Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Fantasy settings: what do you prefer?

A standard medieval setting with castles and kings, princes and princesses, dragons and fiery steeds? Thieves in the forest or in back alleys, battles with pikes and duals with swords?

I like all of the above, especially thieves. I know! Just another sheep following the herd! But I LIKE THIEVES! If, of course, they are well done.

Anyway, would you prefer the above, or would you reach first for a story set in an alternate Japan, with Samurai and fox women? (I have a particular liking for fox women.) Or China, with complicated politics in jade palaces? How about Ottoman Turkey, with onion domes and djinn? Or Africa — as far as I’m concerned, well-done elephants would definitely add to a story! (I also happen to have a particular fondness for elephants, but I’d want the author to have ready, say, Cynthia Moss’s ELEPHANT MEMORIES before writing that story.)

And I know, btw, that I am leaving out the whole category of secondary world fantasies that are really neither of the above.

But considering only the two categories Exotic and Standard, for me, it actually depends on my mood and whether I want to be able to “fall into a story” without much effort — if that’s the case, I would definitely prefer the more standard setting. If I want to really enjoy the worldbuilding, I might reach first for the more nonstandard setting.

As it happens, I now have more than seventy responses to this question, which I have sorted out very very very roughly, and here’s how they fall:

Nineteen respondents said they would quite strongly prefer a nonstandard setting. Eleven respondents (not included in the nineteen) said they would strongly prefer a specific nonstandard setting, with Asia being the most popular choice. One respondent specified that she or he particularly likes Victorian or other specific British settings, which is definitely nonstandard.

A further twenty-two respondents said they would lean toward a nonstandard setting, but they didn’t sound as firm in their choice.

Fifteen respondents said they strongly preferred and six leaned toward a standard setting.

Six respondents said setting is not important to them when choosing a book, but didn’t indicate what might be more important. Three respondents said it’s all about character for them; one said it’s definitely how appealing the plot sounds; two said it depends on how catchy the first line is, and two said the cover is very important to them.

So that’s something on the order of 30% of respondents saying they’d prefer a standard medieval European setting and something close to 67% declaring a preference for a nonstandard setting, with the remainder stating that other things matter more to them than setting. I’m simplifying because a good many responses were very thoughtful and said things like: It depends on my mood, it depends on whether the world seems well-developed, it depends on whether the author is treating an exotic setting as too much an “other”, and so forth.

Isn’t that interesting? Especially when from time to time one hears that publishers resist buying fantasy novels with nonstandard settings?

Now, allowing for the possibility that many people might underestimate the appeal of the familiar (which I think is likely) and the possibility that people might feel like they OUGHT to prefer nonstandard settings (which I think is extremely likely, note the commenter who said she (or he) was ashamed to admit preferring standard settings), and the possibility that commenters at The Book Smugglers are a self-selected group and might prefer different kinds of books than the overall fantasy readership . . . nevertheless!

I find it reassuring to know that a significant proportion of the readership definitely appears open to nonstandard settings. Maybe next year I will have time to pick up that Ottoman-ish fantasy I have the first part of, and if I do, you can bet that I will be referring to the above results to help get past any doubt that it’s a project worth working on.

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5 Comments Fantasy settings: what do you prefer?

  1. Matthew

    Ooh, an Ottoman book would be fantastic. I lived in Turkiye a couple of times, so books set in the area immediately grab my attention.

    I kept meaning to answer that question you posed about settings — basically, more nonstandard settings tend to initially catch my attention better, but good characters are what keep me firmly within the story. Well, unless it is a fantasy set in the Old West — they really fascinate me ever since I read Midori Snyder’s “the Flight of Michael McBride.” It’s a pretty small niche, of course, and not all of them are great… Luckily, every few years there is a “Territory” by Emma Bull or a “the Strange Adventures of Rangergirl” by Tim Pratt to get me my fix!

  2. Elaine T

    If you write an Ottoman-inspired book, Rachel, I’ll buy it.

    How would you describe the setting of your Griffin books? I guess it is closest to medieval Europe, but, especially in the second book, it doesn’t seem all that close to it. Yeah, kings, mages and dragons… er… griffins, but there’s a sense of something like an industrial revolution going on, too. And all that about law magic that comes up in #3. Definitely not standard issue setting.

    I can’t keep track of how many books I pick up and put down again unread because they all sound the same – yours never have.

    I wanted rather badly to like TERRITORY, but it didn’t work for me. I seem to be in a minority, though. I do like MICHAEL MCBRIDE.

  3. Andy Lang

    First of all, let me state that I am an admirer of your work. I just finished House of Shawdows and loved it! That being said, Bernard Cornwell is an amazing author when it comes to Medieval settings. I have read all his works. But, I would really love something more exotic. The Ottoman Empire and any work you build around it would certainly grab my attention. I would imagine developing characters, vistas and situations would take a lot more work and research, but if anyone can do it Rachel, you most certainly can! Upwards and onwards!

  4. Rachel

    Well, it would be an alternate setting just based on the Ottomans. But as it happens my brother happens to have a whole slew of books on the Ottoman Empire which I can borrow . . .

    Also, aw, shucks!

    Plus, I guess I need to look up Bernard Cornwell now.

  5. Rachel

    I think a lot of fantasies are pure secondary wolds, only very slightly spun off what we might call “standard medieval” tropes. Then you’re really sidestepping the whole standard/exotic dichotomy to some extent, though the setting will usually “feel” more exotic if it’s based on an alternate-exotic setting than if its purely secondary. I think. I bet you can think of exceptions.

    But I’d say the Griffin Mage books are in that kind of neither-standard-nor-exotic secondary world.

    I loved TERRITORY! But where’s the second half?

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