Fantasy Epics from Around the World

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Most of you know by now that I tend to stray from the Lord of the Rings type of fantasy setting, (I hear many a scream from Tolken fans right now). I am greatly interested in fantasy and folklore from other cultures. I am always researching folktales/folklore and Mythology from Arabia, Persia, India, China, Japan, Mongolia and Tibet/Nepal and other countries that have a large folk and myth tradition. The Arabian Nights and Journey to the west are my all time epic fantasy reads and a couple of times a year I pull out my collection and have a good read. I always feel surreal when I read them and I am always on the look out for similar tales of fantasy from these cultures, but written by more modern day fantasy authors. For instance, last week I picked up  Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. A totally awesome Arabic inspired fantasy with Magi, ghul hunters, and specially trained Dervish monks. It totally reminded me of the old Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting called Al-Qadim that I played back in the day of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I liked it so much I started searching for fantasy novels in a similar style. Interestingly enough I came across a list of 10 great fantasy novels set in a non Western/European fantasy on Saladin Ahmed’s pinterest feed. As per usual after I read the list I went and paid our local library a visit and picked up most of the books that he recommended.

Throne of the crescent moon by Saladin Ahmed

Throne of the crescent moon by Saladin Ahmed

Al-Qadim for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

Al-Qadim for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

But it got me thinking, why isn’t there more modern fantasy inspired from other cultures ? I mean I read the Indian classic epic the Ramayana, and it was as good or even better than most of the run of the mill fantasy on the market today. I think people should seek out some of these great classic epics from other cultures to read {{especially up and coming Fantasy authors and Fantasy Role playing Game creators}}. I believe this will greatly refresh the oh so stagnant  high fantasy/ sword and sorcery genre and at the same time widen the audience of fantasy lovers and bridge the diversity and give us westerners a better understanding of other cultures. Trust me folks there is other cultures out there in the fantasy world besides medieval Europe, and some of these cultures have such a rich storytelling tradition past down from generation to generation since ancient times, it would put to shame a lot of authors today. I mean why is the Arabian Nights still one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time, and why did the pioneers of the genre we all love; Fritz Leiber, Robert E Howard and J.R.R Tolkien use it as a template for their work? Why, because the storytelling is at it’s finest and it takes us on a tour to a world totally different than our own, a world we don’t understand and that is what fascinates us. So I give to you a list of traditional fantasy epics from around the world. Some of these books I still want to read and some I have read. I hope this list inspires many a fantasy author and game creator and breathes new life into the world of fantasy. And who knows It might inspire you go learn more about these countries, and you you never know you might find yourself standing beside the pyramids, or on the great wall, or near the blue mosque or that ancient town built into the mountains because you fell in love with that cultures mythology and folklore because of this list.

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List of world folk-epics

World folk-epics are those epics which are not just literary masterpieces but also an integral part of the weltanschauung of a people. They were originally oral literatures, which were later written down by either single author or several writers.

African languages

Bayajidda, a West African epic

Eri, a West African epic

Lianja, a Central African epic

Oduduwa, a West African epic

Silamaka, a Western African epic

Sundiata, a Western African epic

American languages

Tunkashila, an American Indian epic

Cana, an American Spanish epic

Asian languages

La Galigo, also known as Sureq Galigo or La Galigo, is an epic creation myth of the Bugis people from South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Written in an Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) language, it is one of the longest epics in the world.

Alpamysh, an epic of all of Middle Asia

Bahman Nama, a Persian epic about the story of Bahman son of Isfandyar

Banu Goshasp Nama, a Persian epic about the daughter of Rustam

Bidasari, a Malay epic

Biag ni Lam-Ang (Life of Lam-Ang), an epic of the Ilocano of northern Luzon, the Philippines

Darangen, an epic of the Maranao of Mindanao, the Philippines. Derived from the Ramayana

Epic of King Gesar, a Tibetan epic, generally considered the longest in the world

Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest epic of the world from Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world

Faramarz Nama, a story about the Persian hero Faramarz

Garshasp Nama, a Persian epic about the heroe Garshasp

Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike), a Japanese epic

Hinilawod, an epic of the Panay-Bukidnons of Panay, the Visayas, central Philippines.

Jewang ungi, a Korean epic

Ibong Adarna, a Spanish-era Tagalog epic

Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic from India; known as Bharathayudha in Indonesia

Manas, an epic from Kyrgyzstan

Klei khan Y Dam San, an epic of Ede people in Central Highland (Tay Nguyen), Vietnam.

Book of Dede Korkut, an epic from Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Turcomans of Iraq and other Turkic nations

Koroglu, an epic from Azerbaijan and Turkey

Oghuz-nameh, an epic from Oghuz Turkic nations (Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, as well as Turcomans of Iraq)

Kutadgu Bilig, an epic from Central Asia, Uighurs and other Turkic nations

Nagarakertagama, an Indonesian epic

On Jerusalem an epic written in Greek based on the Old Testament characters of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph

Panchatantra, a Sanskrit epic of Indian animal folktales

Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic from India

Sepha Khun Chang Khun Phaen, a Thai epic

Shahnama, a Persian epic

Silappadhikaram, a Tamil epic from India

Epic of Siri, in Tulu language from Karnataka, India

The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of stories from mostly Persian and Arabic sources

Journey to the West (also known as “Monkey”), a Chinese novel

European languages

Aeneid, a Roman epic

Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic written in Old English

Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire an Irish lament

Cikli i Kreshnikëve, an Albanian epic

David of Sasun, Armenian national epic about war for freedom against Arabs in 9th century

Edda, a collection of Icelandic poems

Iliad, a Greek epic

Kalevala, a Finnish epic

Kalevipoeg, an Estonian epic

The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, a Georgian epic poem

Lāčplēsis, a Latvian epic

Le Morte d’Arthur, a collection of Arthurian legends in Middle English

Mabinogion, a Welsh epic

Nibelungenlied, a German epic poem

Njál’s saga, an Icelandic saga

Odyssey, a Greek epic

Os Lusíadas, a Portuguese epic

Prince Marko, a Serbian epic

Táin Bó Cúailnge, an Irish epic

The Lay of the Cid, a Spanish epic.

The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, a Slavic epic

Volsunga saga, a Scandinavian saga

Zoraje, a Slovene epic

The Grave Robbers Chronicles Vol.1 Cavern of the Blood Zombies by Xu Lei

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I always like to try something new an out of the ordinary especially when it comes to my reading tastes. So when I was browsing for something out of the ordinary in terms of zombie fiction I wanted to look for something completely different in terms what zombie fiction is. Most people who read zombie fiction and the people who write them usually follow a template which was first created in 1968 by the great horror filmmaker George Romaro and his hit movie Night of the living dead. Mostly the plots of zombie fiction centers around the whole world being taken over (or is about to be taken over) by the undead AKA. the Zombie apocalypse, and how we as humans try to find our place in this new and daunting world hence survival. There has been some excellent works out there like Max Brooks World War Z and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comics, but after a while most of this genre really starts to sound the same. The zombies in this form of fiction are either really slow and dumb relying on the need to only eat human flesh, or they are fast and dumb with the same basic instinct. Some authors also try to give zombies personalities which in essence “they aren’t zombies any more they are still humans with a condition”.

Now I am a huge lover of Chinese folklore and Chinese literature, so much so that I am trying to learn Mandarin so I can sink my teeth into their rich and vibrant storytelling tradition. Now what is interesting is how the Chinese view the undead and zombies in particular. One of my favorite monsters is the Jiang-shi or Chinese hopping vampire. The Jiang-shi goes against the western stereotype of what is a zombie is and how a zombie should react thus creating a new and different form of zombie which is a great change in terms of storytelling and can completely add freshness and originality to an already stale genre. {For more information  on the Jiang-shi I am going to link you to our post on the subject in Karen’s Folklore Tidbits here on the The Stranger’s Bookshelf.}

Jiang-Shi

Jiang-Shi

So when I was fervently looking for new zombie fiction, I had this idea of what I was looking for in mind, and as I like to say let the quest begin. I began to look for zombie fiction out of China and one day while browsing my local library’s website I came across Xu Lei’s The Grave robbers Chronicles Vol.1 Cavern of the Blood Zombies and started to read the blurb that was on the back of the book

“Uncle Three loves good food, good booze, good card games, and bad women-and he’s never found a grave he wouldn’t rob. He can’t help it-it’s in his blood-grave robbing has been the family business for centuries. So when his bookseller nephew comes to him with a map to an ancient tomb, Uncle Three sets off to find it, in the company of some grave-robbing colleagues, his nerdy nephew, and a strange poker-faced guy that nobody can quite figure out. Uncle Three knows that the grave he seeks will lead him and his companions to “another kind of world,” but not even he could ever imagine what they are about to find. Lost in a labyrinthine cavern that is full of dead bodies, Uncle Three and his comrades fight for their lives as they come up against vampires, corpse-eating bugs, and blood zombies.”

The fact that it is ranked as a best selling series in China also helped with me choosing to pick it up and read it. “I also recently found out that The Grave Robber’s Chronicles is also a bestselling Manhua  and the characters in the book and Manhua are frequently cosplayed at conventions and in photo-shoots.”

An add for the manhua depiction the characters of the series.

An add for the manhua depiction the characters of the series.

Below is Cos-players depicting characters from the series

cos插图4

cos插图1

Now after reading this book I was truly surprised. This book is definitely horror and has zombies in it, scary ones too at that; but they are not quite Jiang-shi. Jiang-shi are also implied in the story as well by the way. To me the best description of what a blood zombie looks and acts like are the Lickers ( the bio-experiments that were created by the t- virus in the first Resident evil film). But what I did find though is that Xu Lei’s Cavern of the Blood Zombies is one of the best adventure books I have read. I tell you I came away from this book going wow. I mean the best way to describe this book is to take the best parts of The Mummy Series and Indiana Jones, mix them with the best in Hong Kong supernatural films like A Chinese Ghost Story Series and Zu Warriors by Tsui Hark. [By the way I could totally see this being turned into a movie with Tsui Hark at the helm, hint hint] Add to the mix the folklore of Pu Songling’s Strange tales of the Chinese studio and Taoist geomancy, and Chinese dynasty history and magic and Boom you get this series.

The book itself reads like a tomb crawl, straight out of Laura Croft’s world or one of the best pen and paper roleplaying campaigns you have ever played. There are monsters at every corner, traps and magic galore to thwart unwanted grave robbers as well as heroes like Uncle Three and his nephew who use only their wits and generations of knowledge and training in the family business of “grave robbing” to keep them alive. The plot itself is a page turner. As Seen through the eyes of Uncle three’s nephew  and written in a first person perspective. I found that the pace was really constant and exciting.

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Fan art depicting the character Menyouping aka. Poker face in another scene from the book

Xu Lie also creates very realistic and believable characters, who have faults and frailties. Characters who not only you can relate with but who you want to root for. What is also really fascinating is that Xu lei has taken great pains and a lot of research to explain to the reader about the different periods and dynasties in Chinese history, especially in terms of archaeology and tomb excavation. So as you are reading, Xu Lei explains to you the difference of what a Qin tomb and what a  Second Zhou tomb are like or what artifacts from the Tang period would look like; so you know what to look for as the story develops.In fact I feel this added element of good research and character development adds a deeper layer to the story especially for non Chinese readers who are fascinated by the mysteries and exploration of Chinese Archaeology and tomb exploration.

Author Xu Lei

Author Xu Lei

Another added depth to Cavern of the Blood Zombies is the dark gothic like illustrations by Neo Lok Sze Wong which are dotted through out the book. His use of dark muddy colors and luminescence really creates and eerie atmosphere. It feels like the artist was drawing from memory of what it was like standing in the tomb with the characters of the book giving the book a dark mood like claustrophobic feel.

Fan art depicting a scene from the book

Fan art depicting a scene from the book

I also found that Kathy Mok  does a wonderful translation of Xu Lei’s work into English. Translating is a art unto it self, trying to keep the feel and tone and expressions of another culture, yet trying to explain it to a different culture that has a completely different writing system and way of expression can be quite a daunting task. Many translators and translations usually lose something along the way because of this, thus changing the feel and pacing of the story all together. Kathy Mok translation is very good, especially in the fact that she makes makes it easier for westerners readers to understand some of the cultural differences between China and other cultures. Cultural differences  like like Face, burial rights, Chinese geomancy, Chinese imperial history and folklore with out either dumbing it down or taking away from the story, thus creating a translation that is close to the original.

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A scene from the manhua series

To be honest, if this is what the new writers of China are like, I say that we need more translations of Chinese fantasy and horror literature. Books like this are storytelling at it’s best and I can truly see why this is one of the best series in China. Why have English publishers not cottoned onto this fabulous market. We as readers would surely enjoy books like this and other fantasy and horror works from China much better than the “same old same old” zombie fiction that they have been feeding us over and over. I mean this book was so good I could not put this book down even if I tried!!! It was that good. I even have vol. 2 Angry Sea, Hidden Sands lined up to read next on my nightstand and I am hovering with anticipating for when I am going to read it.

The manhua depiction of the main character

The manhua depiction of the main character

So if you want to try something fresh and exciting in terms of adventure fantasy and horror go out and pick up The Grave Robbers chronicles vol. 1 Cavern of blood by Xu lei and be prepared to be wowed by the great treasure that comes all the way from China, I guarantee you will be excavating for the rest of the series like me.

The rest of Grave Robbers’ Chronicles that is so far translated in to English.

bk-grcvol2 Vol. 2 Angry Seas, Hidden Sands

gr3 Vol.3 Bronze Tree of Death

51AoOhv5I0L Vol.4 Palace of Doom

If you loved The Grave Robbers’ Chronicles and want to know more about the folklore involved I highly recommend reading

strange-tales-from-a-chinese-studio-penguin-classics-20795259 Pu Songling- Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (It has some of the best Chinese folktales and ghost stories that came out of China. A Chinese Ghost Story and several other of China’s great horror movies came from the stories in this book)

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