excellent, and Muse is no exception, with its interesting setting, timely political messages, and a main character who has bipolar disorder (also own voices). Plus there’s necromancy and shadow magic! What more could you want?
This is technically an adult release, but I’d still recommend this incredible book to teens who feel confident handling its dark content. This is the Chinese fantasy we have been waiting for. Kuang skillfully explores 20th century Chinese history through a fantasy setting, weaving mythology and history with a mind-blowingly epic story of loyalty, power, and the dark depths of human determination. Plus there are badass warrior women rejecting patriarchal notions of femininity. YES.
A Vietnamese own voices retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” with an f/f romance? Need I say more?! Like The Poppy War, this is also an adult book that works well for mature YA readers. A moving story of the many deep ways grief embeds itself into societies. De Bodard also explores themes of motherhood and family with a deft hand. This book is intense, lyrical, intelligent.
Natasha Ngan is a writer and yoga teacher. She grew up between Malaysia, where the Chinese side of her family is from, and the UK. This multicultural upbringing continues to influence her writing, and she is passionate about bringing diverse stories to teens. Natasha studied geography at the University of Cambridge before working as a social media consultant and fashion blogger. She recently moved to Paris, where she likes to imagine she drifts stylishly from brasserie to brasserie, notepad in one hand, wineglass in the other. In reality, she spends most of her time getting lost on the metro and confusing locals with her French.