Ask any connoisseur of fantasy in any medium and you will find that one of the most alluring things about the genre is the setting. Think about Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings, a city carved into the face of a cliff, thick with history and hope, or Hogsmeade in Harry Potter, a place of color and chaos. Often, the settings in fantasy novels are as important as the characters that populate them. They demand a seat at the same table as the main players and the plot finds itself mercy to their whims.
My novel, The Wild Ones, is about a tribe of girls called the Wild Ones, who have experienced, and are survivors of, some of the worst things that can happen to a person. They travel the cities of the world via a magical corridor called the Between, saving other girls in the same situations they escaped from. They meet a boy who made it possible for them to become the wild ones and this time, he is the one in need of saving.
The Wild Ones is set in thirteen different cities around the world. The girls travel from Lautoka, Fiji, to Beirut, Jbeil, Jiufen, Agra, New Orleans, Istanbul, Chefchaouen, Marrakech, Gamcheon Cultural Village, Cairo, Lucknow and Tokyo. In my research, I found that every city has its own rhythm, its own song, and its own magic. Below, I talk about five different cities that I have read that have resonated with me.
Atlanta, Georgia, 2040 — Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews
The City of Atlanta in the urban fantasy series by Ilona Andrews is very unlike the contemporary city by the same name. The series is set in the near future, a time when the world has been drastically altered by magic. Magic in this world is not constant, however, but comes in unpredictable shifts. Magic will be up for hours at a time and then fall away. Technology is not compatible with magic so the people who populate this world and the city specifically have to be prepared for all situations. Cars are present but so are horses and mules. Andrews builds a city that is teeming with different kinds of supernatural creatures involved in the very prosaic business of surviving. The vampires run a casino and were-creatures have their own stronghold with a Beast Lord in place. There’s a fairy warren in a park and a no-man’s land in another district that defies all laws and logic of nature and magic. The on and off pulsing of the magic forces the characters of the novel to be aware of and interact with the setting in specific ways even as they go about fighting for both their lives and good. Andrews pays particular attention to detail as there are discussions about the rapid deterioration and breakdown of materials used in construction in this new environment and how this forces innovations in new buildings. The city is a delicious mixture of natural and supernatural, vividly alive and present in all the ten books in the series.
Seoul — Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh
The Seoul in Axie Oh’s Rebel Seoul is split in two: Old Seoul and Neo Seoul. The protagonist, Lee Jaewon, lives in Old Seoul but works in Neo Seoul. Old Seoul is humble, with narrow alleys, rundown pavements, street food stands and people who have little in the way of material objects. It is rich in shadows, however, and even richer in history. Neo Seoul is shiny, new, and soulless. This part of the city is home to those who have a lot of money but little heart. Neo Seoul is under a dome after a certain time every night, closed to everyone except the people who have homes there. Jaewon is a new recruit in Neo Seoul’s military division and is in constant conflict over his desire to rise above his humble beginnings and an increasing realization that there’s something wrong with the people he works for. Neo Seoul has Jaewon’s new friends and a promise of a prosperous future while Old Seoul is the home that nurtured him and is full of memories and also people who are, though not related by blood, family. As the story progresses and Jaewon makes his learns more about life and the people he thought he knew, his perceptions of Old Seoul and Neo Seoul change. Jaewon finds that Old Seoul is not as lacking as he thought and while Neo Seoul is glittery on the surface, it hides a rotten heart at its core.
Unnamed Middle Eastern City — Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The unnamed Middle Eastern city in G. Willow Wilson’s brilliant Alif the Unseen feels both familiar and strange at the same time. I don’t know about you but all I know of Middle Eastern cities are what I’ve seen on the news, mostly as backdrops to whatever crisis is currently going down in the area. Rarely is a Middle Eastern setting expressed on an intimate scale showing people who are simply living out their lives. The city in Alif the Unseen could be any of the cities in the Middle East. Its presence is not loud or distinct but defiant; the city defies all efforts to demonize it. As Alif and Dina flee the authorities and meet both foes and allies in their efforts to remain safe, the city is sometimes a haven and sometimes a prison. The unnamed city is an expression of modern technology and myth turned into reality. Djinns cooperate with hackers as the city turns friendly and then hostile. You can taste the desert and the dust, breathe in the arid wind, and feel the stone underneath your feet. At the end, the city streets are just as alive as the crowds of people on them, seeking freedom, seeking revolution, and demanding change.
Elantra (and the surrounding fief cities) — Chronicles of Elantra by Michelle Sagara
First, let’s put aside the cast of characters and the plot of the Chronicles of Elantra and simply focus on the titular city. It feels too difficult to describe Michelle Sagara’s City of Elantra because of how vivid and real it is in my mind. It honestly feels like a place to be experienced more than to be discussed but alas, discuss it we must. Some of the buildings in this city are sentient and have their own minds; they decide who they want to shelter and who they simply don’t care for. A door in a ramshackle store on a popular street, governed by a crochety old man leads to a garden which contains the purest (and magical) forms of the elements that can easily destroy the city. Dragons rule Elantra and traffic noise often includes dragon roars. The dragon king lives in a palace which contains a library that is jealously guarded by one of the most interesting characters in the series. Humans share the city with Leontines (lion creatures), Aerians (winged creatures), Barrani (think Tolkien’s elves), and other supernatural races. Across the bridge from the city are the fiefs, cities in their own right but much more sinister and much more dangerous. The castles in each fief are alive and aware, functioning on a very inhuman scale. Magic in the fiefs is sudden and violent. In contrast, the streets of Elantra are safer because the dragons are jealous rulers. When you return the plot and the characters to the city, the story gets rolling very quickly. The City of Elantra is the kind of setting I look for in every fantasy novel I read so that even when the story is over, I can still feel it breathing within me, alive and waiting for the next tale to unfurl.
Ketterdam — Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Much has been made of Leigh Bardugo’s brilliant Six of Crows, and rightly so, but I would still like to direct your attention back to the novel, specifically to the City of Ketterdam which serves as one of the settings of the story. Sources say it was inspired by Amsterdam but never having been there, I cannot say for sure. All I know is that in my mind, the city takes shape as something feral, something dangerous, something with very sharp teeth. Every person, fictional or otherwise, is a construct, in part, of the landscape they grow up in so it is not surprising that someone like Kaz Brekker exists in Ketterdam. Darkness that has nothing to do with the night clings to the city’s surfaces. Those who are privileged and lucky never get to see or experience its seedy sides but those whom fortune does not favour have to learn a separate language, one of survival, to continue existing on its streets.
Nafiza Azad is a self-identified island girl. She has hurricanes in her blood and dreams of a time she can exist solely on mangoes and pineapple. Born in Lautoka, Fiji, she currently resides in British Columbia, Canada where she reads too many books, watches too many K-dramas, and writes stories abo…….ut girls taking over the world. Her debut YA fantasy was the Morris Award–nominated The Candle and the Flame. The Wild Ones is her second novel.