As a life-long devotee of fantasy fiction, I’ve frequently defended the value of stories that feature dragons, magically gifted heroines, or angst-ridden werewolves. And while I’ve often stated that fantasy fiction isn’t necessarily an escape from reality simply because it includes magic or ghosts, even the most committed fan must acknowledge that the genre is incredibly disconnected from reality in fatal ways. For one, fantasy fiction remains an overwhelmingly white world–an area of literature where you might find vampires or psychic detectives but rarely characters of color.
This lack of diversity is a widespread problem in young adult literature and the larger publishing industry but speculative fiction is especially guilty of inequitable representation within its stories and industry. Just last week, The Guardian published an article by speculative fiction author & essayist Daniel José Older discussing the insidious ways that systemic racism and white privilege has permeated the science fiction and fantasy publishing & fan communities. At last month’s YALSA Young Adult Literature Symposium, there was an entire panel titled “Where Are The Heroes of Color in Fantasy & Sci-Fi?”, which Hub blogger Hannah Gómez recapped with great accuracy & insight.
So, how do we, as readers, fans, & promoters of these genres, demand & nurture fiction with imaginary worlds as diverse as the one we live in? To start, we need to read, buy, promote, and request titles by and about people of color. Accordingly, I pulled together some authors and titles to check out, focusing on fiction that falls on the fantasy side of speculative fiction. This list is far from comprehensive; for more titles, I recommend checking out Lee & Low’s genre-specific Pinterest board, Diversity in YA, and We Need Diverse Books.
2004 Edwards Award winner Ursula K. Le Guin has long been considered one of the best and most beloved high fantasy writers; she’s also consistently written stories with people of color as protagonists–although film adaptions & book covers have often blatantly ignored this, white-washing characters like Ged, the brown-skinned protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea. The 2013 Edwards Award winner Tamora Pierce also includes characters of color in her novels; her Emelan books feature both black & multiracial protagonists.
Fans of thrilling adventures & complex heroines should try novels by Cindy Pon, Ellen Oh, or Malinda Lo for rich high fantasy tales rooted in a variety of East Asian cultures. Cindy Pon’s lush & exciting Silver Phoenix and its sequel, The Fury of the Phoenix follow young Ai Ling as she discovers her unique abilities and battles an ancient evil based in the royal palace. Ellen Oh’s Dragon King Chronicles (beginning with Prophecy) also focuses on a powerful young woman struggling to embrace her destiny–the yellow-eyed demon slayer Kira who might be the key to saving the Seven Kingdoms from destruction. Malinda Lo’s Ash (2010 Morris Award finalist, 2014 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) and Huntress (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012 Rainbow List, 2012 Amelia Bloomer List) are richly imagined, romantic novels I recommend to all fantasy readers!
Nigerian-American novelist Nnedi Okorafor is a prolific creator of African-based speculative fiction for adults, teens, and children. Readers eager for highly original fantasy fiction should look no further than her novels Zahrah the Windseeker and Akata Witch (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults), coming of age stories infused with West African cultures & traditions and featuring young black heroines.
Corinne Duyvis‘ Otherbound burst onto the scene this summer, offering an inventive and refreshingly diverse epic fantasy adventure. When Nolan closes his eyes, he’s transported away from his small Arizona town and into the body of Amara, a mute servant on the run with a cursed princess in another world. When he’s finally able to communicate as well as observe in Amara’s world, everything changes. The leads are both physically disabled people of color and the supporting cast is equally diverse.
The Young Elites by Marie Lu, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, and City of A Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster are all set in multicultural fantasy worlds & feature characters of color.
‘Low’ Fantasy: Urban, Paranormal, & Historical Fantasy
For fantasy set in our world (rather than set primarily in a secondary, invented world), there are also increasingly diverse stories and characters available. Cynthia Leitich Smith, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and excellent blogger on all things YA, writes delightful paranormal fantasy with distinctly Southwestern flavor and consistently diverse casts of characters. Her Tantalize (2011 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) and Feral series are perfect for fans of witty supernatural tales looking for a unique take on vampires, were-creatures, and angels.
For another fresh vision of werewolf mythology, check out Joseph Bruchac’s Wolf Mark, an action-packed adventure following Luke King’s journey as he attempts to unravel the truth behind his black ops infiltrator father’s disappearance and his own strange abilities. Like the author, Luke is Abenaki Indian.
Separately, both Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier have written a variety of fantasy novels and both consistently include people of color as protagonists and secondary characters. Their co-written novel Team Human (2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults) features a bitingly sarcastic Asian American narrator and clever send-up & ultimately thoughtful subversion of vampire romance tropes.
Amalie Howard’s Alpha Goddess follows a teenager who discovers that she is a reincarantion of Lakshmi, the human avatar of an immortal Hindu goddess while Guadalupe Garcia McCall reimagines The Odyssey through a Mexican American lens in The Summer of the Mariposas (2013 Amelia Bloomer List).
Karen Healey‘s urban/paranormal fantasies Guardian of the Dead (2011 Morris Award finalist, 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults) and The Shattering are set in contemporary New Zealand and accordingly reflect the country’s racial and ethnic diversity in their characters.
For fantasy with a historical twist, readers looking for novels featuring characters of color should investigate Sarah Zettel‘s American Fairy trilogy, Hammer of Witches by Shana Mlawski, and The Diviners by Libba Bray (2013 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults).
Finally, fantasy fans of all kinds should check out the new anthology, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, co-edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios.
Please share more fantasy novels featuring characters of color in the comments!
-Kelly Dickinson, currently reading The Iron Trial by Holly Black & Cassandra Clare