I've loved fantasy and science fiction novels ever since I picked up A Wrinkle in Time in elementary school. I was making the leap from picture books to chapter books, and was pleased to find out that chapter books weren't stuck by the boring limitations of "reality" like I feared. That's what I love about fantasy and science fiction novels — they don't really have to follow any rules. Everything can change, whether it be the laws of gravity, time travel, magic, spirits, or society. There's nothing stopping these writers from creating new worlds and societies completely free from the restrictions of the world as we know it. Which is why I've found myself getting tired of the persistent use of white characters and settings in fantasy novels.
When the possibilities are actually endless, why do most fantasy and novels revolve around white characters while excluding people of color? You want to write about powerful elves who lure humans into their world and keep them their for centuries just for the fun of it, but for some reason they all have white features? Even in futuristic, dystopian novels, science fiction books commonly use white characters who operate in settings that are based on present day western or European civilizations. We can do whatever we want, except tell a story from the perspective of a person of color?
Fortunately, there are writers who've striven to diversify the science fiction and fantasy genres. Because there are too many people of color who love and support these genres for the protagonists to rarely ever look like us.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor is one of the few writers who explores the fantasy and science fiction realm from the vantage point of African cultures and landscapes. In Who Fears Death, she blends the two genres as she tells the story of Onyesonwu, a young woman living in a post-apocalyptic west African country. Determined to save her mother's people, the Okeke, from genocide at the hands of the Nuru, Onyesonwu embarks on a journey to confront the architect of the genocide: her father. Okorafor tackles many difficult issues in this novel, including rape and female genital mutilation, showing just how far the reach of the fantasy genre can go.
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
Fledgling is one of the last books published by Butler before she passed away in 2006, and it’s also the only vampire novel (that I know of) that explores modern day American racism. If vampires’ identities are built around their pale skin and their inability to endure the sun, what are the possibilities and obstacles that a black vampire would face?
Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed
This is actually a collection of short stories. Not all the characters are people of color, or are even physically described, but the book’s inclusion of Muslim culture for the backbone of its stories explores that science and fantasy realm in ways that I usually aren't seen in the genres.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
Would you marry the dead son of rich family if it meant helping your family survive? Did I mention he was rich? After Li Lan’s adoring, but irresponsible, father comes to her with an offer to marry the deceased son of the wealthy Lim family, she soon finds herself being drawn into the afterlife. Not only is the story family ghosts and secrets intriguing, but the peek into ancient Chinese culture, even from the other side of life and death, makes for a captivating read.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
The first book in Le Guin’s first foray into YA lit, A Wizard of Earthsea is full of descriptions of Ged (the wizard in question), as a boy with "red-brown" skin, making it very obvious that he’s a person of color. Not only is his skin color different from those of the average fantasy novel wizard, but the focus of Ged's journey is also a more internal one. Unfortunately, when A Wizard of Earthsea was turned into a miniseries, the creators took a few liberties with the story and the characters, including casting a white actor to portray Ged. Le Guin wasn’t too happy about it.
The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna
If only Frankenstein's monster had been given a chance at its own life. In Madanna’s world, an enigmatic trio of Weavers somehow have the ability to create “echos,” copies of humans who are designed to replace them should they die. Sound a bit morbid? Imagine if you're Eva, who has to spend her life in hiding, studying and memorizing the facts of Amarra’s life, in the hopes that should Amarra die, she can make a convincing replacement. When Amarra dies in an accident, Eva’s sent to India (where echos are illegal) to replace her, and is faced with questions about her creation, her humanity, and her right to live her own life.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The novel by Muslim convert G. Willow Wilson is a action packed adventure into the world of the jinn. Our protagnist for this novel is an Arab-Indian computer-whiz who goes by the codename Alif — the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Not only has he just lost his lover to a prince who has hacked into his systems, but he's also discovered The Thousand and One Days, the book of the jinn, and is now in journey to figure out how to use the book to unlock a new kind of technology before the prince — who might be a bit evil — snatches the book away from him. No biggie.
Pym by Mat Johnson
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
It was actually a challenge to not just fill this list with books by Butler. Time travel has always been a concept mostly explored by white protagonists, probably because they would never face the difficulties of a black women who gets pulled back in time to the Antebellum South. That's exactly what happens to Dana, a modern black woman who finds herself pulled back in time to save the son of a white plantation owner. The book is arresting and painfully enlightening, but also a testament of how fantasy tropes such as time travel can be used to explore a history that's often skimmed over.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
This one’s a bit of a stretch since the protagonists aren’t actually people. Instead, they're mystical characters from Judaic and Muslim cultures. The Golem is a creature made of clay, and the jinni is a powerful fiery being that's trapped in human form. Both find themselves in 1930s New York trying very hard to blend in. What could go wrong?