Writing in Ink
to Samarkand

You can hear a distant thunder of hoofbeats, steadily growing louder as it approaches. It is a stratum of fantasy that looks beyond the boundary.

You can hear a distant thunder of hoofbeats, steadily growing louder as it approaches. It is a stratum of secondary world fantasy that looks beyond the boundary, the Great Wall of Europe. Secondary world fantasy that is inspired by Byzantium and the Silk Road, all the way to the western borders of China. Characters, landscapes, cultural forms derived from the Abbasid Caliphate, the Taklamakan Desert, and the Empires of Southeast Asia much more than Lancashire.

Thanks to the rising popularity of fantasy fiction, riding, in part, on the wave of Game of Thrones‘ massive success, many of science fiction and fantasy’s old paradigms and forms of have gotten a new look by virtue of new and diverse styles and varieties of stories, new and formerly inhibited voices (primarily women, genderqueer, and minorities), and new or formerly under-utilized wellsprings of inspiration. Elizabeth Bear, one of the many authors at the center of this paradigm shift, calls this “Rainbow SF.” As Science fiction readies its generation ship to move beyond the white-heteronormative-males-conquer-the-galaxy pastiche, popular fantasy is beginning to look beyond the faux-medieval western European that remained so popular throughout the genre’s formative decades. And this doesn’t even include the rise of World SF, as fiction from markets and voices beyond North America and England begin to be heard in the field.

I call such books “Silk Road Fantasy.”


Silk Road Fantasy is hardly a new idea, and can be traced to the works of early 20th century writer Harold Lamb, and even more specifically to Khlit the Wolf, the Cossack, who wanders from China to Russia in the course of his adventures in the 1600s. Stories like “Tal Taluai Khan” set Khilit on the road to adventure, and bring him traveling companions and temporary allies ranging from Afghanistan to China.  Most notable of these, Abdul Dost, a Muslim in contrast to Khilit’s Eastern Orthodox Christianity, himself becomes the narrator of several of the stories. Those who champions Lamb’s fiction, like Harold Andrew Jones, have done excellent work in introducing a new generation of readers to these classic, formative novels. However, in my opinion, the real genesis of Silk Road Fantasy as well as the term itself, comes from the works of Susan Shwartz and Judith Tarr.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Shwartz wrote several series of novels exploring the Silk Road. In the Heirs of Byzantium trilogy, an alternate magical Byzantium is the base setting for intrigue and adventure. Empire of the Eagle follows the imagined adventures of the survivors of the defeated Roman Legions of the battle of Carrhae, sent further and further east, far away from the world they knew. Imperial Lady, co-written with Andre Norton, explores the other end of the Silk Road, featuring a former princess of the Han Court as its protagonist, exiled to the steppes. And, notably, Silk Roads and Shadows, the trope namer, wherein a princess of Byzantium heads east in search of the secret of silk.

As wonderful as their work was, Tarr and Shwartz were among only a few lonely voices in a field not yet ready for exploration.

Judith Tarr’s role skews slightly more historical in flavor than Shwartz, and with slightly different interests and locations, focusing on the diversity of Silk Road Fantasy in terms of geography and ethnogeography, and a strong focus on the Crusades. A Wind in Cairo features a protagonist transformed into a stallion during the wars between Saladin and the Christian Crusaders.  Similarly, Alamut (and its sequel The Dagger and the Cross) revolve around a prince of Elfland who gets caught up in events like the battle of Hattin and falls for a deathless fire spirit. The cultures, societies and vistas of her Avaryan novels, too, range from the Mediterranean to Tibet in their inspiration and wellsprings.

However, as wonderful as their work was (and still worth tracking down decades later), Tarr and Shwartz were among only a few lonely voices in a field not yet ready for exploration. The ’80s and ’90s were fascinated with faux-medieval worlds — the Four Lands, Midkemia, Osten Ard, and endless celtic fantasy trilogies — meant that the voices drawing on the Silk Road were few and far between. Drowned out. Nearly forgotten.

In the last few years, with the rise of other diversity in fantasy, Silk Road fantasy has returned to prominence. Among the foremost explorers of this long dormant sub-genre is the aforementioned Elizabeth Bear and the Eternal Sky trilogy. In his review of the first volume, Aidan Moher, editor of A Dribble of Ink, said, “Range of Ghosts is wonderful and compelling, a truly great novel that moves the genre forward by challenging and embracing its history all at once.” Bear brings a stunning variety of cultures, terrain,and indelibly memorable characters to Silk Road Fantasy, illustrating the potential for fantasy liberated from the strict terrestrial and historical influences embraced by a large portion of the genre, and fully embracing the potential for secondary world fantasy.


Art by: Frank Hong | Kyu Seok Choi | Daniel Kvasznicza | Alex Tooth

Elizabeth Bear may be the leading light of Silk Road Fantasy, but many others are beside her as she explores a ethnic and geographical history that remains elusive and unknown to many western readers. Mazarkis Williams’ Tower and Knife trilogy borrows on the Middle East and Central Asia in the sensibilities of the Cerani Empire. K.V. Johansen explores the deep, expansive history and mythology of a world inspired by landscapes and peoples of central Asia and Siberia, complete with a trade road that connects them all.  Chris Willrich’s second Gaunt and Bone novel, The Silk Map, takes his heroes west out of a China-like realm onto a Central Asian-like deserts and steppe in a poetically intimate story of family in the midst of looming conflicts and events to shape the future of the world, with magical guardians, trade cities, and and airship flying steppe nomads.

As alluring as the idea of fantasy inspired by lands outside Europe is, there is, as always, the danger of cultural appropriation when dealing with cultures, peoples and societies far outside one’s own. Taking merely a veneer or slapdash borrowing of the hard-won heritage of people with a history and concerns of their own is more than just impolite, it’s a real problem. Just as the ’80s and ’90s had a torrent of fantasy novels whose careless borrowings of Celtic mythology and culture frustrate historians and experts in that field, readers must be wary of encouraging Silk Road Fantasy that uses similar appropriations to give its world and air of mysticism and otherliness. Approached with respect, care and careful research, these settings and histories provide wonderful and fresh things for fantasy.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Buy The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu: Book/eBook

Is Silk Road Fantasy the next big thing? Some upcoming releases certainly indicate that its a booming sub-genre of secondary world fantasy. Ken Liu is publishing his first novel, The Grace of Kings, and Elizabeth Bear is working on three more novels set in her Eternal Sky universe. The vast potential of fantasy’s creative potential, Silk Road Fantasy and beyond, remains full of limitless potential. Consider a sword and sorcery novel set in a city inspired by Samarkand, or a secondary world road trip fantasy novel in the vein of Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. How about more novels that are inspired by the Mongols, the Tibetan Empire, the shamans of the Siberian steppe, the Moghuls, and others along the branches of that fabled trade route. I look forward to many other writers exploring the Silk Road, with careful respect and care to the source cultures, and writing in ink to Samarkand.

Written by Paul Weimer

Paul Weimer

Minnesota dwelling Ex-pat New Yorker Paul Weimer is a Hugo-nominated podcaster, Genre reviewer/columnist & writer. When he isn’t doing all of that, he loves photography and playing and talking about roleplaying games.

http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin     @princejvstin

  • BDG July 15, 2014 at 11:23 am

    With Flintlock fantasy becoming a thing as well I’d really like to see a novel that basically happens around the time the Indian Ocean trade is booming, with the Mughals, the Safavids, and the Ottomans being gun powder empires. You could even thrown in a little European piracy with the Portugese and Swahili city-states.

  • Aidan Moher July 15, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Stop waiting, BDG, and write it yourself!


  • BDG July 15, 2014 at 11:34 am

    My particular imaginings happen to far more inclined to North American-based fantasy so I’ll just wait for Django Wexler to eventually write them!

  • Aidan Moher July 15, 2014 at 11:39 am

    In that case, I hope you’ve read Maureen Kincaid Speller’s essay, They Are Not Ghosts, about the history of North American First Nations in fantasy.

  • BDG July 15, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Yes, it highlights the irritation of many First Nations I know.

    Stuff like that and this essay is why I keep coming back!

  • Sachin July 16, 2014 at 3:03 am

    I know India is probably off the map of the Silk Road – but Ancient India has been a treasure trove of myths and fantasies. Mahabharatha is a tale that rivals Lord of the Rings in its scope and epicness. I just hope some of the other tales gets written in a form that respects/cares this culture and puts it out for the speculative fiction fans of the world. Immortals of Meluha, now being released by Jo Fletcher might be the beginning of an avalanche :)

  • owlsmom July 16, 2014 at 5:10 am

    Worth a mention: Barry Hughart’s three marvelous tales of Number Ten Ox and Master Li. Bridge of Birds, Eight Skilled Gentlemen, The Story of the Stone. Set in a ‘China that never was’ and now more than 20 years old.
    And, perhaps one could add the ‘c’ in the first mention of Susan Schwarz’s name?

  • Paul Weimer July 16, 2014 at 8:20 am

    @sachin No, not really off the Road. Elizabeth Bear was motivated in part to write the Eternal Sky trilogy because of a friend of Indian descent.

  • NancyB July 17, 2014 at 8:11 am

    @owlsmom: One should not add a ‘c’ to Susan Shwartz’s name, for she spells it without one.

  • Jens July 17, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Great article!
    I expected to have Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novels mentioned which are set in a fictionalized version of China’s Tang and Song dynasty respectively.
    Also, it is somewhat funny that Midkemia is mentioned as a counter-example to Silk Road Fantasy (I like that term, by the way) when the Kelewan is modeled after Asian cultures.
    Nevertheless, Weimer is of course correct that these examples are few and far between.

    @ owlsmom: Sure, one could add a ‘c’ to Susan Shwartz’s name. Were it not for the fact that there is no ‘c’ in her name! :-p
    One should rather add the omitted ‘t’… ;-)
    Here’s a link to her website, which includes -among other things- the correct spelling of her name: http://www.sff.net/people/SusanShwartz/

    @ Aidan: You might also want to correct the for Judith “Judity” Tarr! ;-)

  • Jens July 17, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Hope I don’t come across as a spelling Nazi!

  • Davelcorp July 19, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    I second the mention of the Hughart novels. I read Bridge of Birds when I was a teenager and it really stood out as different from the other books I was reading at the time (Brooks, Donaldson, etc). I unsuccessfully searched for books in a similar vein at that time, and I am pleased to see this new trend. Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels have been very enjoyable as is Elizabeth Bears’.

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  • Brian Turner March 7, 2015 at 8:31 am

    It’s great to see cultural diversity becoming more normative in fantasy.

    But before we start bashing Mediaeval Europe, I’d like to point out that there are barely any fantasy novels that make any realistic attempt to bring to life the cultures of Mediaeval Europe.

    As I’ve said a 100 times already, swords and wenches does not make a story mediaeval!

    Instead, most fantasy novels are a pastiche of images that hope to invoke a sense of a fantastical mediaeval, but rarely ever touch on them culturally.

    This is one thing that sets a series like GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire apart – a clear historical influence that few other fantasy writers can cite.

    In effect, we’re seeing a breaking down of boundaries between fantasy and historical fiction.

    The more we see of that the better, and it doesn’t matter which cultural background is used – because fiction properly based in a mediaeval cultural paradigm will be as alien to the modern reader as any other.

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