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Racial Diversity in Fantasy w Non-Real-World Cultures

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I am trying to think of some fantasy worlds where the main characters are not Caucasian looking, but the books do not borrow from a real world culture to set the characters' looks in your mind. (Examples of books that borrow from real world cultures to create a setting would be Rae Carson's GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS and Renee Ahdieh's THE WRATH AND THE DAWN.)

I've been able to come up with Ursula Le Guin's WIZARD OF EARTHSEA and Sara Larson's DEFY, but I am drawing a blank on more books where at least one of the main characters does not look Caucasian. I know that part of the problem is that we tend to "read white", meaning that we default into seeing people who look the way we expect them to look unless we are given obvious, hit over the head clues that people look differently. (Think about how many people were surprised by Rue's race when the HUNGER GAMES movie came out...) And another part of the problem is that the fantasy genre defaults to middle ages Europe when creating kingdoms.

Anyway, help me out? What other fantasy worlds are there with racial diversity that isn't pinned on real life cultures?

(And just to be extra clear, there is NOTHING WRONG with fantasy worlds that borrow from real world cultures. I LOVED both of the examples I gave and I enthusiastically add books like this to my own library. I am just interested in the thought experiment of fantasy worlds that are very separate from our own world.)
#1 - March 07, 2015, 09:55 AM
« Last Edit: March 07, 2015, 10:18 AM by HDWestlund »

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Hmm. It's not YA, but Richard Adams' MAIA comes to mind.
#2 - March 07, 2015, 10:14 AM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)
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Interesting question, Holly! These are pretty old now, I read them in my teens or early twenties.

http://www.goodreads.com/series/49134-the-legend-of-drizzt
#3 - March 07, 2015, 10:16 AM
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Thank you, Marissa. I think non-YA is fine, since the books that are out there seem to be limited. (At least in this bookseller's recollection.)

And, oh, right, Arty. DRIZZT. I haven't read them, but I know of them.
#4 - March 07, 2015, 10:17 AM

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Oh, and this is also old, and Canadian, but the Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton was a particular favorite of mine growing up.
#5 - March 07, 2015, 10:23 AM
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More recently, James Maxey's Bitterwood comes to mind. There is a ruling race of dragons. It's kind of a fantasy/sci fi mash up. Really interesting concept.
#6 - March 07, 2015, 10:31 AM
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Amethyst Road by Louise Spiegler
Soul Enchilada and Black Hole Sun by David McGinnis Gill Thunderchikin on the boards :) haven't seen him in a while.

Vijaya
#7 - March 07, 2015, 10:31 AM
TEN EASTER EGGS (Cartwheel/Scholastic, 2015)
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I just finished reading the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins, and I think the giant talking animals fit. The humans are also changed from centuries underground.



#8 - March 07, 2015, 10:41 AM
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NK Jemisin's fantasies are adult, but her worlds are always diverse. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has many ethnicities which don't seem directly mapped to Earth cultures.
#9 - March 07, 2015, 12:41 PM
Kell Andrews
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DEADWOOD, Spencer Hill, 2014
MIRA FORECASTS THE FUTURE, Sterling, 2016

The Darkangel series by Meredith Ann Pierce. People live on the moon and are every color of the rainbow. Also a superbly amazing series. I reread it at least twice a year. ^_~

It's even YA. And in spite of being set on the moon, it's fantasy, not sci-fi. :)
#10 - March 07, 2015, 12:44 PM
« Last Edit: March 07, 2015, 12:47 PM by R. LaFille »

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Oh, that sounds really interesting! I'm going to look for that one!
#11 - March 07, 2015, 01:20 PM
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In Robin McKinley's Damar books ("The Hero and the Crown" and "The Blue Sword"), she describes Damarians as being "cinnamon-skinned" with dark hair and dark eyes, and a distinctly Arabian-type culture.

Got me going through my books now, lol. Never realized before QUITE how Caucasian most of them are. Lee Jordan in "Harry Potter" is black. The Patil twins were Indian. Hmm... Asian-type characters seem especially scarce, though Anne McCaffrey's Pern books describe many Pernese as having "almond eyes" with usually pale skin and dark eye colors. Tamora Pierce has Arabian-type characters in the Alanna series. But ... both authors still create distinctly unique cultures that merely have flavorings of "old earth" cultures.

Wow. This is hard. -_- Just went through my (rather massive) library and that's all in either YA or MG that I could come up with. No wonder "diversity" is the topic of the year!

Artemesia: I highly recommend the Darkangel series. I was heartbroken when it nearly went out of print. But it was revived (unfortunately with terrible covers ... if somebody would just give me the chance to redesign them!!). If "diversity" is the topic, it deals with it in spades. It's a book that speaks in powerful metaphors, and the writing is ... exquisite. It sings.
#12 - March 07, 2015, 01:42 PM
« Last Edit: March 07, 2015, 01:50 PM by R. LaFille »

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I was just looking them up and my library doesn't have them. :( (They have some others of hers, tho) I'll have to see if I can get them at the bookstore.
#13 - March 07, 2015, 01:46 PM
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Arty, can't you interlibrary loan? You can do that in Canada, can't you--where another library sends it to yours?
#14 - March 07, 2015, 01:53 PM
Learning to Swear in America (Bloomsbury, July 2016)
What Goes Up (Bloomsbury, 2017)
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Some do. I actually haven't checked if ours does. It's a library system, so it covers more than just the town I live in, and I can request a book from any branch, so they usually have most books. The place I lived before here used to charge for interlibrary loans.

Eta: just checked and I can do the interlibrary loan. Looks like there is one copy of book 1 in the whole province!
#15 - March 07, 2015, 02:14 PM
« Last Edit: March 07, 2015, 02:22 PM by Artemesia »
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I talked to my husband about this concept, and he pointed out that it's easier for Sci-Fi to do this kind of thing because in space travel, you discover worlds that in no way resemble our own. This means that earth's rules for evolution no longer apply. Or that there are other kinds of variables in play with how people fit into their home environments. He mentioned LEVIATHAN WAKES by James S. A. Corey as an example, where people have lived in a certain part of space, in ships, for so long that their children have developed certain physical characteristics (lighter frames, longer limbs), though the skin color of all the children still varies widely because of their original racial heritage. I think he may be on to something--it's hard to break the rules of what people expect of a world/characters without becoming too confusing to carry a story, so a lot of people probably don't take the time to build words that are not culturally/geographically dependent.
#16 - March 07, 2015, 02:41 PM

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Ooh ooh, I've got one! LINES UPON THE SKIN by Julie Haydon is just what you are after. The MCs are young women making their way in a (fantasy) world. They have different ethnicities but that's not a big deal - not part of the plot. It is really well done in that respect. Check out the reviews it has had from others - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2593692-lines-upon-the-skin
#17 - March 07, 2015, 07:23 PM
My Australia - National Library of Australia (April 2018)
I've Got Eyes! - Amicus Ink (August 2018)

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Just checked out "Lines Upon the Skin" and added it to my next Amazon order. Looks perfect!

So in agreement that it's easier to make new cultures in sci-fi, which is set in the future, than in fantasy, which is typically set in what feels like the past.

That's what I think is brilliant about the Darkangel books: because they are technically set in the future, humankind has created whole new species and people and even cultures. However, because humanity has died out, "science" is delegated to "magic". Also, because it is SO far in the future, it stands to reason even if the science were explained, it would feel like magic to us too. There are dwarves, sphinxes, secubi, angels and spirits, ghosts and wraiths, gods and demons, but everything is different enough to give a hint to the reader that this is not a fantasy world. You actually don't realize they are on the moon until deep into the book. I thought initially it was a made up planet. The most genius part of it is how the culture and various mythology spring up revolving around the night/day cycle of the moon (which is 28 1/2 days) and that logically it all works. There was really some serious thought put into the creation of the culture of these peoples, which I think is the most imperative aspect to writing good fantasy: the reader must feel like they could walk through your world which means thinking about EVERYTHING: food and clothing customs, idioms and sayings, greetings, levels of politeness/chivalry/honor ... leave no stone unturned! The Pern books do this well too ("Dragonsong", "Dragonsinger","Dragondrums") which is another "past set in the future" series.

And really, the best of these really seem to just throw you in and let you learn as you go. I always thought any author who feels the need to "introduce" their world isn't giving the reader enough credit to being able to figure it out as they go along. The discovery is part of the magic! :)
#18 - March 07, 2015, 07:53 PM

Ah. Andre Norton. Witch World series. Totally made-up culture, and I think the "looks" of the characters were all over the place, some even nearly alien, with a cross between living-in-huts culture to empty glass cities. Shape-changers as well and made-up beasts as well as familiar. A lot of the characters in "Witch World" felt faintly Native American and shamanistic, but never explicitly so (except in "Key of the Keplain"). Also ... it's Andre Norton. You can't get more imagination and originality without scaring off your audience than Ms Norton. She always had just enough of the familiar to make it feel like "home" but the rest pure originality so that you felt like a dreamer drifting through an alien world. Never once do you think "Earth".
#19 - March 07, 2015, 08:13 PM

Thank you so much for your contributions, guys. I've been researching, and I am a little depressed by how many of the books are out of print (or nowhere near my rather excellent library system). It's also interesting how many of these titles are adult titles, rather than MG or YA. I do have a couple books on hold at the library now, though, including DARK ANGEL and the Andre Norton series!
#20 - March 07, 2015, 08:16 PM

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