Actually, Authors of Color Have Been Out Here Giving Us Epic Fantasy Bangers, Here Are 9+ of Them
Get out your pencils and take notes.
A little over a week ago, a screenshot was making the rounds on book Twitter of a seemingly well-meaning person who said this:
Adult fantasy tends to be epic fantasy, which tends to be bogged down with huge blocks of descriptions and meandering off topic (And written by old white men.)
With the emergence of New Adult genre, we should get more (concise) adult fantasy, with inclusion and diversity.
There is a lot to unpack, but let’s hit a few points and move on to the reason you are here (for some recommendations). New Adult is a marketing term trying to capture an audience of 18-ish to 30. Sometimes I see people explain it as characters of that age which is strange, but okay. While many try and call it a genre, like YA, adult, middle grade, etc., it isn’t.
Secondly, when they state that fantasies tend to be epic, I’m lost? That is a subgenre, and while it’s a popular one, so is historical fantasy, magical realism (which is very big in Latinx literature and has been for a very long time), and many other fantastical modes of storytelling. A lot (though still not enough) has changed in the last 100 years of fantasy writing, even within each subgenre. I think the author (among their many talents) Alex Brown put it best here:
If you want recs, ask! Or put it into a search engine. Or look up award lists. Or visit your local library or indie bookstore. Or get onto BookTok or Book Twitter. The books are out there; at this point if you can’t find them it’s because you’re choosing not to look.
— Alex Brown 🐀 (they/them) (@QueenOfRats) October 12, 2021
Any returning readers might feel like I’m preaching to the choir considering how we often share science fiction and fantasy titles (many of which are by POC and considered epic), but there is always more room for more books! In compiling this list, I found that upon further examination that the greats like Octavia Bulter, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and N.K. Jemison all have heavy fantasy elements, but are often considered under more science fiction or dystopian categories.
While I didn’t necessarily set out looking for the crème de la crème, many of these titles are already decorated with awards and honors. I say this to further drive home the point that authors of color have long existed in the epic fantasy space, but are only as of late being recognized and properly celebrated. Even then, this recognition usually isn’t up to par. There is a critique to be had about the lack of acquisitions, marketing/support, adaptations, etc of work by authors of color of ANY genre. However, that is not the conversation the original Twitter poster appeared to be trying and have. But at least it inspired the creation of this list.
Anyway, on to the recs! Here are some fantastically epic books by authors of color that everyone should be reading:
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
This book follows an orphan child named Rin and the events following her against-all-odds acceptance of an elite military school. At every step of the way, she is deemed unworthy because of her gender, color, and social class with many accusing her of cheating on the test to get in.
Overly practical and extremely determined, Rin finds herself a mentor to help her get through the academy and between him, and psychoactive substances, she learns she has the power to wield the gods’ might. This is something that might come in handy because while her country is at peace, a Third Poppy War is on the horizon and everyone knows it. Also, it may cost her her humanity as she grapples with controlling these spirits.
Despite the fact that the main character Rin is that young adult age a lot of YA protagonist tend to be, doesn’t make this YA. All of the trigger warnings apply because this book is about war and power. Like many popular fantasy writers, Kuang uses heavy historical influences to tell her story including the Opium Wars and the Chinese Revolution. I can’t say much more than that without getting into spoilers (which happened to me!) This trilogy is followed by The Dragon Republic and concludes with The Burning God.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
A well-established and revered hunter/mercenary is on the hunt for a boy that went missing three years ago. Tracker breaks his cardinal rule of working alone (it’s giving Batman vibes) as he finds himself in an … eclectic group of people also looking to find the missing boy. The band of misfits and Tracker find themselves attacked and between that and mounting questions of who this child is, Tracker begins to feel like someone has lied to him.
The second book in James’ acclaimed Dark Star trilogy, Moon Witch, Spider King releases in February 2022 and is available for pre-order. This book was a favorite among many book sections of the press in 2019 and writer Neil Gaiman compared the world-building here to Tolkien. Normally I would try to avoid praise like that as something to reinforce a broken canon, however since this list is an interrogation of many recent books by authors of color, there you go.
The Sorcerers of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
Two demi-gods (the Sorcerer and the Captain) travel with their caravan on a deadly trek between an oasis and the southern kingdom. To keep his captain and their traveling brothers alive, the protagonist Demane must use more of his wild powers that make him less and less human and more and more godlike. Published in 2015, this novella shares a universe with a later novella A Taste of Honey in addition to other stories (all epic fantasies) by Wilson.
Like other titles on this list, this is not an obscure book to those paying attention to science fiction and fantasy books (outside of your faves) in the last five to ten years. Wilson’s work has been nominated for the Nebula, the Shirley Jackson, and the World Fantasy Award. This book has made many “must read before you die” kind of lists since its publication by Tor Books. This is not only the only novella on the list, but one that might feel most contemporary as Wilson’s writing style and language is not something often found in the fantasy genre, let alone the subgenre of “epic fantasy.”
The Wold of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso
A departure from the previous entry to this list is a tome (heavy, large book) a.k.a. what many people imagine when they think of fantasy books. Clocking in just barely under 500 pages, this is the first book in the series called the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen.
The newly crowned Queen Talyien is in charge of a kingdom fractured war and a kingdom of which the residents hate and mistrust her. Not only did she murder a man and exile her husband, but her newly betrothed (a political marriage for post-war recovery) disappears. More chaos ensues with her being stranded in an unknown land and unsure of who she can trust. Based on the 84% of Storygraph readers saying her flaws are the main focus, I have a feeling that she either knows more than the descriptors let on or just has to do some dark stuff to survive. Either way, count me in.
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
Two men (a charming bandit and a stern son of a duke) become friends under unusual circumstances—essentially a coup against the emperor. They go on adventures, fight a bunch of people, all the fun stuff. As the war comes to a close and factions form, they each find themselves in leadership positions of different groups. Each group thinks that their ideology is best suited to move the empire forward.
The Grace of Kings is the first book in a series entitled the Dandelion Dynasty. Lui’s work (both short stories and novels) is decorated with science fiction, fantasy, and all sorts of speculative awards and nominations. Some of them have been adapted for Netflix (Love, Death + Robots) and AMC (Pantheon.) Before writing, his background ranged from engineer to various positions in law. These are elements I think will come through in his work.
The Unbroken by C.L. Clark
Light on this list is romance, and while this book is mostly epic fantasy and military fantasy, The Unbroken also gives us a sapphic romance between a princess and a soldier. The soldier, Touraine, was a stolen child and raised to die by conscription, and the princess, Luca, needs a soldier she can trust to obey orders that border on treason as she seeks to dethrone her uncle. This is all on the backdrop of a crumbling desert empire at war, frequent assassinations, and growing resistance to the colonial power brokers.
Nocturna by Maya Motayne
In this dark, epic fantasy we have two characters, again, who have conflicting backgrounds, personalities, and skillsets forced together, but instead of participating in basically a coup, it is stumbling upon an ancient power they let loose in the kingdom. There is Finn, a magic wielder and face shifted indebted to a powerful mobster, partnering up with Prince Alfehr, grieving the death of his older brother and obsessed with bringing his brother back by any means necessary. To defeat this force of destruction, it will require them to confront the deepest secrets in their pasts.
Everything I have read says this is a good book for fans of Tomi Adeyemi, Leigh Bardugo (whose works were adapted into Netflix’s Shadow & Bone), and V.E. Schwab. This newer book is the first novel in a trilogy and was released last March 2020. All this to say, if you get attached to these characters (everything points to yes), it will be a waiting game. Not A Song of Ice and Fire long, but still.
Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter (Image: Orbit Books)
In a world with 1% of men gaining the power to turn into killing machines and .0005% of every woman able to call down dragons, Tau is gift-less. This is made worse by a backdrop of a 200-year unwinnable war that his people are fighting and the gift-less are just fodder. After the brutal death of those close to him, Tau is determined to become the world’s greatest swordsman and avenge the three who betrayed him.
Originally self-published, this was a people’s pick on Reddit and won Best Debut Fantasy Novel. Orbit acquired this popular self-published book and worked with Winter to continue his series. The second book in the series, The Fires of Vengeance, was published latest last year.
This list was constructed without several recently mentioned titles on our site like this year’s Ignyte award-winner Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, titles from our monthly book club, or titles from the Our Books, Our Shelves series with Tor Books. The latter of which includes epics like The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo and or Master of Poisons by Andrea Hairston. We encourage you to check out our additional coverage for more stunning and important reads by authors of color.
(Image: Orbit Books, Gallery/Saga Press, and Balzer & Bray/Harperteen.)
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