The desert is one of my all-time favorite fantasy settings, not only because I most enjoy imagining myself someplace warm, but also because it can be just as beautiful as it is deadly. When I considered where to set the cross-country race in The Kinder Poison, I knew I wanted a setting that would be both enchanting and absolutely merciless for royal teams who are meant to prove they can survive both the human and environmental challenges in their way. If you don’t plan for enough food or water in the mountains, you can probably find a creek and edible plants. If you don’t plan carefully in the desert, it might be the last mistake you ever make.
The characters that go along with such stories often evoke the same contrast of beauty and brutality. Here are five of my favorite titles set in the desert.
The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh
Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but she soon discovers the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems, and neither are the deaths of so many girls… and worse, she is falling in love with him.
This sizzling One Thousand and One Nights retelling is set in a fantastical ancient Persia, and you can really feel the desert setting here as you travel with Shazi’s would-be rescuer over the sands, and especially during a particular scene where a storm moves through. This is a lush, immersive read whose intense setting perfectly matches the high-heat romance between Shazi and Khalid.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
In this brutal world inspired by ancient Rome, Laia’s family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do. But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia makes a desperate pact with rebels who promise to rescue her brother if she’ll risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
This page-turning fantasy will keep its foot on your neck for the entire read. The desert setting here adds another level of brutality for the recruits competing to be the next Emperor when death is already a possibility. With strong characters and plenty of plot twists, this is a definite must-read for fantasy lovers.
The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury
When Aladdin discovers Zahra’s jinni lamp, Zahra is thrust back into a world she hasn’t seen in hundreds of years—a world where magic is forbidden and Zahra’s very existence is illegal. She must disguise herself to stay alive, using ancient shape-shifting magic, until her new master has selected his three wishes.
But when the King of the Jinn offers Zahra a chance to be free of her lamp forever, she seizes the opportunity—only to discover she is falling in love with Aladdin. When saving herself means betraying him, Zahra must decide once and for all: is winning her freedom worth losing her heart?
This is another excellent romance with really beautiful desert imagery, and reading this felt like walking through a magical painting. I also really loved the strong female friendships between Zahra and the queen and the princess and her Watchmaidens. A sumptuous, cozy read for when you’re in the mood for the kinder side of the desert.
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself?
This is one of the most creative and expansive fantasies I’ve ever read, and the desert here is as wild and mysterious as Tarisai herself. One character in particular is bound to a desert oasis where something terrible occurred, and this contrast of beauty hiding cruelty resonates to more than one other character in the book. Reading this feels like you really have gone on an epic adventure and come back changed.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
Maya’s dream of following more scholarly pursuits is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…
But Akaran has its own secrets — thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most. . .including herself.
This is a vividly written fantasy steeped in Greek and Indian mythology, and the desert in this one is sumptuous with night bazaars to visit and twinkling gardens and reincarnation pools, the kind of book you can really curl up with and get lost in. The romance is timeless with plenty of twists, and Chokshi’s gorgeous writing will stay with you long after you’ve finished.
Natalie Mae is an ex-programmer, a dark chocolate enthusiast, and an author of young adult novels. She has also been a freelance editor and a Pitch Wars mentor, and she feels it notable to mention she once held a job where she had to feed spiders. When not writing, she can be found wandering the Colorado wilderness with her family. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @ByNatalieMae, and online at her website.