World-Building Wednesday

For those of you who have read any of our book reviews, you'll know that we love good world-building and can be kind of sticklers when we feel it's not up to par. But what makes world-building good? When is it inadequate? Where is the line between too much Real World influence and not enough realism?

These are all things we often discuss, and a few of you have expressed interest in these topics as well. So, we thought we'd write up a few posts discussing world-building. To kick things off, we'll give you a few quick examples of world-building we liked in recently (relatively speaking) read books.


Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor possesses two richly-rendered worlds: cold misty stony Prague and a fantasy world rich with magic, angels, chimeras, and war.  The scenery is stunning, the prose lovely, and the magic systems striking without being vague or overly detailed.

Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott is a fine example of a fantasy world based on a Real World culture (in this case Japanese culture) without grounding the story in a particular time period or even necessarily making it set in Japan.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman features an exemplary clash of cultures: dragons versus humans.  The dragons in this book are cold mathematically-minded sentient creatures who--wait for it--do not feel human.  This may sound like an obvious facet of world-building a non-human race and culture, but far too often in fantasy books the dragons/gryphons/faeries/etc. think, act, and behave exactly like humans.  In other words, the non-humans are merely humans exoticized by having four legs, a tail, and fur or scales.  Kudos to Ms. Hartman for crafting an unusual and viscerally non-human race!

When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen - This is a book that Alz didn't like because it was (oddly enough) all world-building with very little plot.  But that world-building was spectacular--atmospheric, damp, moody, dark.  The city of Pelimburg felt real and solid, all wood and stone and mist by the sea, its social systems complex, its various cultures and races and creatures diverse and at odds with each other.  These people have their own distinct mythologies and histories, and their interactions are always laced with intrigue and undertones of deceit.  It's just too bad that there was no easily discernable story to go with this beautiful world.

Graceling & Fire by Kristin Cashore We really liked Fire because it made neon-colored animals like chartreuse hawks and pink kittens with fascination powers seem non-ridiculous.  As for Graceling, the exploration of how Graces are used and taken advantage of was pretty interesting, and it had fascinating political implications.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater - The island of Thisby is atmospheric and grounded in a reality that is easily believed. It's the picture of a small, mostly rural community that subsists on the tourism brought in by their one magical draw- the vicious water horses. Everything about the island and its hardy people is brought so believably alive that it's easy to believe in the existence of flesh-eating horses that appear out of the sea. The water horses themselves are recognizably horse-like and yet frighteningly alien as well.


Of course, there are other great examples of world-building, and we'll probably discuss those in later posts (as well as these again).

Q4U: Where else have you found examples of great world-building?


Julie Dao said...

Great choices... I actually haven't read any of these. Shadows on the Moon sounds especially fascinating! My favorite world-building took place in Harry Potter, no contest.

Emy Shin said...

Is it cheating to say Harry Potter? J.K. Rowling is luckier than most writers because she has 7 books to flesh out her world -- but I imagine most readers fall in love with Hogwarts from the very first book because it's so vividly imagined.

And I second Laini Taylor's DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE. Her descriptions of Prague have me desperately wanting to visit it.

Golden Eagle said...

Thanks for the list of examples. I agree on The Scorpio Races--Stiefvater's descriptions were very good.

Connie Keller said...

Taylor's descriptions of Prague did make me yearn to visit it.

The other books sound great, especially Shadows on the Moon. Hmm. Might be time to add another book to my TBR pile.

Sarah Goldberg said...

I am now putting SHADOWS ON THE MOON on my TBR list! I have already put SERAPHINA on hold from the library, based on Alice's skillful twitter recommendation.

Two others whose world-building I've quite liked have been Holly Black's Curseworkers Series (I still haven't read book three, though), and Catherynne Valente's DEATHLESS. Ooh, also the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde.

Juliana L. Brandt said...

Poison Study is one of my favorite books world-building wise and I couldn't leave out Abhorsen :)

I'm adding some of these to my TBR list, now!

Lydia Kang said...

Great examples! I'm reading Fire now and I can always see those monsters so vividly in my mind.

linda said...

The only books on your list I've read are the Cashore ones, and I wasn't impressed with the world-building for Graceling. Fire was better, I think.

For me, I don't ever fall in love with books for world-building alone, though it still matters since I notice if things don't make sense or if there are big gaping holes. But if the characters or plot don't do it for me, a book with amazing world-building isn't going to make it to my favorites list. I can and have loved books solely for plot or characters, though.

Anyway, thanks for the great post, and I'm looking forward to more posts on this subject! :)