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.