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36 Science Fiction And Fantasy Books From AAPI Authors That Are Impossible To Put Down

Featuring folklore, magic, dystopias, and more — these SFF novels are perfect reads for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and beyond.

Posted on May 13, 2021, at 2:08 p.m. ET

Gallery/Saga Press; Tordotcom; Vintage; Erewhon; Tor Books; St. Martin's Press

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu (Gallery/Saga Press)

These melancholy and gorgeous short stories infused with Chinese history and culture have won many awards. The title piece became the first work of fiction to win all three of SFF's major awards: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. In it, a boy's Chinese mother makes him origami animals that move after she breathes into them. In “The Literomancer,” a young girl with big dreams of becoming a bullfighter moves to China in the 1960s with her military family and has trouble adjusting. “Mono No Aware,” my favorite piece in the collection, describes an Earth nearing destruction. Countries hurriedly build spaceships to save themselves, but the US is the only one to complete a ship in time, and the young narrator is chosen as the only Japanese member of its crew.

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo (Tordotcom; out June 1)

Nghi Vo’s stunning and subversive retelling of The Great Gatsby subtly infuses the world with magic. Jordan Baker is a queer, adopted Vietnamese American raised in America’s wealthiest social circles. She can make cut paper come to life — though it's a skill she has little opportunity to hone as it comes from her Vietnamese ancestry, and she knows no other person of her heritage. She befriends Daisy as a child, and Daisy becomes the epitome of white wealth and privilege. Immersed in Jazz Age culture, Vo expertly draws out the white patriarchal racism and sexism of The Great Gatsby.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (Vintage)

In this literary science fiction, the protagonist — who shares the author's name — repairs time machines while searching for his father, who invented the time machine and then disappeared. His companions are a depressed operating system and a fictional dog. As he repairs people’s time machines, he also listens to their problems, and what unravels is a fascinating and lovely meditation on time, relationships, and mental health.

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur (Erewhon)

In this fascinating and introspective novel, science and Korean mythology intersect when a scientist grapples with her career, family, mental health, and identity as a Korean immigrant. As a child, particle physicist Elsa Park’s mother told her their family was cursed, doomed to repeat stories from the Korean myths and folktales that make up their heritage. Elsa first sees a ghost in the Antarctic snow while working in an observatory. Ghosts and past traumas continue to haunt her as she studies in Sweden and then returns to her family home in California after her mother’s death. Once there, she discovers secrets in the handwritten pages of her mother’s stories. This novel is deeply moving, a complex tale about repressed grief, myth, and diaspora.

Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang (Tor Books)

Tough mathematical genius and mercenary agent Cas Russell is a problematic heroine. Cas’s memories have been wiped, and, as a result, her moral compass is a bit off. She can also dodge bullets using near-instantaneous mathematical calculations, so maybe it’s a fair trade. When she hears rumors of a shady organization called Pithica using mind control, she decides to investigate. She finds herself fighting allies and enemies alike when minds can be bent to Pithica’s will. This compelling sci-fi thriller is the first book in a completed trilogy.

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard (St. Martin's Press)

This lush and beautiful sapphic novella explores themes of colonization in a Vietnamese-inspired fantasy setting. Thanh is the youngest princess of Bìanh Hả. When she was a child, her mother, the queen, sent her as a hostage to Ephteria, a powerful country that seeks to colonize Bìanh Hả and all other countries. There, she survives a traumatic fire and falls in love with the Ephteria heir, Eldris. Many years later, when she's returned to Bìanh Hả, Eldris comes to Bìanh Hả to renegotiate the treaty’s terms, and Thanh finds herself sliding back into their old romance. At the same time, she’s wiser than she once was and is now repulsed by Eldris’s internalized colonizer attitudes of privilege. While Thanh struggles with her feelings for Eldris, her mother’s expectations, and her inadequacy at sparing Bìanh Hả from what seems inevitable, she also keeps secret a blazing magic born in that fire she survived as a child.

MIRA Books, Erewhon, Small Beer Press, Orbit, Solaris, Harper Voyager

We Could Be Heroes by Mike Chen (MIRA Books)

Jamie and Zoe wake up with no memory in an apartment that holds no clues about who they could be. They also have strange new powers. Jamie can read minds and erase memories. He uses his powers to rob banks with the hopes of one day retiring to another country. Zoe has super speed and strength, and as she zooms food deliveries around the city, she fights crime. While these two might seem like archenemies in the making, they have much in common, as they discover in a memory-loss support group. The two decide to team up to find out what happened to them and why they have no memories beyond the last two years — and in their search for the truth, they uncover a plot that puts the entire city at risk. We Could Be Heroes is an incredibly fun and thoughtful take on superhero lore, with flawed but immensely relatable main characters.

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu (Erewhon)

Firuzeh and her family are Afghani war refugees fleeing to Australia. The family journeys from Pakistan to Indonesia to Nauru in horrifying conditions in the hopes of finding a safe home in Australia. During a harrowing boat journey, a storm sweeps away Firuzeh’s best friend, and afterward, her ghost haunts her. Firuzeh escapes the horrors surrounding her through Afghani folklore, but even her stories cannot shield her from the brutally inhumane conditions of the Australian refugee detainment camp. By the time the Australian government finally accepts her family, they’ve been forced to live through traumas they'll never be rid of, and their uncertain status in Australia only exacerbates this trauma. This searing, lyrical novel straddles the line between fantasy and literary fiction.

Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap (Small Beer Press)

These 13 captivating short stories entwine fantasy, horror, and science fiction to explore monsters, Filipino folklore, immigration, and queerness. In the dark fairy tale “A Cup of Salt Tears,” Makino’s mother warns her of the dangers of making deals with kappas (a type of water demon) even though a kappa saved Makino as a child. When Makino’s husband becomes ill, she seeks out that same kappa. In “Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing),” a group of five girls befriend one another at a summer camp when a goddess charges them with protecting the world from darkness. Ten years later, the girls are still fighting. These ambiguous, vivid, and dark tales manage deep characterizations despite their short formats.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart (Orbit)

Every child in the empire has a slice of bone carved from their necks for future use in the emperor’s magic. The emperor uses these bone shards to create monstrous constructs that serve as his spies, military, and servants. Lin, the emperor’s daughter, wants to ensure she inherits her father’s kingdom, but he refuses to teach her bone shard magic until she remembers her past — which she’s forgotten after a mysterious illness. Jovis is a smuggler reluctantly rescuing children from their bone shard ceremonies. Ranami is a member of the Shardless Few, rebels fighting against the empire, and Phalue is the corrupt governor’s daughter. Phalue wants to marry Ranami, who keeps denying her, while Ranami wants Phalue to see how her life of privilege comes at the cost of other people's lives and happiness. These stories intersect in this action-packed, must-read epic fantasy, where a leader who claims to protect his people is, in fact, power-hungry and corrupt, and it’s up to those who chose ethics over power to reimagine the empire.

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)

Phoenix Extravagant is a standalone fantasy set in a world reminiscent of Korea during the Japanese occupation of the early 1900s. Jebi is a nonbinary artist hired by the Ministry of Armour to paint magical sigils onto masks for the conquering government's automata. Jebi doesn’t consider themselves political, but after befriending a pacifist dragon automata, Jebi decides they’ll do whatever it takes to keep the dragon from becoming a weapon of war used to kill and subdue their people. Unfortunately, Jebi discovers that sometimes you have to choose a side. Rich in character development, this inventive fantasy novel is a beautiful look at art and pacifism in a time of war.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)

The first book in a Chinese-inspired grimdark fantasy trilogy, The Poppy War chronicles the life of war orphan turned shaman warrior Rin. The Nikara Empire has experienced two Poppy Wars with the nearby Federation of Mugen, and a third is anticipated at any moment. Rin, a dark-skinned peasant from an abusive home, doesn’t stand much of a chance of finding success, but when she excels at a challenging nationwide exam, she’s allowed into the elite Sinegard military academy. Here she discovers her shamanic powers, and Rin becomes a force to be reckoned with and her country’s best hope of winning the next war.

Knopf, Orbit, DAW Books, Harper Voyager, William Morrow & Company

The Resisters by Gish Jen (Knopf)

Family bonds are at the center of this dystopian novel about surveillance and resisting corrupt government policies. AutoAmerica is divided into two groups: the Netted, who live luxurious lives, and the Surplus, who live in squalor. Gwen is the daughter of two Surplus parents, Eleanor and Graham. Eleanor is a lawyer fighting against AutoAmerica’s inhumane practices, and Graham is an ex-professor turned tech tinkerer. When Gwen shows signs of being a baseball prodigy, Graham starts an underground baseball team, but with Aunt Nettie — AutoAmerica’s AI surveillance — always watching, nothing stays secret for long. When AutoAmerica rejoins the Olympics, Gwen is just the kind of talent they’re looking for. Readers will find this novel charming, disturbing, and heartrending whether or not they enjoy baseball.

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang (Knopf)

Ted Chiang’s short stories have won many SFF awards. In Exhalation, his second short story collection following Stories of Your Life and Others, Chiang examines future technologies and their effect on humanity. The opening story, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," reimagines The Arabian Nights when a portal is invented that can lead people 20 years into the future or 20 years into the past. In my favorite story, "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," a company creates AI pets in digital space, but when the company bails, a few employees decide to raise the pets into sentient, individual beings. These stories are as thought-provoking as they are engaging.

Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit)

This thrilling first book in an urban fantasy trilogy takes place on the gangster-controlled island of Kekon, where magical jade grants superhuman powers to whoever wears it. The Kaul family is one of two major crime syndicates that control the city. When a rival syndicate threatens their authority, the three Kaul siblings must band together to protect their power. This trilogy is a nonstop ride with electrifying fight scenes, cut-throat politics, and nuanced character development.

Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn (DAW Books)

Superheroes get a fun spin when Evie Tanaka, an over-worked personal assistant to a superhero, trades spaces with her boss and discovers she too has powers. Now she has to balance her assistant duties with learning how to use her powers, but her superhero boss doesn’t make things easy for her, and they often find themselves at odds — even when they should be battling San Francisco’s demons together.

An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King (Harper Voyager)

This fascinating dystopian novel examines what a near-future China might look like if the One Child Policy — and its preference for sons — continued. With a surplus of men and very few women, women can marry up to three men and can have one child with each. The novel revolves around four perspectives in one such marriage unit: the wife May-ling, the two brothers she married, and the staunch patriot who wishes to become her third husband. But as the novel progresses and secrets are revealed, the third's loyalty begins to shift.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo (William Morrow & Company)

Set in 19th century Malaya (now known as Malaysia), Chinese folklore and ghosts permeate this lovely historical fantasy. Li Lan’s father is on the brink of financial ruin, and in the hopes of securing Li Lan’s future, he agrees to marry her to the wealthy Lim family’s deceased son. Li Lan will become a ghost bride, something she has little desire to become; she's haunted by bad dreams of meeting her ghostly husband. When she visits the Lim family’s home, she finds herself falling in love with their new heir, but she knows she has little choice in her fate. When she becomes stuck in the ghost world, she must use her cleverness to find her way out and to secure a future for herself.

Pantheon, HarperTeen, Roaring Brook Press, Philomel Books, Greenwillow Books

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry (Pantheon)

Salem witches get a delightful spin in this fantasy set in 1980s Danvers, Massachusetts (the Salem Witch Trials site in 1692). The Danvers High School women’s field hockey team has a secret to their sudden success: After pledging themselves to the devil in a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover, they’ve been unstoppable. No more losses, no more embarrassment. These girls are on fire. Told in alternating perspectives, this hilarious, original novel steeped in '80s culture explores the power and magic of teen friendships.

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar (HarperTeen)

Sheetel is the daughter of a star and a mortal, but she otherwise lives a completely normal life. She’s annoyed by her nosy aunt, hides a musician boyfriend from her overly protective father, and worries about her grades. Then her star self, which she’s kept hidden, starts calling to her: Her brilliantly white star hair refuses to be dyed; she begins to hear the stars singing to her; and one day, the star song overwhelms her with magic, and her touch sends her father into a coma. Desperate to save him, Sheetal and her best friend travel to the stars to ask Sheetel’s mother for star blood, which can cure humans. But when Sheetel arrives at the star palace, her mother’s family forces her into a magical music competition. Only if she wins can she return to her father and save him. This is a beautiful and complex YA fantasy about self-discovery and familial love.

Skyhunter by Marie Lu (Roaring Brook Press)

In a dystopian future, an evil empire called The Federation creates monstrous beasts through genetic modification and uses these beasts to subjugate countries. After being wounded by such a beast and losing her voice, Talin and her mother flee to Mara as refugees. In Mara, Talin becomes a Striker — an elite fighting force — but that doesn't make her immune to Maran ridicule. When the strikers capture a Federation spy, Talin unexpectedly defends him and becomes his minder. But her captive hides a secret: He too has been genetically modified, and his abilities might prove to be enough to bring down the Federation. This first book in a new YA science fiction series is action-packed and engaging.

The Ones We're Meant to Find by Joan He (Roaring Brook Press)

This dystopian YA sci-fi centers on the connection between two sisters, despite their separation. The novel opens with Cee marooned on an island with only an ancient android to keep her company. Her memories are mostly gone, but she does remember one thing: her sister Kasey and her desperate need to find her. Meanwhile, Kasey is disturbed by her seeming lack of grief at her sister’s disappearance and presumed death. She lives in an eco-city created by her father, a sanctuary to protect Earth from humanity and where people live virtually as much as possible. She’s a STEM prodigy meant to help save Earth — but when a blip briefly appears on her radar locating her sister, she wants to abandon everything to find her. The Ones We're Meant to Find is a stunning and compelling novel full of twists and an emotional pull that will make readers want to finish it in one go.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao (Philomel Books)

This dark YA retelling of "Snow White," set in a fantasy version of East Asia, tells the story of the evil queen and how she came to be. Xifeng’s cruel Aunt Guma prophesied that Xifeng was destined for greatness, but only if she embraced evil. Tired of her poor, rural life, 18-year-old Xifeng eagerly sets out to find her new life and her destiny — but achieving that destiny comes at a high cost, and the budding love she feels for a kind soldier isn’t part of that destiny. This lyrical fantasy is a unique take on the classic fairy tale.

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman (Greenwillow Books)

In this beautiful YA short story collection, 15 authors retell folklore and myths from East and South Asia. “Forbidden Fruit” by Roshani Chokshi retells the Filipino folktale “Maria Makiling,” about a mountain that leans over a little too far and loses her heart to a human boy. In “The Land of the Morning Calm,” author E.C. Myers uses cosplaying and video games as a setting for the Korean epic Chasa Bonpuli. Taking place in Arizona, Alyssa Wong's “Olivia's Table” is based on China's Hungry Ghost Festival. These gorgeous stories are must-reads for fairytale lovers.

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Knopf; G.P. Putnam's Sons; Penguins Books; St. Martin's Griffin

Ash by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

This lovely YA retelling of “Cinderella” combines fae folklore with a slow-burn lesbian romance. When Ash’s father dies, she turns to the fairy tales her mother once told her — her only source of comfort in a home where everyone hates her. When she makes a pact with a dangerous fairy, she thinks she’ll finally be able to live in the land of fairy tales. However, after a chance encounter with the King’s Huntress, Ash begins to be pulled in another direction, and she’s no longer so sure she wants to be part of the fae world.

Internment by Samira Ahmed (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

In this powerful and riveting YA dystopia, after an unnamed president's election, Muslim Americans are forced to register and, shortly thereafter, imprisoned in internment camps for everyone's "safety." Seventeen-year-old Layla lives with her family in the first camp, and she refuses to bow down to the government’s suppression. While longing for her old life at school and her friends and boyfriend, she plans an insurrection against the internment camp’s director and tries to get her story — and the story of others in the camp — to the media.

Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim (Knopf Books for Young Readers; out July 6)

Independent Princess Shiori has a secret that could put her in grave danger — she can manipulate magic. When she discovers her stepmother can also use magic and has a dragon’s pearl lodged in her chest, her stepmother curses her and her seven brothers: Her brothers are condemned to live their days as cranes, while Shiori has a bowl placed over her head, disguising her looks, and for every word she utters, a brother will die. Shiori must create a net of sharp nettles to capture the dragon’s pearl and hopefully save her brothers. This lovely YA fantasy entwines a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Wild Swans" with various tales from Chinese folklore and legends, including dragon folklore, the tales of Madame White Snake, the myth of Chang E the Moon Goddess, “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” and “Girl with the Black Bowl.”

Wicked Fox by Kat Cho (G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers)

This dark YA fantasy romance is set in modern-day Seoul and uses Korean folklore. Eighteen-year-old Gu Miyoung is a gumiho, a nine-tailed fox who must devour the energy of men to survive. With the help of a friend, she chooses to devour only evil men’s souls. When she spots fellow male classmate Jihoon beset by goblins, she saves him — but in so doing, she loses her gumiho bead, which is her soul. She will die without it, and as she and Jihoon’s relationship blossoms into romance, a conspiracy threatens to kill them both.

The Wrath & the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh (Penguin Books)

Renée Ahdieh reimagines The Arabian Nights in this captivating YA romantic fantasy. The evil Caliph, Khalid, marries a new woman every night and murders her in the morning. When 16-year-old Shahrzad’s best friend becomes one of his victims, Shahrzad promises herself vengeance and volunteers to become his next bride. Every night she spins her husband tales to postpone her execution, and as night follows night, Shahrzad fails to find the monster she expected in Khalid.

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi (St. Martin's Griffin)

Despite living in a harem and being the Raj’s daughter, Maya has unexpected freedom. Because of a cursed horoscope predicting that death and destruction will follow her marriage, she’s unwed with little worry of that changing, and the other women avoid her. Things change when her father suddenly marries her off, and she becomes the queen of Akran. Thrust into this powerful role, she discovers a parallel mythic world and slowly begins to fall in love with her husband. This YA fantasy is rich in worldbuilding and Indian mythology.

Simon & Schuster; Harry N. Abrams; Razorbill; Thomas Dunne Books; Quill Tree Books; Speak

Want by Cindy Pon (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)

In this vividly imagined and action-packed YA sci-fi, a future Taipei is heavily polluted and divided along rigid class lines. The rich wear suits to protect them from pollution and run all the businesses, while the poor, like Zhou, die early deaths from exposure. Zhou and his friends hatch a plan to kidnap a wealthy corporate owner’s daughter and force themselves into the elite, but things don’t go exactly as planned. Heists, action, corruption, and a dash of romance make this an electric read from start to finish.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee (Harry N. Abrams)

Genie Lo should be studying for the SATs and completing her application for Harvard. Instead she's fighting Chinese folklore monsters who have suddenly descended upon her California suburban hometown. Her monster-training teacher is an attractive new student who also just happens to be the Monkey King. This first book in a YA fantasy series is an absolute blast to read.

The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana (Razorbill)

To save her country in this Southeast Asia–inspired fantasy world, Princess Amrita agrees to marry the violent Emperor Sikander. But instead of bringing peace to Amrita's homeland, Sikander destroys everything she loves, and an abandoned Amrita teams up with Thala — an oracle who was formerly enslaved by Sikander — to try to make things right again. The two travel to the Library of Fates and learn how to reset the past. This lush and intricate YA fantasy steeped in Indian mythology is a gorgeous read.

Wintersong by S. Jae Jones (Thomas Dunne Books)

As a child, Leisl played with the Goblin King, but now at 18, he’s a character in her grandmother’s stories and nothing more. These stories inspire her musical compositions, but, as a woman, Leisl has little chance of becoming a composer. Instead, she helps run her family’s inn. When the Goblin King steals her sister in the night, Leisl is the one to journey underground to save her. Inspired by the movie Labyrinth, this dark and atmospheric YA fantasy is beautiful and riveting.

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake (Quill Tree Books)

Separated at a young age and trained by high priestesses in different powers, a set of triplets must battle one another to the death to become the queen. Mirabella learns elemental magic, Katharine the art of poison, Arsinoe how to control nature. As the sisters approach their 16th birthday — the day their battle begins — they each start having reservations about murdering their blood. With lots of twists, this dark YA fantasy is a nail-biting read.

The Reader by Traci Chee (Speak)

After Sefia’s father is murdered, she flees into the forest to live with her aunt Nin, who teaches her how to survive. When Nin is kidnapped, Sefia vows to find and save her and to figure out who murdered her father years earlier. The only clue she has is a book — but like everyone from the illiterate nation Kelanna, she can't read. Still, she’s able to pick up words here and there, and as she does, the book’s magic comes alive. This lyrical, slow-burn YA fantasy is a lovely meditation on the power of reading.

Margaret Kingsbury is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in BuzzFeed Books, Book Riot, StarTrek.com, Parents, the Earth Island Institute, and more. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.


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