A barren desert with the heat of the sun waving a translucent flag in the distance. Three lonesome islands huddled together as if they can combat the tumultuous, frigid sea. A vibrant planet that pulses with vivid greens and blues against a devouring black galaxy.
Landscape is the foundation for the sci-fi and fantasy books that we love.
And yet, sometimes I find myself skimming the setting descriptions to get to the meat of the plot. But what I’ve found are a few exceptions. There are books that set the scene and engage the landscape in plot twists and turns. Those fantastical landscapes make me pause and reread. They make me see details. They make the words on the page stand up and breathe.
My love of photography has played a huge role in writing. Perhaps it’s because I’m terrible at landscape photography that I’ve taken more of an interest in fictional fantastical landscapes. I want fictionalized settings that feel tangible. It’s the books that take landscape to the next step, using it to add plot tension, practically creating another character, that ensnare me. These following five books are must reads for science fiction and fantasy fans who want to see a richly painted scene on the page.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
A cluster of kingdoms make up the world of Graceling. Cashore brilliantly pulls into play the elements of weather that naturally go along with changes of elevation and location in the world. As Katsa and Po travel out of Middluns and across the kingdoms, they’re faced with the difficulty of traversing mountains. In this book, Cashore describes the dangerous beauty of the land. The landscape comes to life in a pivotal scene where the heroine must trek through a severe storm. It’s the perfect man vs. nature scenario. This fantastical landscape is one that will leave you with vivid images running through your head long after you’ve finished reading.
These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner
Tarver and Lilac start out on a massive spaceship akin to a luxury cruise liner. From the very beginning, the plot is peppered with details of the ship, even giving us a glimpse of the galaxy beyond. But the real draw for me came once they left the ship on a pod and crash-landed on a fully terra-formed planet, complete with lush fields that ran into hills and mountains. In order to survive and be rescued, Tarver and Lilac needed to traverse the landscape in search of the larger ship that plummeted into the mountains. This story takes us through the dangers of the wilds found all over the strange planet. It’s not a book to miss if you want to delve into space opera with a vivid setting.
Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Set on Mars, Red Rising takes the reader into a fully colonized future of the red planet. Tunnels and sub-ground living exist beneath the cityscapes that rise on the surface. The juxtaposition of the two landscapes made the grit and grime below feel even darker and drearier. While on the surface, the landscape shined with wealth and luxury. The landscape acted as a symbolic representation of Darrow’s development and change throughout the novel as he transitions from a Red, the low-born underground group, to a Gold, the elite of all the inhabitants on Mars. For fantastical landscapes that reflect the mood and tone of the novel, Red Rising is a must read.
Angelfall by Susan Ee
In this post-apocalyptic version of the United States, Penryn goes on a reluctant journey out of her gang-ravaged city toward the hills and forests, and eventually on to a broken mess of San Francisco. The destruction and devastation felt full and real. In this unique novel, we’re treated with gorgeous descriptions of the smoky sky in contrast to the rubble and filth below. Every scene out of this book put a distinct image in my head.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Laia and Elias live in this old word civilization, inspired by ancient Rome, where the Martial Empire rules supreme. As they both face their own conflicts at a military school, we’re treated to snapshots of Roman-esque architecture and surrounding desert-like landscapes. When Laia is traversing through the desert, you can practically feel the heat emanating off the page. This book is full of harsh, gritty conflict that is perfectly paired with an even bleaker landscape.
Top image from These Broken Stars book trailer.
With a B.A. in English, Erin Summerill had aspirations to write the next great American novel. But writing proved tougher than she first thought, so she grabbed a Nikon and became a professional wedding photographer. When she isn’t writing, she’s chasing her four kids, two dogs, one cat, and five chickens. Erin and her family live in Utah. Her debut novel, Ever the Hunted, is available December 27th from Harcourt Children’s Books.