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Broadening Your Horizons
When you think of Fantasy, what elements immediately spring to mind? Perhaps a vaguely medieval, pre-industrial setting, for starters-- thatched cottages, castles, a feudal system, and so on. A young, questing hero, or maybe a team of adventurers wielding longswords and magic. An evil witch or wizard. For variety, let's toss in a few noble Fae folk, a stolid dwarf, and a troublesome halfling or two. And it's not a proper fantasy without some fabulous beasts, right? How about a fire-breathing dragon? Classic... why is that, though?
Now, before you get too upset at me for reducing all fantasy fiction to a stereotype, I do have a point. Potentially, the fantasy genre has a near-limitless scope-- it's not bounded by science or reality, only by the author's imagination. Despite that latitude, what fan hasn't read a dozen books containing most of the elements I listed above? My concern is that the American fantasy landscape today is suffering from a sad lack of diversity.
The problem, I think, is that even fantasy authors tend to write what they know, and that means working from the stories they grew up with. In the U.S., they're most likely drawing inspiration from the fairy tales and folklore of Western Europe, and from classic fantasists like Tolkien (who drew from the same well). Thatched cottages and castles? Western. Elves, trolls, unicorns, fairies, knights, the stereotypical wicked witch-- all Western. (I will happily blame Tolkien for the enduring popularity of halflings.)
There are all sorts of fantastic story tropes and fabulous beasts out there that barely get used because people are generally unfamiliar with them. (If you were really lucky, you had the full set of Andrew Lang's color Fairy Books when you were little, but I didn't encounter those until college.) The best fantasy authors today, in my opinion, are the ones who read voraciously and widely. For example-- raise your hand if you know what a garuda is. Put it down again if you've read China Miéville. If your hand is still up, good for you! --but I expect you're greatly in the minority. Well, prepare to be broadened!
This month, I sought out tales from far and distant lands. I studied unfamiliar legends, learned of exotic mythological beasts, and pored over strange, undecipherable scripts. (Okay, that last bit was a lie-- all the titles here are either in translation or original to English.) I did deliberately go looking for fantasy drawn from non-European cultures and folklore, and believe me, I really had to look. You'll notice I don't have anything representing folklore from South America, Australia, or Oceania-- if you know of anything, please feel free to share in the comments and broaden my horizons a little more! Now come, take a journey with me, and broaden your horizons!
Sisters of the Raven by Barbara Hambly (Fantasy Hambly)
Someplace To Be Flying by Charles De Lint (Fantasy DeLint)
Zadayi Red by Caleb Fox (Fantasy Fox)
AFRICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (Express Fantasy Okorafor)
The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson (Fiction Hopkinson)
Black Ships by Jo Graham (Fantasy Graham)
THE MIDDLE EAST
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (Fiction Rushdie)
City of Bones by Martha Wells (Fantasy Wells)
Queen of the Amazons by Judith Tarr (Fantasy Tarr)
THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni (Fiction Divakaruni)
The Gates of Twilight by Paula Volsky (Fantasy Volsky)
The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente (Fantasy Valente) COMING SOON!
Empress by Karen Miller (Pbk-Fantasy Miller)
A Sorcerer's Treason by Sarah Zettel (Fantasy Zettel)
Empire of the Eagle by Andre Norton and Susan Schwartz (Fantasy Norton)
THE FAR EAST
The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson (Fantasy Johnson)
Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox (Fantasy Fox)
Returning My Sister's Face: And Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice by Eugie Foster, ed.
(Express Fantasy Foster)