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9 best books inspired by Asian mythology and folklore

By Corrine Cheung 15 June 2023

Mythology has captured readers’ imaginations for centuries, from the ancient classic Odyssey to the modern Percy Jackson series. While most retellings are inspired by Western myths, Asian mythology is just as captivating with its compelling stories and folklore. Here are our picks of books that are inspired by Asian mythology written by Asian writers. From supernatural epics to romances, dive into the world of myths around the continent.

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1

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Inspired by the Korean folktale of Shim Cheong, Axie Oh delivers a retelling from a feminist perspective. Mina’s homeland has been devastated by storms for generations and the villagers think the god of the sea has cursed their land. To appease him, a maiden is thrown into the sea as his bride, hoping the marriage will end the village’s suffering. As Shim is soon chosen to be sacrificed, Mina’s brother follows his beloved Shim as Mina takes her place. Realising the god of the sea has been put into an enchanted sleep, she along with other deities are set to wake him up to bring an end to the killer storms once and for all.

2

The Pregnant King

Written by Devdutt Pattanaik, this novel is a retelling of the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. King Yuvanashva seeks the help of two Siddhis who creates a potion to make one of his wives pregnant due to him lacking an heir. However, King Yuvanashva accidentally drinks it and becomes pregnant himself. Hiding the incident from his family and giving birth to his son, the book explores the ambiguities of gender and sexuality as characters throughout the novel seek to defy conventional roles and norms.

3

The Poppy War

The Poppy War is the first book of the same-named dark fiction trilogy, which takes inspiration from historical events. Protagonist Rin is accepted into the country’s top military academy against all odds. While there, she is the only student who learns shamanism with a mysterious teacher. Soon after, she is thrown into war and forced to make tough decisions to survive. Using the Chinese mythological novel, Investiture of the Gods, as the story’s backbone, RF Kuang’s novel features characters inspired by various ancient Chinese literature including Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

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4

When Fox is a Thousand

While there are a lot of myths and stories about the garden-variety fox spirit across East Asia, this book tackles the Chinese myth where they can inhibit women’s bodies and cause mischief. When Fox is a Thousand features explicit topics that may be sensitive to readers, so reader discretion is advised. Written by Larissa Lai, the book intertwines three narrative voices, among them a fox gaining wisdom towards her thousandth birthday, a ninth-century Taoist poet and nun accused of murder, and a young Asian-American woman living in contemporary Vancouver. Here, the novel cracks the Western fetishisation of Asian women and explores their gender, sexuality, and faith.

5

Daughter of the Moon Goddess

Inspired by the Chinese myth of the moon goddess Chang’e, Sue Lynn Tan’s debut novel is an imagined sequel to the legend, written through the perspective of her daughter, Xingyin, whose existence is hidden from the Celestial Emperor. When she displays her powers by accident, her presence is soon discovered, and Xingyin flees to the Celestial Kingdom, befriending Crown Prince Liwei. Disguising herself as an archer, Xingyin embarks on a quest to free her mother from exile while a plot against the kingdom is brewing.

6

An Arrow to the Moon

Chinese mythology meets Romeo and Juliet in this retelling of the moon goddess myth, which explores the relationship between Chang’e and her lover Hoyi. Written by Emily XR Pan, this novel is set in a secondary school where Hunter meets Luna during their senior year. With both of their families having murky and secretive pasts, Hunter and Luna finds this only brings them closer despite their family feud. As everything falls apart, it takes more than love to stop fate from having its way with the star-crossed pair.

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7

Zachary Ying and The Dragon Emperor

Written by Xiran Jay Zhou, this novel is inspired by the annual Hungry Ghost Festival where spirits are believed to return to the world of the living once a year during a short period of time. Zachary discovers that he was born to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China to seal the leaking portal to the underworld before the upcoming Ghost Month.

However, when things go awry and results in his mother’s spirit being taken by demons, Zachary must travel across China and hunt for magical ancient artefacts while mastering the emperor’s water dragon powers. If he fails to complete his quest on time, he could lose his mother as all hell breaks loose (pun intended).

8

The Forest of Enchantments

For those who love Madeline Miller’s Circe, check out this retelling of another Sanskrit epic. Inspired by the Ramayana, this novel explores the story from the perspective of Sita, one of the most compelling female figures of the epic. Filled with betrayal, infidelity, and honour, this novel explores the struggles of women fighting to retain autonomy in a patriarchal society while transforming the classic epic into an empowering battle of wills.

9

The Goddess Chronicle

Inspired by the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki—often written as Izanagi—Natsuo Kirino explores this retelling from a feminist perspective. Set on an island with strict customs, two sisters are born into a family of oracles: Kamikuu, who is admired for her beauty, serves the land of the light, while her sister Namina is forced to serve the realm of the dead by guiding the deceased into the underworld. With opposing fates, Namina embarks on a journey filled with love, betrayal, vengeance, and closure.

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Curious, introverted, and dramatic, Corrine is passionate about all things theatre, music, literature, and the mythical. When she’s not busy writing the newest story, you will find her binge-watching the latest anime and shows on Netflix, reading the latest books or screlting musical songs in the shower.

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