Diverse settings?

So one of the things we hear all the time (relatively speaking) is that

a) publishers won’t buy fantasy that has other than a medieval-European-esque setting, and

b) this is because readers won’t buy other than same.

For example, from a comment here:

“I once heard a fantasy author talk about the fact that there’s so much pseudo-European/Tolkienesque stuff out there.

She said that basically, it comes down to the economic realities of the publishing business. The publishing houses who put out fantasy novels want to go with what they believe will draw their biggest audience, and 99 percent of the time, that’s European/Tolkien-style fantasy. She’d said that she once wrote a very detailed, dramatic novel set in a fantasy analogue of Egypt. After reading it, the publisher said, “This story is great, but the one thing we’d like you to change is the setting – we need it to be something more like medieval Europe.”

So, after a week or so of being upset about it, since she needed to put food on the table, she went ahead and reskinned the story as something with a more Norse/medieval flavor; and they published it.”

I don’t know. I like a good medieval-European-esque setting fine, if it’s well done, but I love a more exotic setting. Ever read BRIDGE OF BIRDS, for example?

And the thing is, many many many reviewers also say they love exotic settings. Every reviewer who raves about EON/EONA, for example.

So I don’t know. How much of this publishing / readership bias is real and how much is perceived? If I want to write a fantasy in a sort of Ottoman Empire-esque setting (which I do) should I? Or should I put that off in favor of a story with a more European setting? Or (worse) should I expect a publisher to want the story, but only if I change the setting?

As evidence of something or other, the nominees this year for the World Fantasy Award are —

a) ZOO CITY (Beukes), set in a near-future South Africa
b) THE HUNDRED THOUSANDS KINGDOMS (Jemisin), with a fantasy setting that is hard to categorize (if you’ve read it, how would you describe the setting?)
c) THE SILENT LAND (Joyce), with a contemporary European setting
d) UNDER HEAVEN (Kay), set in a barely-alternate 8th century China
e) REDEMPTION IN INDIGO (Lord), a Senegalese folktale retelling
f) WHO FEARS DEATH (Okarafor), set in Saharan Africa

What are we to make of this?

That publishers like exotic settings, as long as the books are good? It would be nice to think so.

Or that exotic settings may be a tough sell to publishers, but reviewers and award committees love ’em once they’re out? That seems believable to me.

Can we make any kind of extrapolation from this to what readers prefer? (My guess is maybe not really) (But hopefully many readers prefer great stories regardless of setting?)

I’ve ordered a) c) and e). I’ve already read b) and d) — both were great, but I’d vote for THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS over UNDER HEAVEN, which in my opinion had a weak ending. I haven’t ordered f) and don’t really plan to, because I read this author’s first book and just never really connected to the protagonist — though I did love the setting.

I really hope I love all the nominees and that none of them were nominated just because the exotic setting appealed to some committee somewhere. But this list does make me feel more like starting work on my (wonderful! fun! long and involved! with underground cities! and dragons!) Ottoman-esque fantasy, in the hope that publishers will turn out to agree with me that exotic settings are a great idea.

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3 thoughts on “Diverse settings?”

  1. I’ve been hankering for books that go beyond the generic medieval Europe fantasy setting for a while now. I’m entirely willing to be sucked into it by a really good book, but I’m more willing to buy a book off the shelf if it looks like it’s got a new and different setting to offer, precisely because of the way the differences in setting influence story and character. (Okay, the mere mention of griffins sold me on LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS, but I liked the addition of desert, too.)

    I adored UNDER HEAVEN (though I admit the weakness of the ending–I was pleased by the way the main character’s relationship worked out, since I’d been rooting for that particular girl from the beginning, but I don’t think it was handled particularly well, and all in all I felt kind of gypped out of an awesome ending) precisely because Shen Tai was not the sort of heroic warrior we find in most European fantasies. Sure, he’s a former soldier and trained with the badass Kanlin Warriors, and he does a bit of fighting on-screen, but the scene I found most gripping involved a duel with poetry, not swords. I’ve read criticisms that he’s too passive, and from a Western perspective perhaps he is–but he worked within his setting, and I loved seeing a different kind of hero.

    But UNDER HEAVEN sent me looking for other Asian-influenced fantasies, and I was dismayed to realize how few there actually are. (Need to check out BRIDGE OF BIRDS pronto!) Cindy Pon’s SILVER PHOENIX was quite fun (the main character’s constant descriptions of amazing food made me ravenous), and I’m really looking forward to Ellen Oh’s upcoming SEVEN KINGDOMS, based on ancient Korea.

    Ottoman-esque fantasy with underground cities and dragons sounds AWESOME. It’s got my vote. :)

  2. Well, gosh, I’m going to have to get a copy of Silver Phoenix now. Amazing food and an Asian setting? I’m in. Plus I just went and looked and I like the cover.

    I’ll have to decide what to work on this month so I can start it next month — choices, choices! I have fifty pages of this Ottoman-esque story done and I actually know most of the plot (with some sections where I wave my hands and say “And then he does something and she does something and they wind up HERE”.

    I do want to write this! Plus my brother may eventually want his books about the Ottoman Empire back. But even if I don’t get to it next, I can almost promise I’ll get to it sometime. Glad you like the idea —

  3. I think GGK may have ended Under Heaven the way he did because his story was about Shen Tai’s effect on others, not on Shen Tai. If that makes sense. That’s how it strike me, a year after reading it, anyway. Although I, too, thought the ending was uncommonly quick when I read it, I’ve been mulling it over since, and assuming the author knew what he was doing. He generally does, after all.

    Sean Russell (who has dropped out of sight in the last few years) set his first books in a land that seemed a combination of Japan and China. THE INITIATE BROTHER was the first title, GATHERER OF CLOUDS was the second. Someone on Amazon thinks the background assumed an incompletely successful conquest by Japan of China. I liked them at the time I read them, but haven’t looked at them for years. Still, if you’re interested in non-European fantasy settings, look them up.

    Also Kiji Johnson’s books that I have noticed are Asian-type settings. I have yet to read through one to the end, and they don’t stick with me, but other people like them. Kara Dalkey, too, writes non-European setttings. I think most recently she’s been doing Indonesian historical fantasy around the arrival of Europeans to the area. Her first book was a retelling of Anderson’s “Nightingale” set in ancient Japan.

    For young readers there’s also always Laurence Yep. Our daughter is quite fond of his fantasies both the DRAGON and the TIGER sets.

    And then there’s Cordwainer Smith, aka Paul Linebarger, Sun Yat Sen’s godson (or something like that), brought up in China. His work must be influenced by that, but mostly it’s unique.

    Michael Scott Rohan’s second book of the Spiral sends his hero off to Asia, with exciting happenings including Rama and war elephants in Boradubor (sp) IIRC (major isolated temple), with a side trip to Kong’s island before that.

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