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What’s Silkpunk? 6 Essential Reads from the New Sci-Fi/Fantasy Subgenre

by  | March 18

There’s a saying that so much of fantasy is just the authors re-arranging the same old furniture in Tolkien’s attic. And while Tolkien’s influence on the genre is certainly nothing to sneer at, there are also plenty of subgenres of fantasy that hold new perspectives and original worlds to explore.

Silkpunk takes the idea of steampunk—a historical blend of science fiction and fantasy—and incorporates it with facets of East Asian antiquity. This mix opens up different world-building possibilities, whether adding elements to religion, tradition, or imagery, or simply straying from the typical Eurocentric worldview present in much of the genre. If you’re ready to explore everything silkpunk has to offer, here are six books you should checkout:

The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings

by Ken Liu

Ken Liu is one of the masters of silkpunk, so a list such as this one should include at least one (if not two) of his works. The Grace of Kings is one of Liu’s most acclaimed books and the first entry in the Dandelion Dynasty series. When the bandit Kuni Garu and the son of a deposed duke Mata Zyndu team up to take down an unjust emperor, the two become fast friends. However, as the power vacuum they create leads to factions, they find themselves suddenly on opposite sides, both literally and ideologically. Building an expansive world of power, loyalties, and tradition, this book tells a beautifully written story of people trying their best to build a better kingdom, even if that means losing those they hold dear.

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The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories

by Ken Liu

Ken Liu is not only one of the biggest names in silkpunk, he is also a master of the short story. His collection The Hidden Girl includes meditations on technology and humanity, blended with aspects of Asian philosophy and tradition. And, for fans of the Dandelion Dynasty, there’s also an excerpt of the series’ third book The Veiled Throne. While not every story in this new collection falls under the category of silkpunk, The Hidden Girl provides readers with an intoxicating mix of the past and the present as we look to an uncertain future. If you’re engaged by short stories that will challenge how you see the world, and how that world is bound to change in unexpected ways, this is a must for your TBR list.

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Ninefox Gambit

Ninefox Gambit

by Yoon Ha Lee

Captain Kel Cheris is in a tough spot: she has been given just one more chance by Kel Command to prove herself by using unconventional tactics in the war against “the heretics.” But even she knows that taking back the Fortress of Scattered Needles from their enemies won’t be easy without a little help. She enlists the untrustworthy Jedao, a centuries-old undead general who is both a brilliant strategist and a ruthless mass murderer. And that’s when, of course, things really start to go downhill. Leaning more toward science fiction than fantasy, Ninefox Gambit imagines a reality where the universe can be warped and manipulated with math and technology. With a shifting course of alliances, unpredictable battles, and a unique world-building premise, this first book in the Machineries of Empire series is essential for any sci-fi fan.

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The Poppy War

The Poppy War

by R. F. Kuang

Big things come in little packages, which seems true of Rin, a poor orphan who managed to ace an empire-wide entrance exam to the Academies. But getting in was the easy part—now she has to deal with the uphill battle of proving that her talents deserve such an advanced education. While she’s bullied for her gender, skin color, and impoverished status, Rin manages to uncover a talent for shamanism, connecting with long-forgotten gods, such as the revenge-driven Phoenix. On the eve of war, blessed with new powers, Rin has to decide if she will sacrifice her morals to save her people, or if she can simply turn away after years of cruelty and sorrow. The Poppy War doesn’t shy away from dark themes but author R. F. Kuang manages to balance it with Rin’s uplifting vitality and determination. A soaring tale of perseverance, strength, and the realities of war, this is sure to engage fans across the fantasy spectrum.

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Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

by Julie C. Dao

Imagine being foretold that you could be a great and powerful ruler, but only if you embrace your inner darkness by forsaking love and devouring hearts. Would that destiny be worth all the terrible things you’d have to do to get it? In the fantasy tale Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, that dilemma is what the protagonist Xifeng encounters as she follows the path set for her by a power-hungry God. Adding an East Asian twist to the classic tale of the Evil Queen from Snow White, this engaging story of an anti-heroine doesn’t just feel like a rehash of the same tired tropes. With this exploration of what it means for a woman to wield influence in an oppressive, patriarchal world, you’ll find yourself rooting for Xifeng to prevail, yet conflicted as the bodies begin to pile up.

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The Black Tides of Heaven

The Black Tides of Heaven

by JY Yang

Mokoya and Akeha are powerful and talented twins sold to the Grand Monastery. Mokoya can see visions of the future, while Akeha is able to understand how to manipulate adults into action. As rebellion looms on the horizon, Akeha leaves his twin sister to join the rebels looking to overthrow the established order as well as escape the twisted schemes of his mother. But will he be ready to face the consequences of leaving his sister behind? The first novella in the Tensorate series, The Black Tides of Heaven explores a well-developed backdrop of political strife and the struggles of progress. The book also features various LGBTQ+ themes and relationships, including a system where children are “they” until they choose a gender for themselves. A fresh take that integrates aspects of Chinese, Japanese, and Nepalese traditions, this story will have you on the edge of your seat.

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A reporter by trade, Sara Roncero-Menendez is a lover of horror, sci-fi, and all things pop culture. From indies to classics to even the strangest genre pieces, all movies, TV shows, and books are fair game for a binge-fest. Follow her on Twitter @sararomenen or at her website, www.sara-roncero-menendez.com