Fights of fancy ... a ninja master. Photograph: Toshifumi Kitamura/EPA
Some fantasy writers create landscapes profoundly alien to the reader – cities chain-suspended over bottomless gulfs, or floating pirate metropolises built on the hulks of ancient ships. And some stay closer to home, anchoring their magical or extraordinary events in real countries and cultures thinly disguised. My least favourite settings of this kind are those Diana Wynne Jones describes as "Pan-Celtic" in her Tough Guide To Fantasyland – Welsh, Irish and Scots geography and folklore slapped in the blender and pulsed on High, resulting in a larger-than-credible proportion of feisty titian-haired heroines, and, for the British reader at least, little sense of either genuine otherness or internal coherence. Possibly, for me, it's all just slightly too close to home; perhaps this is also why I have a weakness for fantasy that uses historical Japan or China as a springboard.
By choosing to set her books in feudal Japan, Lian Hearn imparts a restrained, poetic splendour to her five Tales of the Otori. The story of Takeo, who has grown up among the secretive Hidden, but whose lineage is more exotic than he suspects, is interwoven with Kaede's, the beautiful daughter of a noble house fighting to achieve and deploy the knowledge denied her as a marriageable female and useful hostage. Although Hearn's characters are sympathetically drawn, the books are particularly enjoyable because the reader is never sure what the author has invented and what she's derived from considerable, loving research. The "nightingale floor" of the first book, for instance, an assassin-proof terrace of planks that chirp distinctively when trodden on, sounds like pure fantasy, but is based in historical fact. There is plenty of murderous, belly-slitting action, but it's the delicate, back-handed negotiations between powers, ritual prostrations in the presence of the aristocracy and movement between strata in the inflexible hierarchy that I found most memorable about the series.
Feudal Japan also provides Nick Lake's recently published Blood Ninja with an atmospheric and successful setting. At first I thought vampire ninjas might be over-egging the fantasy pudding – especially vampire ninjas living secretly in a hollowed-out volcano – but Lake manages to ensure the blood-sucking never feels like a gimmicky attempt to clamber aboard the YA vampire bandwagon. Instead, the vamp "blood ninjas", or kyuuketsuki, are set up in apposition to the inflexible, honour-bound samurai. They have greater autonomy than the oppressed peasantry, and enough imagination to disguise themselves as lepers or untouchables to weasel their way into tightly-guarded situations. Like Takeo, Lake's protagonist, Taro, is a lad with a destiny – Lake is indebted to Hearn – but this is far from quest-by-numbers fantasy.
In The Two Pearls of Wisdom, an alternate imperial China similarly allows Alison Goodman to anchor dragons – the outright fantastic – in the complexities of a rigidly structured society where women are barely valued. To the crippled heroine Eon/Eona, the idea of a female Dragoneye, or champion bonded with a dragon to deploy its powers, is appalling, although it's what she's fighting to become. Goodman's convincing setting breathes new life into the overused fantasy trope of "girl dressing as boy to fulfil warrior dream" – Eon/Eona's horror at her transgression moves the story well beyond the realm of high-spirited jape, asking challenging questions about identity and self-acceptance en route.
I enjoy this kind of fantasy particularly because the subtle, inflexible hierarchies and traditions of ancient Japanese and Chinese society are enthrallingly different to the traditions I'm familiar with – but the writer still draws on history to inform their setting, giving the books gravitas and conviction. Can anyone recommend others in the same mould – perhaps some by Japanese and Chinese writers? Or tell me about your favourite fantasy settings.