Continuing in the vein of the latest Sunday Quickie topic…
Little-known fact: the speculative fiction magazine with the highest circulation in the world is not one of the Big Four (Analog, Asimov’s, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Realms of Fantasy). It’s SF World, a science fiction magazine published in China with an estimated 300,000 readers (according to this very informative 2004 article by author Lavie Tidhar — and he should know; he’s the editor of the forthcoming Apex Book of World SF, which I can’t wait to get my hands on).
I read a lot of non-American fantasy writers. I like the way their perspectives shake up my own, from wildly divergent depictions of what qualifies as “magic”, to wildly divergent writing styles that sometimes reflect different cultural assumptions and aesthetic traditions. Some of my favorite non-American writers are firmly ensconced, and lauded, within the bosom of the traditional fantasy community: China Mieville, J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman. Others are not-so-well-known: Storm Constantine (who damn well should be better-known, but isn’t for reasons I don’t fully comprehend), Louise Cooper, and a new British writer I’ve been reading lately named Kate Griffin.
Yeah, I know — all Brits, right? But I read a lot of stuff that’s not-so-firmly tucked into traditional fantasy, and there my tastes range a bit more widely. So I’m going to tell you about my favorite non-American/British, non-fantasy fantasy, writers.
- Helen Oyeyemi: OK, she’s British too. But she’s also an immigrant to the UK who was born in Nigeria, and much of this informs her fiction. I’ve only read her first novel, The Icarus Girl, but I love it. The story follows a part-Nigerian girl who has an imaginary friend — which may actually be the ghost of her deceased twin. The book was lauded as mainstream fiction, but it’s definitely fantasy rooted in Yoruban folklore.
- Hiromu Arakawa: the manga-ka, or author and artist, of the Japanese hard fantasy/steampunk manga series Fullmetal Alchemist. (Yes, I’m including manga here; it’s written, it’s fiction, it counts.) Fullmetal Alchemist is set in a peculiar alternate Earth in which the ancient “science” of alchemy actually works. This leads two brilliant children to make a terrible mistake, when they attempt to use alchemy to bring their dead mother back from the dead. Horror ensues, and the story follows the next few years of their lives as they attempt to figure out what went wrong and also uncover a creepy alchemical conspiracy. You may have seen the animated version of this; it’s been running on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block for several years now. The manga version is very different, however — the manga got started first, but the anime quickly outpaced it. When the anime creators passed the point that the author had written, they pretty much just made up the rest. They did a good job of it, but it’s worthwhile to read Arakawa’s (ongoing) manga too, because her version of the story is richer and more complex.
- Studio Bones: Speaking of the Fullmetal anime, the reason it was so well done is because the studio that created it has produced a ton of other amazing fantastic works. These guys are well-versed in the art of blowing minds. And yeah, now we’re edging into non-written territory — but most of Bones’ works also get produced as manga, which are often very different from the animated version while still retaining the basic worldbuilding and feel of the anime. Two bites at the same apple, so to speak. My favorite Bones works* are “Wolf’s Rain”, a dystopian fantasy set in a dying, decadent world where wolves develop the magical ability to pass for human beings; “RahXephon”**, a mecha series that’s only peripherally about giant robots and is much more about the Mayan apocalypse and Princess Bride-esque true love; and “Darker Than Black”, which is technically science fiction but so weird that it works as fantasy too. I can’t even begin to explain that one. James Bond meets Witch Mountain? Whatever. (The anime versions of these are available in English, but not all of the manga versions are. Start badgering your nearest manga publisher to get them.)
- Laura Esquivel: a Mexican author. I saw the movie based on her novel Like Water for Chocolate and ran out to get the novel — and I’m glad I did, because the novel is much better despite a slightly clunky translation. (And it has recipes!!!1! …OK, so I’m biased about the novel being better.) The story follows Tita, a woman forbidden to marry because of a family tradition. She sublimates her desire into food magic — every marvelous dish she prepares contains some of her emotions, and they have powerful effects on the people around her. This, like many speculative works written by Central and South American authors, gets labeled as magical realism largely because the “magic” in them is rooted in non-Western folklore or religious tradition. (It happened to Helen Oyeyemi too.) But it was also my first exposure to the idea of “food fantasy”, which served me well a few years later.
So what are your favorite non-American fantasies?
* Actually my favorite Bones production is “Cowboy Bebop”. But a) it’s unadulterated science fiction, and b) if there’s a manga version, I haven’t read it, so I didn’t mention it here.
** I don’t know how to pronounce it either.