When asked why they spend so much time with their noses—not to mention hearts, minds, and souls—buried in a good book, many readers will tell you that it provides a way of escape from their “real world.”
Some genres provide readers the opportunity to escape to another part of the world or to experience life in a protagonist’s shoes. Readers of fantasy and science fiction usually escape to entirely new worlds.
At certain times in human history, people long to escape the “real world” not just because they had a rough day at the office. Sometimes life is unbearably hard. You’re blindsided by family tragedy. Your doctor gives you unexpected test results. Sometimes it’s broader. Your country is at war. Or the entire planet is battling a deadly disease, forcing the total lockdown of economies.
At the time of writing, the world has been battling COVID-19 for well over a year. In the face of lockdowns and temporary lay-offs, people who were fortunate enough not to get sick huddled safely at home. Many escaped in books.
In fact, book sales for 2020 were much higher than the previous few years and almost as high as 2008 and 2009 (another challenging period for many people). During troubled times, many people join regular, avid readers to escape in books.
With recent talk of emerging from pandemic lockdown, people are starting to think about traveling again. If you’re in that place, you might already have a destination you’ve been dreaming of. If not, why not look to your favorite fantasy books for inspiration?
New global fantasy books to inspire world travel
Classic epic fantasy stories invite us to travel to imaginary worlds. In portal fantasy and crossword fantasy we travel from our world to another fantastical world. Urban fantasy tales feature imaginary beings and magic systems set in our world. In other fantasy sub-genres, the lines are blurred.
We’ve collected a sampling of recent fantasy books set in alternate versions of our world. Some are obvious in their setting; others merely allude to geographical places we know. None of them are set in entirely imaginary worlds like Middle Earth, Narnia, Westeros…Wait, those are imaginary worlds, right?
This list is by no means exhaustive. We’ve tried to follow a few simple guidelines:
- Include lesser-known titles.
- Focus on books published in the past 5-10 years.
- Balance the list to include alternate reality settings around the globe.
July 2021 Giveaway
Everyone on our mailing list as of July 31, 2021 will be entered into a draw to win a print edition of one the fantasy books mentioned in this blog post (max. value $20 USD).
Our list begins with the possibility of traveling anywhere…or everywhere!
From the cover:
Nix has spent her entire life aboard her father’s ship, sailing across the centuries, across the world, across myth and imagination. With the right map, her father can sail to any time, any place, real or imagined: nineteenth-century China, the land from One Thousand and One Nights, a mythic version of Africa. But the end looms closer every day.
Her father is obsessed with obtaining a map of Honolulu that can take him back to his lost love, Nix’s mother. Even though going there could erase Nix’s very existence. For the first time, Nix is entering unknown waters. She could find herself, find her family, find her own fantastical ability, her own epic love.
Or she could disappear.
by Elizabeth May
We begin our journey around the alternate version of the globe with a steampunk novel set in an alternate 19th-century Scotland.
From the cover:
Edinburgh, 1844. Beautiful Aileana Kameron only looks the part of an aristocratic young lady. In fact, she’s spent the year since her mother died developing her ability to sense the presence of Sithichean, a faery race bent on slaughtering humans. She has a secret mission: to destroy the faery who murdered her mother. But when she learns she’s a Falconer, the last in a line of female warriors and the sole hope of preventing a powerful faery population from massacring all of humanity, her quest for revenge gets a whole lot more complicated.
The first volume of a trilogy from an exciting new voice in young adult fantasy, this electrifying thriller blends romance and action with steampunk technology and Scottish lore in a deliciously addictive read.
by Leslye Walton
This story takes us from the UK and begins in France where Ava’s great-grandmother emigrates to New York. The next generation (Ava’s grandmother) moves to Seattle. There begins Ava’s fantastic adventure.
Magical realism, lyrical prose, and the pain and passion of human love haunt this hypnotic generational saga.
Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava — in all other ways a normal girl — is born with the wings of a bird. In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naive to the twisted motives of others.
by Cami Murdock Jensen
Before we leave North America, we want to include this wonderful story that begins in Boston.
We cannot stop recommending the Arch Mage series. This portal fantasy is a fun, endearing coming-of-age adventure featuring a brave young protagonist living with physical disabilities and emotional scars.
Sixteen-year-old Agnes Ann Cavanaugh hates mirrors and herself. Horribly disfigured as a baby and constantly battling chronic pain, she trusts only two people: her mom and the blind author who offered her an internship. But as she’s translating an ancient tablet for him, she triggers an attack by terrifying monsters that catapults her into an enchanted realm.
by Isabel Ibañez
From USA, we head to South America in this fantasy world influenced by Bolivian politics and history.
Ximena is the decoy Condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.
by Emily X.R. Pan
Crossing the Pacific Ocean from the Americas, we travel to Taiwan in this “heartbreaking novel about grief, love, and family.”
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet hermaternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined tofind her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing afterghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship withher grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secretcrush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
by Zen Cho
This urban fantasy follows Jessamyn Teoh, a “reluctant medium” who travels to her ancestral home of Malaysia.
When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents – a country she last saw when she was a toddler.
She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. In life, Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a business magnate who has offended the god—and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it, whether Jess wants to or not.
by Angela Slatter
This urban fantasy takes us to Brisbane, Australia in the first supernatural crime adventure featuring Verity Fassbinder.
The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength and the ability to walk between one world and the other as a couple of her talents. A rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden.
But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale – and in the hands of those who hold to old, dangerous ways – and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.
Verity must investigate, or risk ancient forces carving the world apart.
by Sergei Lukyanenko
From Brisbane to the streets of Moscow, Russia.
Set in contemporary Moscow, the Night Watch series tells the story of the Others, an ancient race of magicians, shape-shifters, vampires, and other supernatural beings that live among us, and swear allegiance to either the powers of Darkness, or the forces of Light.
With darkly comic style and a plot that’s equal parts urban fantasy, spy thriller, and chess match, Night Watch will keep readers hooked until the last page, and eager for more.
by P. Djèlí Clark
Next, we travel to an alternate version of early twentieth-century Cairo, Egypt in this exciting steampunk novel.
Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world forty years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.
by Nisi Shawl
Finally, we end our fantasy alternate world tour in Africa with a re-imagined steampunk Congo. This debut novel dares to imagine an alternate global history.
What if the African natives developed steam power ahead of their colonial oppressors? What might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier?
Shawl’s speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.
More Fantasy Books Set in Alternate Versions of Our World
What fantasy books have inspired you to travel (either literally or literarily)?