In the best fantasy novels, settings are characters too. These created worlds are as rich and alive as the characters that inhabit their colorful landscapes. Of course characters — strong and fascinating ones — are integral to a compelling plot. But a great setting adds layers of dynamism and complexity to characters’ struggles. It’s Middle-earth and Westeros, Oz and Earthsea, Pern and Amber, and all the other fantastic worlds we love to inhabit which mold and shape the characters moving inside them into something greater.
The most memorable fantasy worlds feel as if they are real places that we’ve visited. In fact, we have visited them, in our minds. This is why we build interactive maps of Kings Landing, why we feel the hot ashen winds of Mordor on our cheeks, and why we can still taste the Mad Hatter’s tea on our lips.
Here are five fantasy novels with fantastic, awe-inspiring settings that have stuck with me long after I’ve read them.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
In Jemisin’s latest novel, we are thrust into the world of The Stillness, a mammoth supercontinent that, contrary to its name, suffers from massive, semi-regular earthquakes and environmental catastrophes every few hundred years. One would think that in such a world, life would be extremely difficult, and you’d be right. The novel’s three main characters — Essun, Syenite, and Damaya — are as shaped by the changing landscape as much as the landscape shapes their world. But what’s most interesting about this book is how these women have the power to alter their landscape, for good or for ill, through magic. It’s truly an awe-inspiring setting.
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
By all accounts, Miéville’s New Crobuzon should seem familiar to any city dweller: corrupt government officials, crowded street corners, dark alleys, a seedy underbelly, and a working-class center to drive it all. But what makes Perdido Street Station so fascinating is how Miéville takes these familiar elements and makes them utterly alien. There are the cactus-like Cactacae, cockroach-like Khepri, bird-like Garuda, half-human-half-machine Remade, and many more strange creatures who inhabit this world. But it’s the throbbing and pulsing city of New Crobuzon that is the most interesting character of them. The real protagonist in Perdido Street Station is New Crobuzon.
Updraft by Fran Wilde
In Wilde’s Updraft people live in giant towers of living, growing bone that rise above the clouds. On artificial wings, they fly between the towers or they walk rare connecting bridges of sinew. The towers are haunted by skymouths, creatures invisible until attack. And the city is defended by the Singers, who want Kirit, the main character, to join their secretive order. The setting doesn’t serve as a mere backdrop for Kirit, but affects her every decision. Flying well among these towers of bone is the difference between life and death. A landscape as wondrous and mysterious as any I’ve encountered in a long while, Updraft definitely has an awe-inspiring setting.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola
If you haven’t encountered Amos Tutuola’s 1952 novel, go to your local bookstore or library and request it now. It is not like anything you’ve ever read. Growing up in Nigeria, Tutuola was raised by Christian cocoa farmers and went to school for only six years, because he needed support his family financially after his father died. Heavily influenced by the Nigerian Yoruba folktales, The Palm-Wine Drinkard was the first African novel published in English outside Africa. It recounts the story of a man who is addicted to palm wine. When his brewer dies, he becomes desperate for more wine and sets off for the “Dead’s Town” in order to bring the brewer back. He crosses frightening landscapes and meets terrifying supernatural beings along the way — all to get more wine! Some may be put off by the modified Yoruba English that gives his prose a raw quality, but others have said this connects the reader more closely to the Yoruba folktales on which the novel is based. Either way, you’ll never read a book quite like this.
The Swamp Thing, Vols. 1-6, by Alan Moore
I’m going out on a limb and adding a graphic-novel series to this list. Much has been said about the mad, literary genius of Alan Moore. Often it’s his Watchmen, V for Vendetta, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that get spoken about the most. But his run of Swamp Thing stories were some of the best fiction in any medium I’ve ever read. In “My Blue Heaven,” the earth elemental Swamp Thing creates an entire society on an empty blue planet out of his memories, only to tear it all down when he recognizes its unreality. In “Down Amongst the Dead Men,” the Swamp Thing descends into a version of Dante’s hell to rescue his lover, Abby Arcane, journeying through bizarre, nightmarish, and psychedelic settings worthy of any big-budget Hollywood film, but with a delicate care and sharp intelligence seldom seen in any medium. Enormous credit must be given to the artistic team for creating as colorful and eye-popping settings as any I’ve seen in graphic fiction.
Top image from The Saga of the Swamp Thing #6, art by Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala.
Matthew Kressel is a multiple Nebula Award-nominated author and World Fantasy-award nominated editor. His debut novel King of Shards comes out October 13, 2015. His short fiction has appeared in many venues, such as Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, io9.com, Apex Magazine, Interzone, and other markets. With partner-in-crim Ellen Datlow he hosts the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan. Find him online at matthewkressel.net.