Fantasy worlds that are not ordinary planets

As I’m sure you all have noticed, as a rule, fantasy novels are set on planets.

If you had time and money and perhaps some tough friends and possibly a boat, you could travel around the planet, which is, like any other planet, roughly spherical. If you did, you would encounter normal planetary stuff in roughly ordinary locations: it’s cold at the poles and (if the author is basing their planet on earth) deserts exist at roughly 30 degrees latitude. Tropical forests exist toward the equator. Presumably if you took off and headed for space, you would find space. Granted, sometimes the stars are not exactly stars; sometimes they’re personified, as in Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, for example. Or the sky is obviously not just space with stars and stuff, as in Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, where the sky changes dramatically depending on which polity rules a region at the moment.

Anyway, obviously Tuyo is not set on a planet. Plainly the world is flat. Or if it’s not flat, it certainly isn’t spherical. It might be Escheresque or something, I’m not sure. But definitely not a planet.

What are some other fantasy worlds that aren’t set on planets? I can come up with handful that aren’t, or that might not be. I can’t come up with enough to do a Top Ten list — I’m not sure I can come up with enough to do a Top Five, but I’m going to try.

So:

1) Tuyo. World is flat, or something; climactic zones are jammed together according to — maybe — the whim of the gods. Certainly climates are not created by ordinary planetary phenomena.

2) Robin McKinley, Chalice. This world seems to exist as small regions — demesnes — embedded in a matrix of chaos, or something. Each demesne is bounded in some important way to protect the area from bad stuff. Demesnes are very self-contained. That weird thing with priests of fire and so on is obviously very different from anything we normally think of as priests, with no evident religious connotation, but a sort of progressive separation from normal humanity.

These are the only two that I know for sure are not at all planets. But here are a few that seem iffy in various ways:

3) Andrea K Host’s Pyramids of London. This world is incredibly baroque. Although I think the world is pretty much a planet, so I’m not sure this counts as well as the two above, it sure doesn’t seem like the sun is the sun.

4) Victoria Goddard, The Hands of the Emperor. Sort of a planet? But that thing with time? And the personified Moon, and, and, I’m not sure.

5) Patricia McKillip, Song for the Basilisk. It occurred to me, while thinking about this, that it’s not clear what’s going on in stories like this. We see so little of the world that we can’t tell whether it’s a planet. But we do know that one can travel to Faerie (basically) where all normal truths about distance and time dissolves.

That one reminds me of:

6) The City in the Lake. I actually think this is a very reasonable choice for this list, better than several of the above. The forest plays exactly the same role as the faerie country in Song for the Basilisk, and we also get this oddly layered world, where different aspects of reality are stacked up. AND the country where the story takes place seems to be set apart from other regions, such as wherever Lilienne is from — not in the same way as the different demesnes in Chalice, but in some way.

Can anybody think of other examples of fantasy worlds that are definitely or possibly not set on planets? With or without ordinary space and stars and so on surrounding the world.

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15 thoughts on “Fantasy worlds that are not ordinary planets”

  1. The Edge series by ilona andrews is mostly set in a sort pocket dimension between two different worlds. Does that count?

    Also: Narnia?

  2. Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series turns out to have at least three realities jammed together, and it’s not clear if it’s still a planet although IIRC at least one probably started that way.

    I think Ann Bishop’s first trilogy? if it’s a planet she wrote about it weirdly enough that I thought it wasn’t. I’d say, like the McKillip, and City it’s got layers of reality.

    Michelle Sagara’s Elantra series may be on a planet, but it’s also got intersecting realities from elsewhere.

  3. Narnia is flat — remember how in VDT Caspian is annoyed with the Pevensies for never saying they were from a round world, when those are so romantic? And it almost makes a difference in VDT, since they get close to the edge.

    For most fantasy books, it doesn’t much matter whether the world is flat or round or something else — and for the exceptions where global scale does make it matter in principle, it always kind of surprised me how people default to globes. Flat worlds are so much easier to map!

    In the Silmarillion Tolkien offhandedly implies that Middle-Earth was only turned into a globe at a relatively late stage of development: he was apparently waffling about that by the time of his death, but LotR is a good example of a book where the shape physical shape of the world makes no difference I can see.

  4. @ Elaine T,
    I think most of Garth Nix’s worlds are non-spherical, so far as I can tell – his Keys to the Kingdom and Seventh Tower series are essentially just extensions of his apparent fixation on towers and stairs (I can’t remember any of his books that doesn’t involve at least one scene with an agonizingly long set of stairs that the protagonist must climb).
    . . . I can’t think of any others that haven’t already been mentioned, but I’m sure I’ve read some books with weird . . . no wait. There’s Ringworld. Technically it’s science fiction, but really it’s science fantasy.

  5. A partial explanation: some fantasy worlds are explicitly a reflection of their mythos. Pyramid Scheme by Eric Flint and Dave Freer is another such. (It’s silly in a good way.)

  6. For Faerie, the “demesnes” construction of separate and distinctly different domains within an amorphous magical Faerie/Underhill realm is fairly common, I think. You see it in Seanan McGuire’s ongoing October Daye series, Mercedes Lackey’s older Born to run (elves in racecars) and less explicitly in the Five hundred kingdoms (fairy tales) series, some Dianna Wynne Jones IIRC, and more that I can’t immediately bring to mind.

    Your number five is broadening the definition too far to be useful, I think. If you’re allowing fantasy worlds that have portals to some kind of otherworld where space and distance and time isn’t as fixed, then a very great number of books fit the definition.
    Including the Touchstone world, with its rifts to and travel through the Ena.
    The later books in the Lupi series by Eileen Wilks feature some portals to worlds like Dis, or Hell, that incorporate the “demesne” idea that the will and whim of the demesne’s ruler can determine how that part of the world functions.

    Elaine, Diskworld is a flat world, travelling through space on the backs of five humongous elephants who stand on the back of the space-swimming turtle A’Tuin: definitely not an ordinary planet in my book, even if it’s a well-defined world. Some of the geography, e.g. in Pyramids, is also rather metaphysically influenced. It was the first one I thought of for this; the second was Ringworld.

    Do hollow worlds count? There are quite a few of those, from Jules Verne to Emilie and the hollow world. They are planets, though not normal according to physics and gravity, so I guess not quite.

    Mercedes Lackey has several series with unusual worlds, and so does Anne McCaffrey, e.g. the sort-of sentient world of Petaybe (Powers That Be series, where the water channels through the world’s crust function as a conduit for its intelligence and influence, IIRC from quite some time ago). Those are planets however, even if very unusual. There are sentient planets in several other books as well; I remember a scary one in The Witches of Karres that got mad at the intruders. But then they are often a place that is visited, not the setting of the whole story.

    Like all the strange worlds in the Aurora Resonant trilogy by G.S.Jennsen, the third in the Amaranthe series, where some aspect of the laws of nature or natural constants is tweaked in an array of test-worlds, leading to things like a world built of and inhabited by sentient crystal beings, or one overrun by aggressive plants. Those are still supposed to be planets, even if very unusual ones, but the entire array of them is definitely a very unusual setting for the story, even if each planet itself only gets a short visit.

  7. Thank you all! That’s great; really lets me fill out that category.

    Discworld definitely, definitely counts. By no possible definition is it an “ordinary” planet. I also think hollow worlds count for sure. They’re not as over-the-top unordinary as Discworld, but they are certainly not possible with ordinary physics. Thanks for the other suggestions! I had completely forgotten that Narnia is flat.

    Elaine, you’re right, the Dark Jewels trilogy has the oddest metaphysics, with at least three layers of reality in some sort of relationship that I was never able to figure out. But there’s not the slightest indication that it’s a planet of any kind.

    I’ve got one more:

    The world of Flux and Anchor by Jack Chalker, where the world is very much a realm of chaos with bubbles of reality (quasi-reality) suspended within the chaos. I have some major problems with Jack Chalker — he returns over and over to a theme of mind control used to create slaves, and another theme of involuntary body modification, and he tends to wind up with endings that carry the message “You just can’t win, so the best you can do is retire from the struggle and let the world go to Hell without you.” The Flux and Anchor books take all this to extremes, but those themes are constant in his work, and so eventually I gave away all my books of his.

    But this world is still, as far as I can tell, a good example of this kind of non-ordinary world.

  8. Also the Ephemera series by Anne Bishop with all the weird Landscapes.

    The Death Gate Cycle by Weis and Hickman, the worlds were created from the pieces of a sundered Earth I think.

    Romanov’s island in The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones, pieced together from slices of different worlds with different weather and vegetation and different half-Suns in the different slices.

    Rachel, I’ve got a question. The enchanted forest mentioned in House of Shadows is the one from The City in the Lake or a completely different one?

  9. A recent example of an unusual fantasy setting is N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology which is set on the moon of a gas giant (called The Dreaming Moon in the story), it’s a really neat setting even if I am lukewarm on the gender dynamics especially in the second book, which also deals with some darker content like childhood sexual abuse (I should note to be fair though that these are evidently the earliest-written novels among her published work even though they were not published first!) Meredith Ann Pierce’s Darkangel trilogy is an older fantasy series that is also set on a moon (but I believe it is Earth’s moon? it’s been a while since I read it!)

    Oh, another one came to mind, Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun has a faerie land where the sun is a pendulum and the moon roams in the sky, but note it also has some darker themes though including incest.

  10. More good suggestions; thank you! I’m not super into dark themes right now, but the setting of Jeannette Ng’s book sounds so interesting I might take a look at it pretty soon anyway.

    Maria, as far as I know, the worlds of H of S and the world of City are separate, BUT, the world of The City in the Lake is so self-contained that it could in theory exist within a broader world. That’s also true for Nimmira in The Keeper of the Mist. In fact, the total known landscape of The Griffin Mage trilogy is also geographically small and self-contained. I doubt very much I’ll ever write a book where I show that really these are all in the same greater world, but they could be.

  11. Thanks, Rachel.

    I’ve just started reading the new book in the Stariel series by AJ Lancaster and this series fits the theme here, not too dark and the Fae realm is sepatate from the human world and not like a normal planet, with sentient lands (kind of like the Immanents in Winter of Ice and Iron), but fae lands can also exist within the human world …

    Plus the hero is a butler which isn’t super common in a fantasy romance :) Very well dedicated too, he actually worries about domestic stuff between adventures.

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