You know what they say is most important in realty: Location, location, location. In fiction, it’s often true as well; an interesting setting can make or break a sci-fi or fantasy novel, either drawing the reader in or making them gnash their teeth in frustration. When I find a book with a vivid enough setting, it’s as though I’ve found a portal to another world.
In some works, the city is a character in and of itself, full of its own charm and nuance and personality. Here are five books with cities that completely drew me in, and had me hungering to know more.
Beszél and Ul Qoma — The City and the City by China Miéville
In The City and the City, we meet the twin cities of Beszél and Ul Qoma, cities that overlap geographically—however, it’s only legal to pass through from one city to another at a central point. To even acknowledge things in the other city is known as Breach, culturally one of the worst crimes possible. One might stroll through a park that is coterminous to both cities, and do one’s best to ignore those that are in the other city.
Into this, detective Tyador Borlú has a murder mystery to solve, a case that will take him back and forth between the two cities. Part of the wonder of the book is simply wrapping one’s head around the relation of the cities and their strange existence. While nominally set in our real world, this is one of the strangest and unreal cities on this list.
Chicago — The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
The Dresden Files is an urban fantasy series starring Harry Dresden, the only wizard in the Chicago phone book. It has everything you’d expect from an urban fantasy series (and more): parasitic vampires, scheming faerie queens, dark magic, Dungeons & Dragons-playing werewolves, and mortals in over their heads.
The wisecracking Harry Dresden is great fun to read, but part of the fun of the setting also comes from seeing how Butcher fits fantasy tropes into his Chicago, and seeing Harry fight in and around Chicago landmarks, or even better, occasionally magically animate them. Butcher’s Chicago mixes the familiar and the new and interesting ways, creating a Chicago that is at once both familiar and wondrous.
Dégringolade — The Clay That Woke by Paul Czege
In Czege’s RPG, enter the Dégringolade—a sprawling city, millenia old and long past its golden age, its ruling families reduced to petty lords. It’s a city filled with strange sights, wondrous and terrible, like the delicious weepfruit, or the harem of a hundred wives for a nobleman who died forty years ago, all of it surrounded by the dreamlike Jungle. Into this come the Minotaurs, dredged from the clay of the river, a menial caste that may hold the key to the rekindling of a new age.
But what the Dégringolade really does is hold a mirror up to our own society, taking modern issues like masculinity, discrimination, wealth disparity, and shining them through a fantastic lens. There aren’t any answers here, only questions.
London — The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
The only city on this list without any fantasy elements, early modern London is so compellingly depicted in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle that I couldn’t resist including it. Set amongst the rivalry between Newton and Liebnitz, the series deals with the rise of the sciences and the industrial economic system. The protagonists of the novels, Puritan and scientist Daniel Waterhouse, financial savant Eliza, and vagabond Jack Shaftoe, travel the world and visit many cities, all of them described in loving detail, but it is to London that they return again and again. The historical city is faithfully depicted, and our characters find themselves at many important historical events. From Trinity College to the Tower of London, from the lowest dregs to the highest rungs of society, the Baroque Cycle makes one feel truly present in history.
New Crobuzon — Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
Perhaps the most fantastic city ever imagined, New Crobuzon is a vast city in a Victorian fantasy world, a corrupt industrial capitalist city, filled with citizens who are truly alien, rather than the traditional fantasy cultural depictions. New Crobuzon is truly cosmopolitan, with bug-headed and mute Khepri, the froglike Vodyanoi, with the power to shape water, and the proud and bird-like
Garuda. In New Crobuzon, technology and magic exist side by side, and often combine with unexpected results. It is a dirty city, of mistrust and intrigue and revolution, of fantastic machinery, both political and mechanical, slowly falling apart.
Top image: Dresden Files art by Chris McGrath
Willow Palecek is the author of the upcoming City of Wolves, set in the eponymous city of Lupenwald. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and their two cats.