Japan is the Asian country whose culture has prompted perhaps some of the most speculation and interest from the western world. Japanese culture is overwhelmingly homogeneous, and the ruling class has worked hard to retain the Japanese way of life since the founding of the Imperial Dynasty over 2600 years ago. That is not to say that Japanese culture is flat or unchanging. It is a rich tapestry, full of amazing innovation and history; but in other ways, it is not as diverse, ethnically or racially, as other places. This homogeneity is one of the things other cultures seem to find fascinating about Japan. It is a country that seems to attract speculation and interest from all corners. In the 1600s, Dutch traders and Jesuit priests arrived for the first time in Japan and encountered a complex society ruled only nominally by the emperor, largely by the shogunate and enforced by samurai. Bushido, the honor code of the samurai, was the guiding principle of the land, enforcing a strict class structure and the Dutch negotiated exclusive trading agreements, locking in their right to be the exclusive purveyors of Japanese goods for the next 250 years.
The exclusivity of goods coming from only one source and the echoes of the European medieval feudal system of chivalry, with its knights and ladies and the nostalgia surrounding it, all combined to create an exotic and easily romanticized picture that persists to this day. This is aggressively not intended to be a compliment to the western world’s fetishization of Asian cultures and people. The rich topography of the country — islands, mountains, and forests — lends itself particularly well to the “group of misfits brought together on a journey” trope, and when we add in the complex system of Japanese kami and deities, feudal Japan becomes a perfect setting for fantasy novels.
Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
Across the Nightingale Floor introduces the reader to the Tales of the Otori, a four-book series. It takes us to a lightly-magical world where Takeo discovers his heritage after his village is pillaged by the warriors of an evil local warlord. His first adventure will require all his wits and bravery as he attempts to cross the famous nightingale floor, so-named for the chirping sound the floor makes whenever someone attempts to cross it.
Keeper of the Night by Kylie Lee Baker
Ren Scarbourough has been reaping souls in London for centuries. But when her Shinigami half exerts itself, she escapes to Japan with her brother to explore that side of herself. She finds herself in the Japanese underworld, caught up in a challenge to find and eliminate three powerful Yokai demons in order to win her place at the side of the Goddess of Death.
Book 1 of the Keeper of the Night duology.
Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa
I devoured all three books in this trilogy via audiobook. It’s a classic adventure tale of a group of misfits who find their chosen family, and along the way try to save the world from a once-every-thousand-years event. Kagawa uses traditional Japanese fairytale elements to create lovely characters and some truly hair-raising scenes. Highly recommend!
Flame in the Mist by Renee Adieh
Mariko is a cunning and clever alchemist, but her gender keeps her from truly owning her fate. When her father promises her hand in marriage to the Emperor’s favorite consort’s son, she sets out for the Imperial Palace to start her new life. But she is attacked by the Black Clan, a group of assassins that she learns were hired to kill her before she even arrived at the Palace.
Dressed as a boy, Mariko infiltrates the Black Clan in order to find out who put the hit on her and discovers that, as a “boy,” she is respected for her intellect and abilities. And along the way, she begins to unwind some things that make her question everything she’s ever known.
Flame in the Mist is the first book of a duology.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
If you are already a fan of Murakami but have not yet read this, please do so immediately. And if you’re not yet a fan of Murakami and are looking for a place to start, this could be it! This is a parallel narrative story, tied together by glowing unicorn skulls and the narrator’s search to be reunited with his shadow.
Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Mariott
Suzume is a shadow-weaver, able to recreate herself into anyone she chooses. This is a fantastic asset to someone desperate to escape her past. Is she the kitchen drudge, sweeping the floor, or the most beautiful courtesan in the land? And will she ever be allowed to be herself?
Nightblade by Ryan Kirk
Three unlikely companions are brought together in a Kingdom on the precipice of war. Their decisions will change their lives and the Kingdom forever, assuming they can stay alive long enough to make them.
Ryuu, Moriko, and Takakao must learn to work together and overcome their pasts in order to save their future.
Nightblade is the first book of a trilogy.
The Priestess and the Dragon by Nicolette Andrews
Exiled from her old life at the Emperor’s Palace, Suzume finds herself training for the priesthood in a remote mountain shrine. When she awakens the mountain god by accident, she learns that he is not, in fact, a god at all, but a dragon who has been trapped inside the shrine for 500 years and is now hell-bent on revenge. The safety of the world is on her shoulders, as she is forced to choose between the dragon she is falling in love with or her duty to kill in him order to save her land.
The Priestess and the Dragon is the first book of The Dragon Saga, spanning five books.
You know, the thing I might like best about fantasy novels is that they’re so often part of a whole saga or series, and this list is no exception. A list of eight books is actually a list of 21! I hope you enjoy your journey to the fantastical world of feudal Japan.