One thing I love about reading books is how much you can learn about different places and cultures. I’ve never been to Asia (yet!) but I can learn more about it, and some of the very extraordinary situations people have been in, through reading books about Asia.
The books on this list encompass a wide variety of countries and cultures, and I really enjoyed the prose, plots, and people introduced to me by the authors. In no particular order, here are 11 great books set in Asia.
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1. The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi
Lakshmi is a highly requested henna artist for the elite women of Jaipur, India. While doing their henna designs, she also becomes privy to their secrets. While she wants to be an independent and successful woman, family drama finds her.
Now she has to balance family needs and connections with her needs for independence and autonomy, all while navigating the class system prevalent in 1950’s India.
I really liked the insight into life in India and the important role henna plays in their culture.
2. The Orphan Keeper, by Camron Wright
This story begins in India, where Chellamuthu, a young boy, is kidnapped and taken to an orphanage to wait to be adopted by an unsuspecting (and importantly, well-paying) foreign family.
Months later, when the American adoptive family finds out that he actually does have a family back in India, they try to find a way to contact someone; unsurprisingly, they get ghosted by the orphanage and Indian authorities aren’t able to help.
As time goes on, he assimilates more and more into American culture, until one day he meets another Indian girl, and questions about his past re-surface. I especially enjoyed this book because it is based on a true story.
3. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See
Li-yan is a girl raised in a remote mountain village of China with her people, an ethnic group called the Akha. Their village and family economy is centered around tea production and it is a vital and all-encompassing part of their lives.
However, there are many longstanding traditions and routines – including killing newborns under certain circumstances.
After she becomes pregnant, Li-yan bucks tradition and refuses to allow her daughter to be killed, instead anonymously delivering her to an orphanage at a nearby city. Eventually, Li-yan breaks away and moves to the big city for education and to forge her own path.
Meanwhile, her daughter, Haley, is brought up in America. Eventually, we see how tea has a way of bringing people together.
I normally do not read books where babies are harmed (and I almost put this one down after that), but I found this book to be inspiring, evocative, and very informative about village life for an ethnic minority in China.
4. The Magnolia Sword, by Sherry Thomas
The Magnolia Sword is a loose Mulan retelling, set in 484 AD and is definitely not Disney-fied. Mulan has trained in sword-fighting her entire life to win a duel, but she conscripts in the army in place of her father when invaders arrive.
She enters into an elite fighting team, which includes the handsome prince, whose mission is to stop the invaders and protect the country. If you like realistic fairytale retellings, you’ll enjoy this book!
5. The Island of Sea Women, by Lisa See
On the Korean island of Jeju, the women are the breadwinners and men take care of the children, and many of the women are part of the island’s diving collective – where the women go out to sea and dive for sea life.
The book follows the stories of two women in particular – Mi-ja and Young-sook – and the strength and tenacity they show in the face of a variety of difficult life circumstances. This story is based on the real island and real women and was so interesting to read about such a unique culture, career, and way of living.
North Korea Books
The next three books are all true stories of North Korean defectors – people that escaped North Korea, usually into China and then to South Korea.
Each book tells about people’s experiences living in North Korea, what it was like, the methods of indoctrination used by the regime, the shortages they went through, the complete cut-off from the rest of the world, and eventually what drove them to escape.
I read three of these books within about a year and a half because it was just so crazy and fascinating.
6. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick
Demick follows 6 different North Koreans over the course of many years, seeing where their lives take them and what different experiences they have. It was really striking seeing all the different stories told in conjunction.
While each person had unique experiences, there was still so much that was depressingly similar. Their initial or apparent variety actually served to underscore the always present oppression in North Korea.
7. In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park
Yeonmi fled North Korea with her mother when she was a young teenager and was forced into a slave marriage by the Chinese “facilitators” that helped her escape.
After many years and a long journey, she makes it to South Korea. It was very moving to watch how she overcame the different obstacles and challenges on her way to freedom.
8. The Girl with Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee
Hyeonseo lived on the border of China and North Korea and saw a little bit of the glimmer of what life could be like when you’re not under a repressive totalitarian regime.
One day she crosses the river to visit China, just to pay a visit, but realizes she cannot return to Korea after the authorities notice she is missing. She stays in China, learns Chinese, and rapidly assimilates. She has many crazy experiences in the process of learning how to live and function in a completely different society.
This story was particularly interesting because Hyeonseo isn’t actively trying to escape. It almost just happens to her, instead of something she truly seeks out, but the fallout is very real.
9. Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan
You likely have heard of this one – it was recently made into a movie – but as always, I thought the book was better.
Rachel Chu, an American-born Chinese woman, agrees to visit Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick, for a friend’s wedding. What she doesn’t realize until she arrives in Singapore is that this is THE wedding of the season, the bride and groom are high society, and her boyfriend’s family and friends are all crazy, ridiculously STUPID wealthy.
While trying to enjoy her vacation, Rachel navigates the family drama, the society families drenched in old money, and her boyfriend’s over-protective mother. While I wouldn’t call this book important literature, it was light and fun and diverting and easy to read, and I sped through it quickly.
10. The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright
Imagine you live in an actual dump, and you make your living scavenging the stinky and sometimes dangerous trash for usable things you can sell.
That is the reality for Ki Lim and Sang Ly, where they live at Stung Meanchey, a city dump in Cambodia. While the setting for the story feels rather hopeless, the relationships that develop are sweet and the story ends up being heartwarming. I really loved this book.
11. Cinder, by Marissa Meyer
This is one of my favorite books ever and is book 1 of a 4-part series.
A Cinderella retelling, this book is set in futuristic New Beijing. Cinder is a cyborg – part human, part machine – and is looked on as a second class citizen, and is a servant to her stepfamily (no surprises there). Exposure to a deadly disease threatens anyone who is exposed (yikes, sounds familiar).
Cinder gets caught up in intrigue surrounding the disease, the life of Prince Kai and the royal family, and the future of earth. I will note that the Asian culture aspect is fairly minor, and serves as a backdrop for the story rather than an immersive setting.
Final Thoughts on Best Books Set in Asia
There you have it – 11 books set in Asia that I completely loved. I got a good story and learned about a different culture – what more could you want? Tell me what other books from Asia that you have read and would recommend – I always love new book recommendations!