16
Apr
09

Non-American Fantasy

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.


8 Responses to “Non-American Fantasy”


  1. April 16, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    (Okay, let’s see if I can comment from work. Last time it got held up all damn day.)

    Hiromu Arakawa yes! While I haven’t seen the anime, I am addicted to the manga, to the point where I keep obsessively checking to see if new chapters are out yet. Other manga I’ve been reading recently include two Naoki Urasawa works: 20th Century Boys and Pluto, the latter of which is an expansion of a chapter of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. It was interesting to read it while watching the end of BSG: it approaches the divide between robot and human in very different (and heart-rending) ways.

    I know I have a number of international authors on my shelves at home, but only two come to mind at the moment: Sergei Lukyanenko, author of the Night Watch series, which is urban fantasy set (mostly) in Moscow. And Angelica Gorodischer, whose Kalpa Imperial had me wandering around in a daze thinking “so that’s how you do it” for days afterward. (She’s written quite a few other works, but I can’t find anything translated into English. Serves me right for only knowing English.)

  2. 2 mlronald
    April 17, 2009 at 2:05 am

    Goddammit, WordPress keeps eating my comments when I try to comment from work.

    This’ll probably show up later as a delayed comment, but I love the manga for Fullmetal Alchemist. I haven’t watched the anime in its entirety, though. Other manga I’ve been reading lately include a couple of works by Naoki Urasawa — 20th Century Boys, which is more near-future science fiction in its genre elements, and Pluto, which is a reinterpretation of a chapter from Astro Boy. I read it while BSG was winding down, and the contrasting approaches to the human/robot divide were fascinating.

    As for fiction: Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial is lacking some of the standard fantastic tropes, but it’s gorgeous and strange and haunting (the first sentence alone is amazing). I keep hoping more of her work will be translated. And I really enjoyed Sergei Lukyanenko’s Watch series, which is an urban fantasy set (mostly) in Moscow. It’s got a wholly unique feel to it, and I loved the shifting motivations and changes all the way through it.

  3. 3 Stephen
    April 17, 2009 at 2:55 am

    Kylie Chan, Dark Heavens books. OK, so she’s Australian, which while not British shares the same heritage. But she married into a Chinese family and lived in Hong Kong, which is where the books are based, so it’s not just an Australian outlook.

  4. April 17, 2009 at 4:10 am

    Maggie, re Lukyanenko’s Watch series — is it better than the movies? Because I saw “Night Watch” and kinda hated it. -_-;;

  5. 5 mlronald
    April 17, 2009 at 10:46 am

    It’s very different — the movie plot vaguely follows the first third of the first book, but the end’s not the same in the slightest, and the characters go on and change through the rest of it. And then there’s the other three books.

    As for the movies, I watched those mainly for the visuals. Plot? There was a plot?

  6. 6 Rachel Aaron
    April 17, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    Since we’re OKing Anime and Manga here, I think my all time favorite non-English fantasy has to be Juuni Kokki, or Legend of the Twelve Kingdoms. It was originally a book series, but most of us saw the Anime way before we knew there were books. Both versions are phenomenal in their own ways. It starts with Yoko, a lonely Japanese school girl who suddenly (and violently) discovers that she is the new empress of a kingdom in another world. But, after being dragged into the other world, which is kind of like a seriously awesome fantastical ancient china, she is separated from her guide and left to fend for herself and take back her kingdom (which she’s still not sure she wants) from the false ruler who has set herself up as Empress in Yoko’s absence.

    The most interesting part of the story, though, is how Yoko truly changes, constantly changes, through out the story from a scared girl to a worth Empress I would love to follow. Dynasty isn’t hereditary in the 12 Kingdoms. Instead, every country is given a Kirin, a divine creature that’s basically the best unicorn ever (and who can turn into a very handsome man), whose purpose is to select a ruler. They know the ruler by the divine will of Heaven, which is how Yoko’s Kirin, Keiki, found her all the way out in our world. But, even though the rulers are divinely selected, that doesn’t mean they’ll do a good job. All the Kirin sees is the ability to rule within them, it’s up to the ruler to become a good king. If they stay from the path of righteous rule, their Kirin gets sick and dies, and shortly after, so do they. If they are a good and righteous ruler, however, the emperor is granted immortality. This system is the theme of most of the stories in 12 Kingdoms, and I never get tired of seeing it played out through the stories.

    Wow, that’s a long comment. Alright, enough fan girling, time for me to write my Friday post! Check out 12 Kingdoms! You can get them on Netflix! You’ll be glad you did!

  7. April 17, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Oooh, nice — sounds a bit like Fushigi Yuugi, but not as melodramatic. And kirins! A unicorn by any other name doth smell as sweet. (Though, weren’t kirins more kickass than unicorns, in the mythology?)

  8. 8 rachelaaron
    April 18, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Oh yeah, 12 Kingdoms is way better than FY (though I loved FY when I watched it, many, many moons ago). It’s a much more mature story, and not in the sexy sense. The world, characters, magic, everything is deeper and more dynamic. Better yet is Yoko. She’s strong but green, and watching her change and be broken and get back up again and find the Empress inside her, it’s an amazing story experience. I just can’t praise it enough. I only wish there was more to the story than just the three seasons.


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