Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Sense of Place - Fantasy and unusual settings

We've talked about this before on the Prosers, but a lot of reading for people is comfort. Sometimes, we want to settle ourselves into a familiar theme, group of characters, or story structure, and just get carried away on the drift of the story without wondering - wait, what just happened? Comfort reads are amazing, wonderful things that are integral to my relaxation. But sometimes, I want something new.

Many a comment has been made about the tendency for fantasy literature to be set in medieval northern-European type forests. I mean, if you think about it, it's kind of ridiculous, how unvarying the settings can be. Many of my favorite authors - Patricia McKillip, Lois McMaster Bujold - are firmly ensconced in their dark, cold forests for their main fantasy series. But as I sit here, wracking my brain, I can come up with an extremely limited list of fantasy that's not set in your typical northern-European forested land.

To be specific, I'm  not talking sci-fi here, or alternate histories set in a recognizable US or European or Asian setting (or South American - thank you Aliette de Bodard!). And I'm not talking urban fantasy either, which does a better job by at least taking place in a diversity of city types, or at least visiting them from time to time. And sci-fi is often all about visiting unique planets where the sense of place can vary as widely as the author's imagination. I'm not even talking YA fantasy, which does a pretty excellent job of utilizing unique settings (e.g. Sorrow's Knot by Erin Bow, or Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst).

So - where is the sense of unique place in standard fantasy fiction?

Here are the few examples I could think of off the top of my head. I'm sure I'm missing quite a few obvious examples.

N.K. Jemisin - the Dreamblood Duology

These two books take place in a richly detailed North African setting, with bonus unique magic. I love these books so, so much. Jemisin also gets bonus points for her setting in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I'm still reading the first book, but the heroine's kingdom is clearly non-European, even if the main setting of the book is more European-like.

Saladin Ahmed - The Throne of the Crescent Moon

Middle Eastern fiction and setting is starting to be a Thing, and I'm quite happy about that. See also Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson (though that is admittedly urban fantasy).

Terry Pratchett: Interesting Times, the Last Continent, Jingo, and others

Oh, Terry Pratchett. You had multiple books set everywhere from the Discworld's version of China, to its Australia and its Middle East. I'm still so saddened by your passing.

And... that's it. I couldn't think of any books in tropical settings (pro tip: googling "tropical fantasy" did NOT give me the list of the books I wanted).

What is my list missing? What are your favorite traditional fantasy novels with unusual settings?


  1. What a wonderful list. Sometimes I think that history gets too ensconced in a small section of Europe and leaves out the majority of the rest of the world. Perhaps this is why so many people grow up thinking that fantasy novels must be about that same geographical area. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but it'd be nice to see more stories taking place in mystical versions of African, Middle Eastern, South American and Australian countries. Terry Pratchet was one of the few authors who covered so many concepts, historical times and satirical versions of countries. He is and will continue to be deeply missed. Thank you for the recommendations of other novels which I haven't read as well.

  2. Well, speaking of Lois McMaster Bujold--I'm currently re-reading the Sharing Knife series (one of my comfort reads). That's clearly set in an alternate version of the American midwest. From the alligator infested swamps of the lower Mississippi river to the lake country of the north.
    Patricia Wrede's Frontier Magic series is also set in a (very different) alternate midwest.
    I haven't read this one in quite a while, but Barry Hughart's The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox is in an alternate China.
    That's what I can think of off the top of my head.

  3. Great post. My fantasy novel coming out in October is set in an ancient Roman feeling setting. But I found it difficult at time to make it unique!


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