Silk Road Fantasy and Breaking the Great Wall of Europe

Tired of nearly every secondary world fantasy being set in a world that seems to borrow only from Medieval Europe, especially Western Europe? Most especially Northwestern Europe (England, France, perhaps the Low Countries)? Tired of the rest of Eurasia and beyond being ignored, except when token people and lands care called for, or perhaps a crusade against the unfathomable East, with no sense of them as people? With no sense of their cultures, values, flora, or fauna?

Good. So am I. And I’d like to tell you about the fantasy that transcends that barrier.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of good fantasy out there that plays with Western European archetypes and makes it work. George R.R. Martin’s Westeros is the most famous example, of course, but just stop and think of much of the imagery you think of when you think of fantasy: stone castles, knights on horseback, chivalry, kings, queens, barons, deep forests, wild sea coasts, English moors, old roman roads, western style dragons…

A whole lot of fantasy maps, going back to the Lord of the Rings, have a left-justified fantasy map, with the ocean to the west and on the left. When drawing a new fantasy map, I have to keep myself from automatically starting a map, so ingrained the look and image of such a map is.

The archetypes of many roleplaying games take from Western Europe as well. The Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons and Dragons has that left-justified map, complete with a British isles like realm just off the coast, and mysterious realms to the east and south. Player character classes like Paladins and Cavaliers draw directly from this iconography. The magic users, clerics, fighters of the D&D world conform to them, too. Devils and Demons of the outer planes, enemies of Good, look very much like Christian concepts of evil, enough to help give D&D a reputation for being associated with satanism.

Still, there’s more to fantasy than this. There is a world outside Europe. Lands of deserts and steppe. Mongols, Caliphates, and Djinn. Cities where you can smell the fried lentils and onions from the stall as you walk toward the Caliph’s palace. Where you bargain with Djinn, debate with Chinese Dragons, race a horse to win the heart of a Mongol princess.

We can do better, and incorporate these ideas, these settings, these tools, in a responsible and respectful way that shows nuance and understanding of the source material. And some authors are doing just that. They are busting out of this wall and showing that there settings beyond the Western European in secondary world fantasy. Worlds that are inspired by the lands that stretch from metropolises of the Bosphorus and the Nile all the way to lands inspired by India and China.

I call such works Silk Road Fantasy.

It’s not a new idea, of course. History and Historical fiction writer Harold Lamb wrote many novels and stories set in Central Asia, with characters from that world fully immersed in the context of their culture. Khlit the Wolf, for example, is a retired Cossack who wanders across the continent from Russia to China, having adventures all along the way. Other stories of his have Muslim and Mongol protagonists. The fast paced style of Lamb, in comparison to the purple prose of many of his contemporaries, makes him insanely readable even to this day.

Also, the late MAR Barker, one of the early roleplaying game giants, created an RPG setting, Tekumel, which I have talked about at length here before. Tekumel owes far more to Central and South America, Africa, and India than England or France in its cultural inspirations.

Howard Andrew Jones, a fan of the aforementioned Harold Lamb, has taken up the challenge of writing similar fantasy in his tales of Dabir and Asim, starting with The Desert of Souls. A scholar and guard captain in the 8th century A.D., the two have adventures across the Caliphate and behind. Byzantine wizards and Chinese sea monsters, unnatural winters and hidden cities in the desert are but a sample of foes and situations this pair have found themselves up against.

Elizabeth Bear’s Steles of the Sky, out this year, is the capstone to the first three novels in her Eternal Sky novels (starting with Range of Ghosts). Set in an alternate world whose polities are inspired by the many diverse cultures to be found along our own silk road, Bear’s novels give us cities of strange magic, djinn, horse lords, and a world where the number of suns and moons and color of the sky above your head is determined by the culture that rules that part of the landscape.

Saladin Ahmed’s Throne Of The Crescent Moon introduces us to Dr. Adoullah Makhsblood. He is a ghul hunter, the last of his kind, living in a fantasy city far more inspired by Baghdad than by London. With a dervish and a shapeshifter on his team, he faces off not only against unholy magic, but the complications of discontent against the Khalif of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.

N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood Novels (The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun) are set in a world of powerful desert city states, with a setting and culture inspired by ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia. Dream magic, scheming deities, complicated politics, and the smell of doro wat wafting along the clay brick streets and cyclopean architecture of a teeming city.

But even this set of worthy authors and their works are but a drop in the bucket compared to Western European fantasy. There’s much more room for fantasy outside that Great Wall, along that fabulous silk road. We can keep Winterfell and Deverry and Wendar. But we can also have Gujaareh. And Dhamsawaat. The Empire of the Khan. The Celadon Highway stretching across the continent. And many more.

Let’s have more stories like those. Tear down this wall. Let’s have more Silk Road Fantasy.

* Credit for the phrase “Great Wall of Europe” goes to author and gamer Rob Donoghue, who coined the phrase in a twitter conversation with me and Cam Banks, talking about these issues.

33 thoughts on “Silk Road Fantasy and Breaking the Great Wall of Europe”

  1. Harold Lamb, M.A.R. Barker and Elizabeth Bear all in the same post? I approve!!!

    Jaqueline Carey, in some of her later Kushiel novels, went to not-China and, I believe, not-Mesoamerica. And there are Tanith Lee’s decidedly Persian-feeling Flat Earth books, to say nothing of Lee’s collection Tamastara.

    1. Oh, and also really happy to see Howard Andrew Jones and Saladin Ahmed. And happy on general principles to see N. K. Jemisin, who sits high atop my to-be-read pile.

      Another suggestion: Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian & Blood trilogy, set in an Aztec empire where magic & the gods are very real.

  2. Hear, hear! I’d definitely like to see more fantasy set in Asian-inspired settings other than in China or Japan. Definite thumbs up on Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth series too, those went down like an Arabian Nights liqueur chocolate (if that makes sense).

    May I humbly plug my own collection of short stories, Swords of the Four Winds, as an addition to the material? It has stories set in fantasy versions of Central Asia, the Rajput kingdoms, and Southeast Asia. http://www.amazon.com/Swords-Four-Winds-sorcery-ancient/dp/1494300443/ref=la_B00GXRIMFY_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1394466118&sr=1-1

  3. Actually, R.E. Howard used virtually every period of human history except the Far East (which gets an occasional walk-on) in his glorious “Hyborian Age” mashup.

    So you’ve got Cossacks and Turks and medieval Frenchmen/Englishmen/Germans/whatever and Picts (who are closet Iroquois, more or less) and Vikings and Ancient Assyrian/Babylonians and Bedouin and Ancient Egyptians and Afghans and Punjabis and Bengalese and Caribbean pirates and 19th-century Sudanese and anything else you care to name.

    Conan, an equal-opportunity slaughterer, kills ‘em all and takes their stuff.

    1. Point taken! I should have mentioned Howard and thought about him. I used Lamb as my Ur-figure here since he doesn’t get 1/100th the exposure and credit Howard does.

  4. I’m not sure why the following were omitted, but they all include a lot of, to all of, a focus on non-European cultures.

    The Sun Sword by Michelle West
    The Empire Trilogy by Feist and Wurts
    The Rose of the Prophet by Margaret Weis
    The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham
    The Braided Path by Chris Wooding
    Bridge of Birds by Barry Hugharts
    Under Heaven & River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
    Secrets of Jin-Shei by Alma Alexander
    The Dark Heavens books by Kylie Chan
    Gaunt and Bone by Chris Willrich
    The Watergivers aka The Stormlord Trilogy by Glenda Larke
    The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey

  5. There’s also Mazarkis Williams’ Tower and Knife trilogy.

    Has there been any good fantasy that uses more of a Southeast Asian setting?

  6. In fact, fantasy authors traditonally used the European medieval period not because it’s familiar and ‘like us’, but because it’s -exotic- and -different-. It’s got knights and castles and all that cool stuff.

    This is basically the same reason they use Cossacks or Aztecs… or for that matter, BEM’s or Lovecraft’s tentacled horrors.

  7. Kelly McCullough’s Fallen Blade series: ” also live a right justified map world with the bulk of the characters being non-European.”

    Mazarkis’ Williams books starting with The Emperor’s Knife

    1. Jo Clayton (does anyone remember her?) wrote some interesting non-pseudo-medieval-European fantasy series, especially the Drinker of Souls & Wild Magic trilogies.

  8. Daniel Fox (a Chaz Brenchly pen name) writes fantastic not-China fantasy. Alan Campbell has elements of the above-mentioned cultures pretty thickly spread into his work. Judith Tarr’s books. Allison Goodman’s YA is Chinese fantasy. Brad Beaulieu, G. Willow Wilson, Michael Swanwick.

    It’s still a drop in the bucket. It’s still a matter of having to LOOK for non-European settings, which is interesting, given how many vibrant, fantastic cultures exist. (I’d even love to see more Native American fantasy done right. Not, you know wendigo-of-the-week…)

  9. It might be stretching the definition of fantasy (it’s very subtle magic), but Scott Oden’s “The Lion of Cairo” most certainly breaks the Europe Wall, and in style.

  10. Well, a lot of them -don’t- exist much any more. The world is much more culturally uniform than it was, say, 100 years ago on the eve of the Great War/WWI. East Asia in particular is enormously more Westernized than it was during the colonial period, in everythning from dress to institutions.

    This is slightly disguised by the fact that people travel more and the media make it easier to dip a toe in the ways of distant peoples.

  11. “Silk Road Fantasy” is a nice poetic term, and I appreciate the attempt to give this kind of fantasy a name that doesn’t focus on what it’s *not* (like the cumbersome “non-medieval-European fantasy”), but SRF leaves out roughly 40% of the planet, so I’m not sure it’s going to work. Works set amid the sprawling empires of the pre-Columbian Americas wouldn’t fit there, nor the pre-colonization empires of sub-Saharan Africa, nor the indigenous nations of Australia, nor the Inuit/Yupik cultures — maybe not even the Vikings beyond Denmark. Maybe those cultures need their own specific terms, especially as more writers tackle them, e.g. “Pueblo Cliffs Fantasy” for stuff set in the central/southern Americas (not seriously proposing this, note). That said, for those lands that were within range of the Silk Road, the term works nicely.

    1. I’ve wanted to do Silk Road, Pre-Columbian, and Native North American-themed fantasy anthologies for a while, just haven’t felt that I’m quite up to snuff editorially to travel those landmine-pocked roads. No more wendigos!

      1. I will gladly purchase and read any such anthologies regardless of the presence or absence of wendigos.

    2. Hi Nora.

      Admittedly, “Silk Road Fantasy” doesn’t work for stuff much outside the Middle East, Central Asia and the like. It’s an attempt to look outside of European models, which dominate US/UK SF to its detriment. Its a term of poetry more than absolute accuracy…

      1. I want to chime in here, just to say I really like the term Silk Road Fantasy… for books inspired by historically-relevant locations, anyway. There’s no reason why we should lump everything not-Europe into one group anyway.

  12. Also Martha Wells has written some good stuff with non-standard settings — City of Bones, e.g., and Wheel of the Infinite.

    And have we really gotten this far without mentioning Charles Saunders?

  13. Yeah, the Imaro stories by Charlie Saunders; good stuff.

    In fact, given all this I think we’re whacking a straw man.

    For that matter, in GAME OF THRONES, Westeros is more or less like western Europe (with big differences like being politically unified and not being Christian), but there are all sorts of other places.

    The more-or-less Huns/Mongols Daenerys gets involved with, for example, or the archaic-Middle-Eastern (with bits and pieces from everywhere) slaver cities.

    Westeros is just part of the universe.

    1. A strawman? Well, I still think there is a blindness to the possibilities for writers and readers, Steve, but there are more examples than I first suggested, certainly.

  14. I remain curious as to how the list in the original post was compiled. That would give us better insight as to why so many qualified works and authors were omitted, and what that omission means.

    I do think that we would all benefit from more of these works, and including several dozen more still makes them a minority within Fantasy as a whole, but at the same time overstating the lack of them obviously hurts the argument.

    1. I am, obviously, not Paul. But the article doesn’t read like an attempt to create an exhaustive (or even not-so-exhaustive) list of Silk Road Fantasy (to use Paul’s term) — he’s just saying, “This is a type of fantasy I like, this is why I like it, here are some examples, wouldn’t it be nice if there were more?”

      1. Thank you for the reply, though imho I felt like it was saying:

        Non-European Fantasy can be great too.
        Here’s what’s out there.
        More of that would be better.

        Nothing at all objectionable about that of course. But I didn’t see anywhere where he used key words such as “example” that would give evidence of your interpretation. And when he used phrases like “But even this set of worthy authors and their works are but a drop in the bucket” then I really came away feeling that he was claiming that what he was listing was all that there is. Which is a real shame afaic.

        I completely agree with what I think are his first and third points, and think that his second would be much less of a deal if he had more examples or qualified it a lot more with something like “Here’s the works I know of, please share any more that I’m missing”. Even if we came up with several hundred then it would still be a drop in the bucket compared to the more European oriented Fantasy. But the way the article is structured then my feeling was that he either didn’t do a thorough job in seeking out these other works, or knew about at least some of them but didn’t mention them so as to make his argument seem more compelling, i.e. saying that there are only 6-7 authors working with this material sounds a lot more compelling then 30, 40 or 50.

        I don’t know the truth, the above are solely my impressions and in no way meant to be accusations. I just know that as a first time visitor to this site, these questions, and the fact that the op hasn’t clarified very much, don’t leave me with a terribly favorable impression, despite a premise that in the abstract I would have loved to have supported.

        1. AO,

          This article was not meant as an exhaustive list of every Silk Road Fantasy out there. I’ve read a fair amount of the books people have listed in the comments; others are completely new to me.

          This was an article of defining a type, not an exhaustive list of every book that fits that type. Who wants to read a list of 30 books?

          And even if there are 50 books, they are a tiny fraction of books compared to the majority of secondary world fantasies that do reside within the “Great Wall”.

          1. This “Great Wall” is to some (perhaps more than some) extent created by the industry–agents, editors, publishers. “China doesn’t sell. Egypt doesn’t sell. Forget about Central Asia. Write about Northern Europe. That sells. Stay in the UK if you can.”

            Near-verbatim instructions from my agent ca. 2000.

            I would have written a Mesopotamian series if I’d been allowed. Instead I was forced back to Northern Europe. And then out–and into freedom. Sekrit Projekt is Absolutely Not Northern Europe No Way No How, though it’s not Silk Roads. Did the Western end of that in Alamut and sequel, and Queen of the Amazons is Central Asia. Ditto the Epona Sequence. Also very pre-Silk Roads but very much in that part of the world. (Been cleaning up the scan of the third one for July BVC release.)

            I’m totally in favor of non-European fantasy and am glad you’re speaking up for it. Also glad there are so many more options for authors these days, rather than what allegedly and traditionally “sells.”

    2. AO,

      As Joe replied below, my short list was hardly exhaustive. It was representative of what Silk Road Fantasy was (starting with Lamb) and what it is now (with the more contemporary authors). Nothing should be read into the fact that I picked Bear and Jemisin and not Kay and Abraham, for example.

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