Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Weird fantasy worlds

So, via Twitter, I happened across this post by Jeff Somers at Barnes and Noble (and incidentally that link would not work from my phone, so B&N might want to figure out how to fix that). But good topic! Five “weird” fantasy worlds.

Now, I have absolutely no objection to a more generic setting. If it’s well done, I’ll love it, though I’ll particularly admire peculiar elements like the changing sky in Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts trilogy, not that the setting there was generic, but you get what I mean. But a more generic setting can showcase the writer’s skill in other ways. Nevertheless, I like the idea of compiling lists of truly unique settings.

Of course what caught my eye in this B&N list was the inclusion of the Raksura series, since anything involving the Raksura generally does catch my eye. The others: an interesting selection of brand-new to quite old titles:

Rider at the Gate, by CJ Cherryh, 1995

Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville, 2000

Empire in Black and Gold, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, 2008

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells, 2011

Under the Empyrean Sky, by Chuck Wendig, 2013

Updraft, by Fran Wilde, just out

Isn’t that an interesting selection? Of these, I have read Rider at the Gate and The Cloud Roads. I have Under the Empyrean Sky on my Kindle. I’ve read other stuff by Mieville and am automatically interested in his titles, but I must admit I don’t rush to read them. Some I’ve had on my actual physical TBR shelves for years (Un Lun Dun and Railsea). I’ve never heard of Empire of Black and Gold, but it sounds interesting, all these insect-people apparently. And I’m hearing lots of good things about this debut title by Fran Wilde, Updraft, and really think I must try it because it’s supposed to combine engineering with fantasy, which I would really enjoy.

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But, now, weird settings? Not just nonstandard or nongeneric, but actually weird. What do you all think?

Of the lot, I think Under the Empyrean Sky sounds the least weird:

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As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables, trying to earn much-needed ace notes for their families. But Cael’s tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas.

It sounds to me a lot like, well, any dystopia. I mean, with flying cities, but still. I picked it up because I wanted to try something by Chuck Wendig and Blackbirds sounded waaaay too dark. Also, Under the Empyrean Sky doesn’t sound like fantasy; technically, it sounds like SF. Genetically engineered corn, stuff like that. Which is fine, but if we’re specifically looking for weird fantasy worlds, does it count? I tend toward No on that one. You can do a Weird Worlds in SF if you like, but then I doubt floating cities could possibly be enough to kick you over into outstandingly weird territory — all the far future stuff is much weirder.

Rider at the Gate . . . maybe. I know, I know, technically that is SF, too, but it feels and reads like fantasy, so never mind. CJC handles the telepathic horse thing very differently, but then telepathic horses — telepathic animals you ride, in general — are not exactly new in fantasy. Though I’m very pleased to see a twenty-year-old book get a nod. Yes, please, let’s not forget all the old titles!

Anyway, here are a handful of titles I would tend to nominate for weird fantasy settings:

1. The City and the City, by China Mieville. That setting really is unique. And definitely weird. I’m not 100% sure I believed in it, but I really enjoyed it, and the story, too. This book is what got me interested in Mieville in the first place.

2. Scar Night, by Alan Campbell. I didn’t like the book very much, but a city suspended by chains over a bottomless abyss is very cool.

3. The Shattered World, by Michael Reaves, published waaay back in 1984. An age ago, the world was broken in a great cataclysm; now people live on the fragments, flying between them in ships made of the skins of dragons. It is hard to get much cooler than that. In fact, it’s really tempting to steal that idea myself. Let’s have swan chariots that fly between worldlets, pegasi, I don’t know, the possibilities are endless.

4. On a lighter note, the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fford, especially One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, which brings the crazy Bookworld front and center. Not even Terry Pratchett came up with a world as weird as that.

5. Godstalk by PC Hodgell, with that layer of myth over the everyday world.

6. Speaking of layering myth over the real world, how about Snake Agent by Liz Williams, which layers heavenly and hellish dimensions over the “ordinary” world of Singapore Three. You aren’t going to find many more original settings than that.

7. Bright of the Sky by Kay Kenyon — sort of more SF, I admit, but with immense storm walls and neverending rivers and a sky of fire and all kinds of elements copied from our world by the people of an alternate universe. Very peculiar, original setting, even if it is SF more than F.

8. Maybe Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.

Not sure I can get to ten. What have I forgotten? Other very peculiar fantasy settings (or truly original SF settings, why not?).

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3 Comments Weird fantasy worlds

  1. Elaine T

    I’d hoped other people would answer, but I guess I’l start and hope they join in. I remember the shattered world, that was certainly different.
    I’ve never figured out Ann Bishop’s geography in the Black Jewels – I have the impression some of it is different metaphysical planes rather than physical geography. But I haven’t reread in years. either.

    Way back when I read a trilogy by Tom De Haven, Chronicles of the King’s Tramp, which was like nothing else, and part of that was the weird world building. The apocalypse was being brought by a mudmonster and a bag lady and the Tramp and some other oddballs needed to save the world.

    The trouble is, when summarizing, they all sound like stuff we’ve seen every day. Ah well… I wouldn’t have picked the RIDER books as unusual worlds, either.

    Michael Scott Rohan’s WINTER OF THE WORLD (brought to mind by the Elliott post above) is a pre-historic ice world with mage-smiths and powers and flora and fauna carefully worked out. I don’t know if it qualifies as weird, (basic kings/heirarchical social structures) but definitely well thought out and unusual.

    Saunder’s two books of the Commonweal are egalitarian fantasy: no kings! No lords! at least none on the good guys’ side. Cooperative power trumps solo practioner sort of thing even when the solo enemy can do things like build a road out of despair. Even a genuinely unusual calendar (French Revolutionary calendar – me reading; what the heck is a decade as a span of time?). How weird are those elements? I wish you didn’t have to go to Google play to get it.

    The indie published SCARLET STAR (vol1) I just finished probably qualifies: Alternate American West post CIvile War setting. Weird blood magic and beings including rail wraiths, power that grabs railway parts and makes bodies out of them.
    Andrea Host’s PYRAMIDS OF LONDON is another unusual settting with vampires accepted, and the structure of the government as I remember it.

  2. Rachel

    I totally agree that the reader is not given a very clear idea of how the Black Jewels’ parallel planes (or whatever) work. I love this trilogy, but I love it despite its flaws.

    Scarlet Star sounds interesting. Oh, I see that is the series by Ben Galley that starts with Bloodrush. Yes, I have that on my Kindle right now.

    Although the most interesting line you offer is “building a road out of despair.” That reminds me of Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrill, with palaces made of rain and the sky speaking words in the flight of crows and so on.

  3. Elaine T

    About that road:
    “What was that?” Since Blossom got rid of it, Blossom should at least have an idea.

    Halt drops the spearhead point down in the turf, looks disapproving at it, taps it twice with the walking stick, frowns at the dust, finds a stable bit of grass so leaning on the stick works, and visibly discards the first three things Halt had considered to say. “The foundation of the road was despair.”

    “Solid despair?” I can understand how you would want to get vigour in the cranberries, but making a strong emotion solid is only marginally less strange than going and making a road out of it.

    “You know how there are different binding figures for enchantments? And the number of points matters?” Blossom’s quiet voice manages to be without the hope this is not a rhetorical “you know”.

    I nod. You see enough of the things, that gets obvious.

    “Minerals all have characteristic crystal shapes; you can get a bunch of different numbers of points that way, if you squint, and it looks like somebody had an empirical success in getting despair to bind to anything with a body-centred cubic structure. Because they were binding with individual atoms as the points, they could get an enormous amount of the stuff in there.” …

    Halt looks troubled. “It was not synthetic despair.”

    “How many people?” Even the amount of road we broke would be an implausible number.

    “Millions.”

    “Or hundreds of thousands, more than once. There’s no reason the drain is destructive.”

    Blossom’s ears repeat those words back, and Blossom winces. “Fatal.”

    Halt nods. “You could prevent crippling dread like this. The drained would be functional.”

    I look directly at Halt. Gets easier with practice.

    “It would unbalance the humours. Irrevocably, if repeated.”

    Humours are arcane, not physical. People would get crazier and crazier in a slow, rot-of-sense way.

    “Then why? An especially good road?”

    Blossom’s head shakes. “It’s not a good road, as such, but it might be a better defensive ward than they can produce otherwise. It could be like having a layer of salt in the road, to keep plants from growing up through it; all that despair makes it tough for the Hills to shift it around, the motivation for the change would leak out.”
    [the Hills move their geography rather a lot ]

    Deep breath. This is information.

    “Reems is under such external pressure they’re turning their collective despair into the enchantment binding together the road they’re driving forward in the hope of escaping their doom?”
    end quotes
    It’s a very interesting world.

    Sensualists … I think you could define the protaganists of James A. Burton’s POWERS and DOMINION as sensualists, especially about food. When you live umpty many centuries food is either a bore or cooking it well matters. For the protaganists it MATTERS.

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