Sunday, November 1, 2020

Year Of Worldbuilding in Fantasy # 10: A Wealth Of Fabulous Worlds

#YoW Year of Worldbuilding
#WiF Worldbuilding in Fantasy


Well, here we are: already on November 1, with Halloween immediately behind us, and only one more worldbuilding post date to go on December 1. (And I hope to have something special planned for that. J)

Reaching November 1 and #10 in the worldbuilding series, though, made me realize just how many fabulous worlds there are in Fantasy – far too many to encompass in eleven posts, alas. So this penultimate post is going to look at more than one author and world, just to squeeze a few more in under the wire.

Just by way of a reminder, these are worlds that have made an impression on me in their own right, evoking a “wow” response. I started the series with CS Lewis and Narnia, and he is famous for the phrase “surprised by joy” – a term I would paraphrase, in terms of Fantasy worldbuilding, as “surprised by delight.”

So here are a few more examples that have surprised me with delight, evoked moments of wow, and generally spun my fantasy-reading wheels.

The Alvin Maker Series by Orson Scott Card

I have only read the first trilogy of this series: Seventh Son, Red Prophet, and Prentice Alvin, all published in the late 1980s, although I understand there is a second trilogy, and a seventh, concluding novel potentially forthcoming.

The Alvin Maker worldbuilding made a huge impression because it was among the first epic fantasy series I read that wasn’t set in a quasi, medieval Western European milieu. It was also the first Fantasy world I encountered that drew on the folklore and history of colonial North America. 

I loved it: the weaving together of the magic/power of “making”, with “knacks” and “hexes”, together with an alternate historical geography of colonial North America that juxtaposes a Puritan republic in the north, with a Stuart kingdom-in-exile in the south, a still-extant Iroquois Confederation, here a separate republic, and a smaller United States and neighboring Appalachee somewhere in the middle.

As with most alternate histories, there is still enough real history to provide significance and recognition for readers. So this is still the colonial North America of religious difference, wars between Native Americans and white settlers, and of slavery, all of which play a significant part in the evolving story. 

There are also appearances by, or references to, real historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (the “red prophet” of the second book), and Mike Fink. 

As the series evolves, the magic of “making” evolves beyond component knacks and hexes into a symbiosis with the “greensong”, an eco-magic of the land and grounding in / balance with it – in that respect a little like Ursula Le Guin’s “equilibrium”, although otherwise these are very different worlds.

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Staying with fiction published during the 1980s and also set in the (largely) historical United States, but shifting into what is as much magic realism as alternate history, I have always been inspired by Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale.

 The heart of the book is the world, and the world is New York – Manhattan and Brooklyn and Up State – in a variant of Gangs of New York meets Westside Story. A world that is to all intents and purposes “real” – except, that is, for the magic: a white horse that rediscovers flight, a pursuit that traverses a century, a bridge of light to infinity… It’s a rich, mythic, and utterly fabulous world, especially if you like a Victorian Gothic overlay to your historical urban setting.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Leaping onward to the late 1990s, but lingering on the shores of magic realism imbued storytelling, brings me straight to Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. Instead of a mostly historical New York, we have contemporary French village and a tale that hooked me from the very first line:

“We came on the wind of carnival, a warm wind for February, laden with hot greasy scents … the confetti sleeting down … We are a curiosity to them, a part of the carnival, a whiff of the outlands…”

The heart of the world may be food (chiefly chocolate) but the sleepy world of village and river draw us in with their themes of self and other, light and dark, the divine and the mundane, the stranger amid a strange land that may perhaps become known… Not to mention far more than a dash of everyday magic to bring it into my fantasy lineup.

Northern Lights / The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman:

“Sometimes a book comes along that just seizes your imagination and for me, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights/ The Golden Compass was one of those books. I just loved it …”

I wrote these words in 2011, but they are still just as true now as they were then – and hard to believe to, that it’s a quarter century since Philip Pullman’s tale of snow and northern lights, panzer bjorn (armor-wearing polar bears) and Finnish witches, “dust”, alethiometers and daemons, was first published. I still love its alternative historical Oxford that opens the book, and the story’s prevailing Victorian sensibility, including an age of exploration and scientific inquiry – not least “trepanning” – but also of exploitation, including of children.

The City & the City by China Mieville

Published far more recently, in 2009, I experienced a definite moment of worldbuilding “wow” on first encountering the interlocked and overlapping cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma in China Mieville’s The City & The City.

I enjoyed the Eastern European flavor to the divergent cultural characteristics of the two cities in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion, governance, and architecture. The way the citizens are trained from birth to “not see” the overlapping city that is all around them is also fascinating, as is the physical way in which Beszel and Ul Qoma interact, like a series of unfolding puzzle boxes. Definitely an excellent example of a world that is close to a character in its own right.


So Many Worlds...

Other outstanding worlds of more recent times include the cities of Sky and Shadow in NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy – while the graveyard in Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book is a world entire of ghosts and magic within the larger, everyday world.

The Damar of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and Alan Garner’s dark and eerie Elidor from the book of the same name, are also seminal worlds for me.

And to return, in a sense, to my beginning, the world of Courtney Schafer’s Shattered Sigil series is shaped by the mountains and deserts of the American West – although the story and magic are a distinct secondary world, rather than the alternate colonial history of Alvin Maker.

So many fantastic and fabulous worlds, yet so little time to read and discover them all, yet alone post about them – almost an epic journey in itself, one you may be sure I shall keep pursuing in between my own writing. In fact, the pile on the TBR table has decided teeter-tottery characteristics…


Previous Months:

February: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia) by CS Lewis

March: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
April: Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire
May: Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente
June: Ship of Magic & the Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb
July: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
August: Tymon's Flight (Chronicles of the Tree) by Mary Victoria
September: DreamhunterDreamquakeMortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox
October: The Many Worlds Of Kate Elliott


Helen Lowe's 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 tweets @helenl0we

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