Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Year of Worldbuilding in Fantasy #3: "Sparrow Hill Road" (Ghost Roads #1) by Seanan McGuire

#YoW Year of Worldbuilding
#WiF Worldbuilding in Fantasy

I chose "worldbuilding" as my Supernatural Underground theme for 2020 because (imho) it's a glue that holds all the different strands of Fantasy out there together.

I kicked off the year with two influential examples from mid-twentieth century children's literature, The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by CS Lewis and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. Both are also what is known as "secondary world" fantasies, i.e. they are set in worlds that are clearly not our (primary) world -- although of course Narnia is connected to this world by the wardrobe.

I promised, however, to endeavor to shift between older and newer works and to look at more than one subgenre of fantasy. This month I make both those leaps by featuring Seanan McGuire's Sparrow Hill Road (Ghost Roads #1), and its companion The Girl In The Green Silk Gown (Ghost Roads #2), which are paranormal fantasy and first published in 2014 and 2018 respectively. They're also very much set in this world, so that's a hat-trick for 'the new' this month. :-)

The Ghost Roads worldbuilding is common to both books but established in Sparrow Hill Road, which is why I'll primarily discuss that today.

To quickly summarize what it's all about, the central character is Rose Marshall, who died on Sparrow Hill Road at sweet sixteen, all dressed up in her green silk gown and driving to the prom.  For the sixty years since she's been a “hitcher ghost” and psychopomp—i.e. a conductor of (other) souls to the afterworld—who travels the highways of America, where she's also known as the Phantom Prom Date.

Rose is simultaneously fleeing her murderer, Bobby Cross—a one-time heartthrob of the silver screen who has made a crossroads bargain for eternal youth, which is fueled by feeding his victims' souls to a vampiric car—and seeking to bring him to justice.

The reason Ghost Roads must be part of this worldbuilding series, though, is because the world is so powerful it's a character in its own right.

This is a world of highways and truck stops woven into the supernatural realms of the dead, from the Twilight down to the Midnight and back again. It's also a world peopled by a diverse range of ghosts, from “hitchers” like Rose to the “crossroads ghosts”—and the crossroads themselves, which are quite something else!—as well as related characters from folklore and myth, such as Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld.

Needless to say you can almost smell the road grease, the beer, and the fat and salt of the fries, as well as feeling the bite of a lonesome wind. Something else that strikes me, quite strongly, is how the world is a celebration of Americana in the context of road culture and associated folklore.

As you can probably tell, I really liked the worldbuilding in Sparrow Hill Road and the Ghost Roads series. So if you love ghost stories and urban fantasy, road trip tales and worlds that you can see and taste and feel as you read, then I suspect you may enjoy Sparrow Hill Road as much as I do.

Previous Months:

February: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
March: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin


Helen Lowe is a teller of tales and purveyor of story, chiefly by way of novels and poetry. Her first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. The second,The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012, and the sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood (Book Three), was published in 2016 and Helen is currently completing the final novel in the series. She posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, monthly on the Supernatural Underground, and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.

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