For a long time, the fantasy genre was dominated by stories about tall stone castles, misty forests, and knights in medieval armor. This intense focus on the medieval European landscape kind of defined fantasy as a genre. Just saying the word “fantasy” inspires thoughts of dragons, knights, and maidens in despair.
But there are plenty of other kinds of fantasy out there that don’t take such heavy inspiration from the Middle Ages. One of the most interesting fantasy genres is desert fantasy. Authors of desert fantasy replace the mountains and ancient forests with vast seas of sand and massive trade-center cities.
Here are the top 5 desert fantasy books that feature sandy dunes, complex cities, and a fresh take on the fantasy genre.
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
When this book first came out in 2012, it was a big hit. It was one of the most popular desert fantasy books by far, and it still stands as a great example of non-European fantasy.
But it was planned as a series—The Crescent Moon Kingdoms. But it’s been 10 years and we haven’t seen a second book released. It has a title and a description on Goodreads, but no official news about its publication date.
The story follows a number of interesting characters, including a ghul hunter, a holy warrior, and a shapeshifter. All the characters are investigating a series of murders that are all connected, and when they end up banding together, they realize there’s a plot much bigger than anyone realized. In the kingdom of Dhamsawaat, the Falcon Prince is brewing up a revolution, and it’s up to the ragtag band to stop him.
The author, Saladin Ahmed, is a quite prominent writer for Marvel, working on numerous Spider-Man comics.
We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal
We Hunt the Flame is part of the Sands of Arawiya series, and is succeeded by the book, We Free the Stars. This book was published in 2019 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. The kingdom of Arawiya was inspired by ancient Arabia,
The story follows Zafira, a hunter of rare artifacts. She disguises herself as a man to avoid scrutiny as she acts as a champion for her people. When she sets out to find a precious artifact that can heal her people, the Prince of Death, right hand of the sultan, is put onto her trail. During the course of their hunt, the two champions realize that something much bigger is stirring in the world, something neither of them can control.
We Hunt the Flame is often considered a young adult series, but it stands on the line between adult fantasy and young adult desert fantasy.
The Eyes of the Tamburah by Maria V. Snyder
The Eyes of the Tamburah is the first book in the Archives of the Invisible Sword series, and is often considered a young adult novel. The book was published in 2019, so it’s a fairly new addition to the desert fantasy genre.
The story follows Shyla, an 18-year-old outcast. Her sun-colored eyes maker her a sun-kissed, a child marked by the Sun Goddess as a sacrifice. But instead of meeting a gruesome death, Shyla was raised by monks.
Soon after leaving the monks, Shyla ventures into the underground desert city of Zirdai and starts working as a kind of Tomb-Raider-esque archaeologist. When a precious religious artifact is stolen, Shyla is blackmailed into finding it, but ends up getting caught in the middle of a deadly turf war.
Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu
As the first book in The Song of Shattered Sands series, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai sets up the whole desert environment. From the tallest spire of the desert city’s towers to the gnarled, magical trees that pepper the windswept plains outside the city walls.
In this book, we meet Ceda, a pit fighter and a rogue, trying to unravel the mysteries in her late mother’s diary. Little does she know; she holds the secrets that the Twelve Kings tried to purge from existence. Finding foes at almost every turn, Ceda must navigate the dark streets of Sharakhai to finish what her mother started and free the people of the desert from the kings’ tyranny.
This book is one of my favorites, and it has such rich lore and backstory. Many of the elements are inspired by Arabic folklore, specifically Egyptian. The Song of Shattered Sands includes 6 full-length novels, a prequel novella, and a handful of other novellas/short stories.
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
The Blue Sword is the oldest book on this list, having been first published in 1982. The book is first of the Damar series, which includes four other books.
The Blue Sword takes place in the desert land populated by Homelanders and Hillfolk. The protagonist, Angharad “Harry” Crewe, is captured by the Hillfolk King and taken deep into the desert. Harry is then trained to be a master warrior, and develops a keen sense of respect for the Hillfolk. As Northern invaders threaten their sovereignty, Harry must be the bridge that brings the Homelanders and the Hillfolk together.
There are plenty of other desert fantasy books out there that we didn’t mention, and the genre is still growing! If you have a favorite book that wasn’t mentioned here, feel free to leave a comment below!
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