Many epic fantasy worlds are loosely based on medieval Europe – for example the bulk of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. There’s lots of reasoning for this, and, personally, I like reading this type of setting. However, it’s always refreshing to read fantasy worlds set in, or inspired by, non-western settings such as Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
My latest novella, The Sand Scuttler, is set in a desert world called Drome, and has some Arab references and settings inspired by the Middle East, Tanzania and Nepal. (Read my settings inspiration blog here).
I thought I’d pull together a list of other epic fantasy / low fantasy / high fantasy / sword and sorcery / grimdark / YA fantasy books that have desert settings. Below are 15 books, in no particular order, that I’d love to read one day and a couple that I have read and enjoyed.
1) The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1) by Stephen King
Beginning with a short story appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1978, the publication of Stephen King's epic work of fantasy -- what he considers to be a single long novel and his magnum opus -- has spanned a quarter of a century.
Set in a world of extraordinary circumstances, filled with stunning visual imagery and unforgettable characters, The Dark Tower series is King's most visionary feat of storytelling, a magical mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror that may well be his crowning achievement.
In The Gunslinger (originally published in 1982), King introduces his most enigmatic hero, Roland Deschain of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting, solitary figure at first, on a mysterious quest through a desolate world that eerily mirrors our own. Pursuing the man in black, an evil being who can bring the dead back to life, Roland is a good man who seems to leave nothing but death in his wake.
My note: The opening of this book is brilliant. It’s as follows: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I read this one a couple of years ago, and although I enjoyed it, I didn’t LOVE it.
2) Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (The Song of the Shattered Sands #1) by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings -- cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings' laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings' mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings' power...if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don't find her first.
3) Empress (Godspeaker Trilogy #1) by Karen Miller
Her name is Hekat. And she will be slave to no man.
In a family torn apart by poverty and violence, Hekat is no more than an unwanted mouth to feed, worth only a few coins from a passing slave trader.
But Hekat was not born to be a slave. For her, a different path has been chosen. It is a path that will take her from stinking back alleys to the house of her god, from blood-drenched battlefields to the glittering palaces of Mijak.
This is the story of Hekat, slave to no man.
My note: I read this one around the time it came out in 2008 and I LOVED it. It definitely remains one of my favourite fantasy novels. I went on to read book two and three, waiting patiently for them to come out but I didn’t love them as much as the first book.
4) The Desert Spear (Demon Cycle #2) by Peter V. Brett
The sun is setting on humanity. The night now belongs to voracious demons that prey upon a dwindling population forced to cower behind half-forgotten symbols of power.
Legends tell of a Deliverer: a general who once bound all mankind into a single force that defeated the demons. But is the return of the Deliverer just another myth? Perhaps not.
Out of the desert rides Ahmann Jardir, who has forged the desert tribes into a demon-killing army. He has proclaimed himself Shar'Dama Ka, the Deliverer, and he carries ancient weapons--a spear and a crown--that give credence to his claim.
But the Northerners claim their own Deliverer: the Warded Man, a dark, forbidding figure.
Once, the Shar'Dama Ka and the Warded Man were friends. Now they are fierce adversaries. Yet as old allegiances are tested and fresh alliances forged, all are unaware of the appearance of a new breed of demon, more intelligent—and deadly—than any that have come before.
My note: Yep, this is the second book in the series, the first being The Painted Man. However it is set in a desert, and according to a couple of reviews, it can be enjoyed as a standalone.
5) Sword-Dancer (Tiger and Del #1) by Jennifer Roberson
SOUTHRON BLADE SKILL, NORTHERN SWORD MAGIC...
He was Tiger, born of the desert winds, raised as a slave and winning his freedom by weaving a special kind of magic with a warrior's skill. Now he was an almost legendary sword-dancer, ready to take on any challenge--if the price was right...or the woman pretty enough.
She was Del, born of ice and storm, trained by the greatest of Northern sword masters. Now, her ritual training completed, and steeped in the special magic of her own runesword, she had come south in search of the young brother stolen five years before.
But even Del could not master all the dangers of the deadly Punja alone. And meeting Del, Tiger could not turn back from the most intriguing challenge he'd ever faced--the challenge of a magical, mysterious sword-dancer of the North.
My note: This one was published in 1986 and I love the eighties-vibe cover which kinda reminds me of She-Ra. One reviewer on Goodreads calls it “cheesy” but I feel like it would be an enjoyable retro fantasy romp.
6) Throne of the Crescent Moon (The Crescent Moon Kingdoms #1) by Saladin Ahmed
The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings:
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.
Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s young assistant, is a hidebound holy warrior whose prowess is matched only by his piety. But even as Raseed’s sword is tested by ghuls and manjackals, his soul is tested when he and Adoulla cross paths with the tribeswoman Zamia.
Zamia Badawi, Protector of the Band, has been gifted with the near-mythical power of the lion-shape, but shunned by her people for daring to take up a man’s title. She lives only to avenge her father’s death. Until she learns that Adoulla and his allies also hunt her father’s killer. Until she meets Raseed.
When they learn that the murders and the Falcon Prince’s brewing revolution are connected, the companions must race against time—and struggle against their own misgivings—to save the life of a vicious despot. In so doing they discover a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn Dhamsawaat, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin.
My note: This is described as ‘traditional swords & sorcery fantasy with an authentic middle-eastern spin’ and sounds pretty awesome! I used to live in Dubai and love anything Middle-Eastern.
7) The Blue Sword (Damar #1) by Robin McKinley
Harry Crewe is an orphan girl who comes to live in Damar, the desert country shared by the Homelanders and the secretive, magical Hillfolk. Her life is quiet and ordinary-until the night she is kidnapped by Corlath, the Hillfolk King, who takes her deep into the desert. She does not know the Hillfolk language; she does not know why she has been chosen. But Corlath does. Harry is to be trained in the arts of war until she is a match for any of his men. Does she have the courage to accept her true fate?
8) Sand of Bone (Desert Rising #1) by Blair MacGregor
Syrina – descendent of the gods, one of the Velshaan who rule the deserts and deltas, cast out by her bloodkin for daring to reject their intrigues.
They thought exile to Salt Hold – surrounded by parched earth and outcast Blades who despise her – would end her defiance. But Salt is safer than the grand alcazar of home when she uncovers the secrets of commanding sand, fire, water, wind – the power mixed with ambition that nearly destroyed her bloodkin in generations past.
Pyrius was the desert's most respected Blade Commander until the bloodkin sentenced him to Salt. But he finds a way to keep his Blade vows while still exacting revenge when he chooses to serve the exiled Velshaan Syrina. When her bloodkin's threats become actions, Pyrius sets a plan in motion that will either prevent the looming civil war simmering in the desert's heat or see them all fed to the sands for sedition.
Because Syrina's ability to control the desert's deepest elements is still fickle and raw – too weak to defeat her bloodkin, strong enough her bloodkin want her stopped before she learns more. The gods demand a soul in trade, and the fate of the living rests upon the redemption of the dead.
9) Rebel of the Sands (Rebel of the Sands #1) by Alwyn Hamilton
Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mythical beasts still roam the wild and remote areas, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinn still perform their magic. For humans, it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female.
Amani Al’Hiza is all three. She’s a gifted gunslinger with perfect aim, but she can’t shoot her way out of Dustwalk, the back-country town where she’s destined to wind up wed or dead.
Then she meets Jin, a rakish foreigner, in a shooting contest, and sees him as the perfect escape route. But though she’s spent years dreaming of leaving Dustwalk, she never imagined she’d gallop away on mythical horse—or that it would take a foreign fugitive to show her the heart of the desert she thought she knew.
Rebel of the Sands reveals what happens when a dream deferred explodes—in the fires of rebellion, of romantic passion, and the all-consuming inferno of a girl finally, at long last, embracing her power.
10) Secrets of the Sands (Children of the Desert #1) by Leona Wisoker
Cafad Scratha, a powerful desert lord with a persecution complex, believes everyone is lying to him. When his obsession collides with the king's efforts to rebuild the shattered realm, the orphaned street-thief Idisio and the king's emissary Alyea become pawns in their multilayered game. The secret world into which Idisio and Alyea are drawn will not only change their lives: it will change them.
11) The Desert of Souls (The Chronicles of Sword and Sand #1) by Howard Andrew Jones
The glittering tradition of sword-and-sorcery sweeps into the sands of ancient Arabia with the heart-stopping speed of a whirling dervish in this thrilling debut novel from new talent Howard Andrew Jones.
In 8th century Baghdad, a stranger pleads with the vizier to safeguard the bejeweled tablet he carries, but he is murdered before he can explain. Charged with solving the puzzle, the scholar Dabir soon realizes that the tablet may unlock secrets hidden within the lost city of Ubar, the Atlantis of the sands. When the tablet is stolen from his care, Dabir and Captain Asim are sent after it, and into a life and death chase through the ancient Middle East.
Stopping the thieves—a cunning Greek spy and a fire wizard of the Magi—requires a desperate journey into the desert, but first Dabir and Asim must find the lost ruins of Ubar and contend with a mythic, sorcerous being that has traded wisdom for the souls of men since the dawn of time. But against all these hazards there is one more that may be too great even for Dabir to overcome...
12) The Thousand Names (The Shadow Campaigns #1) by Django Wexler
In the desert colony of Khandar, a dark and mysterious magic, hidden for centuries, is about to emerge from darkness.
Marcus d’Ivoire, senior captain of the Vordanai Colonials, is resigned to serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost, when a rebellion leaves him in charge of a demoralised force in a broken down fortress.
Winter Ihernglass, fleeing her past and masquerading as a man, just wants to go unnoticed. Finding herself promoted to a command, she must rise to the challenge and fight impossible odds to survive.
Their fates rest in the hands of an enigmatic new Colonel, sent to restore order while following his own mysterious agenda into the realm of the supernatural.
13) The Will of the Wanderer (Rose of the Prophet #1) by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Since time began, twenty Gods have ruled the universe. Though each god possessed different abilities, each was all-powerful within his realm. Now one of the Gods has upset the balance of power, leaving the others scrambling for control in the new order...
Here is the epic tale of the Great War of the Gods—and the proud people upon whom the fate of the world depends. When the God of the desert, Akhran the Wanderer, declares that two clans must band together despite their centuries-old rivalry, their first response is outrage. But they are a devout people and so reluctantly bow to his bidding.
Enemies from birth, the headstrong Prince Khardan and impetuous Princess Zohra must unite in marriage to stop Quar, the God of Reality, Greed, and Law, from enslaving their people.
But can Khardan and Zohra keep from betraying each other? Can their two peoples maintain their fragile alliance until the long-awaited flowering of the legendary Rose of the Prophet?
Against the powerful legions of the evil Amir, Khardan and Zohra fight to save the desert people—a fight unexpectedly joined by an exiled wizard named Matthew and the mysterious powers of his alien land.
14) A Star-Reckoner's Lot (A Star-Reckoner's Legacy #1) by Darrell Drake
Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there's ever been.
She commands the might of the constellations... though her magic is as unpredictable as the die rolls that decide its fate. But star-reckoners are humanity's first defense against divs, so if Ashtadukht is to fulfill her duty, she must use every trick at her disposal—risks be damned.
An excuse. A lie she tells herself. All that remains of a life she should have had. She travels the empire to hunt down the div that brought her world to ruin. The longer her pursuit, the more her memories threaten to consume her. The darker her obsession becomes.
Every spell is a catastrophe waiting to happen, every div a tale of its own, every tale a thread in her tapestry of vengeance. This is the story of her path... a warning to those who would follow in her footsteps.
Ashtadukht is a star-reckoner. The worst there's ever been. Hers is no hero's journey.
My note: This one sounds super interesting as it’s inspired by the ‘history and culture of 6th-centure Sasanian Iran’ which is an era and location completely new to me!
15) The Dreamblood Duology (Dreamblood #1-2) by N.K. Jemisin
The Dreamblood Duology includes the novels The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun.
The city burned beneath the Dreaming Moon.
In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers -- the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe... and kill those judged corrupt.
But when a conspiracy blooms within Gujaareh's great temple, Ehiru -- the most famous of the city's Gatherers -- must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is murdering dreamers in the goddess' name, stalking its prey both in Gujaareh's alleys and the realm of dreams. Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill -- or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic.
If you have any other fantasy recommendations of books with desert settings let me know if the comments below! There’s also a great list with lots more ideas on Goodreads here.
The Sand Scuttler is available in ebook from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Google Play Books and Smashwords. You can read the first chapter here.
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