Fantastical settings are one of the major draws of speculative fiction. The places where novels are set don’t just provide a backdrop for the plot, they often drive it. They establish the tone of the story and inform the sensibilities of the characters. Nowhere is this truer than in fictional cities, which are both the product of and the backdrop for the characters and their cultures.
These cities are Weird-with-a-capital-W. They’re freakish and fascinating. They’re constructs that reflect the anxieties and aspirations of their societies, and they’re palimpsests for histories that have been built, destroyed, and redefined over generations. Their crooked alleys and towering buildings frame the stories of savvy world-beaters and set the stage for epic clashes of ideology.
Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone
Floating towers hover over centuries-old step pyramids in Dresediel Lex, a city that has replaced the providence of its bloodthirsty gods with the merciless sorcery of corporate Craftsmen. It’s a city in which the old ways clash violently with the new, and the distinction between winners and losers in a rapidly modernizing megalopolis of sixteen million is beautifully nuanced. Magic here is not a panacea—the Craft that keeps the lights on in Dresediel Lex requires payment in soulstuff, the very fiber of one’s being.
The Scar by China Miéville
Perdido Street Station is a mystery-thriller set in a brutal, squalid city of steam and thaumaturgy; The Scar ups the ante with Armada, a floating city of pirates, fugitives, and explorers. Armada is a true leviathan that survives by preying on unwary ships, expanding itself with the stolen vessels and their press-ganged crews. The residents themselves have a strange symbiosis with Armada, where they’re technically prisoners yet demonstrably freer than in New Crobuzon. True to form for any Miéville novel, Armada swarms with factional politics, with opposing groups jockeying to control the very direction of their massive flotilla.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
The setting is Johannesburg, a vibrant city transformed by the presence of the “animalled,” people guilty of terrible deeds who become magically bound to animal familiars, or mashavi. Mashavi serve as stigmas that bar their owners from respectable jobs and neighborhoods, drawing them ever deeper into the ubiquitous criminal underworld. It’s a fantastical and noirish twist that explores how individuals cope with guilt as well as the ways in which societies shun and shame their outcasts.
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
The Slavic-flavored city of Bulikov was once the seat of an empire favored by the gods. Miracles powered its industry and defended its walls. Until its colony, Saypur, developed a weapon capable of killing gods. Now, Bulikov’s gods are dead, its miracles have dried up, and what’s left of the broken, devitalized Continent is run by Saypur. Decadence and ruin mingle beautifully in Bulikov’s cracked, grey streets, and grievances ancient and fresh fester between the city’s dissolute patricians and their Saypuri conquerors.
Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers
Both glamorous and grotesque, the terraced city of Veridon is veined with canals and fleshed out (or cogged out?) with a complex social hierarchy, cutthroat politics, and mechanistic body modifications that would feel at home in gritty cyberpunk. Zeppelin pilots jack into their ships, and the Church of the Algorithm at the heart of the city twitches and pulses through the constant motion of innumerable cams and pistons. It’s pseudo-clockpunk, but Veridon is far more than a maze of gears and springs—each corner of the city, from the pristine mountaintop estates of the founding families to the riverbed at the foot of the docks where the reanimated Fehn dwell, is full of marvels and surprises.
Originally published March 2015.
Carrie Patel was born and raised in Houston, Texas. An avid traveller, she studied abroad in Granada, Spain and Buenos Aires, Argentina. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Texas A&M University and worked in transfer pricing at Ernst & Young for two years. She now works as a narrative designer at Obsidian Entertainment in Irvine, California, where the only season is Always Perfect. Her debut novel The Buried Life is available from Angry Robot. You can find Carrie on Twitter @Carrie_Patel.