The Holiday Season has now officially begun. With the Thanksgiving turkey eaten, our consumption habits turn to things that are equally savory, but that don’t go as well with cranberry sauce. So what are you putting on your Christmas list this year? Mine (as always) includes books. Preferably sci-fi or fantasy, with strong world-building and realistic characters. Unfortunately, these kinds of books can be hard to find. This past year, however, I’ve found a few worth reading – all three are the first in their respective series, and I’m hoping to get the rest from the library over the holidays. If you haven’t read these, you might be interested in checking them out – and maybe putting them on your Christmas list.
In reverse order of recommendation, the first book worth taking a look at is Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear, the first in her Eternal Sky trilogy. Set in a quasi-Mongolian fantasy world, the book’s most intriguing world-building feature is its use of Sky as a fantasy element. Different kingdoms have different skies, and the sky of a land (including constellations, sky color, etc.) changes when it is conquered. The sky is actually used as a plot point, as one of the lands’ skies displays a moon for every living prince of the royal house – which makes it easy to keep track of the success or failure of one’s royal assassination attempts.
As one might expect in a high fantasy trilogy, the book involves heroes from multiple cultures, (including tiger-ninja people!), a number of developed religions (including an evil death cult!), magical creatures (including giant roc-type birds and living stones!), and an epic journey across several kingdoms, which genre-savvy readers know (even if the main characters don’t) will ultimately shape the fate of the world.
This book is definitely not for young readers. It is written at a high reading level, and contains some explicit adult material. That said, it is very well written and engaging, and I look forward to continuing the story when I have a chance to pick up the sequels.
The second book with strong world-building and good characters that I would recommend is Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, the first book in her Grisha trilogy. Again, I haven’t read the second two books, but the first is both clever and plot-twisty in a YA fantasy romance adventure novel kind of way. In terms of world-building, this series is inspired by Russian culture and folklore, which makes for a beautiful and intriguing landscape. Her system of magic is also well-developed, interesting, and important to the politics of the world as well as to the main character’s narrative arc.
Written in first person present tense (as so many YA novels are nowadays), Shadow and Bone is conversational in tone, but crafted and paced well. Though a little gritty and dark in places, it also has its heroic, funny, and charming moments. It also kept me up too late several nights in a row reading, which is always a good sign. Fast-moving, featuring epic magic, betrayal, true love, and adventure, this series is another I’m looking forward to finishing.
Both of the books above were enjoyable, but I’ve saved the best for last. If you have to pick one epic fantasy full of great world-building and realistic characters to read this year, pick The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. The first in a…well…long and as yet unfinished series entitled The Stormlight Archive, the book is epically large in scope. It involves two main characters who have their own independent plotlines in different kingdoms, a sizable number of secondary characters who have chapters written from their point of view, and a host of tertiary characters who are as real and complex as many books’ sidekicks. All this said, The Way of Kings flows well, is easy to keep track of who is who, and its plots are enthralling.
More than that, however, The Way of Kings is a world-building masterpiece. The world Sanderson creates is wholly other, and yet wholly internally consistent. From a unique magic-based monetary system (gemstones that hold varying amounts of “stormlight,” which gets used in spell-work), to a completely different animal and plant kingdom than found on Earth (largely inspired by marine life, but transferred to a land-based habitat – for instance, flying eels, giant marauding crustaceans that live in cracks in the Earth, and grass that retracts into the ground to protect itself whenever a storm hits, as well as other sentient races besides humanity), the world and its multiple kingdoms are rich with history, legend, religion, culture, heroes, and magic.
The magic system that Sanderson invented is especially exquisite and creative. For instance, his world is inhabited by “spren” that live in everything, including emotions (e.g. visible “glory spren” hover around one’s head in a moment of victory, “pain spren” or “disease spren” can be seen around open wounds, and more obvious wind and fire spren live in those elements). Of course, individuals can work magic as well, and some of the more interesting elements of Sanderson’s world include the ways in which warriors and wizards use their powers to assassinate, heal, create, destroy, manipulate others, or fight for honor.
Though this book deals with some dark themes and violence, it is actually cleaner than the other two. This is also something that sets it apart from the popular Game of Thrones series: Sanderson is a far more hopeful and less bloody and graphic writer than is George R.R. Margin, and he doesn’t insist on killing off nearly every decent character he introduces. The Way of Kings is also very well-written, and the characters are nuanced and grounded in their realities and histories. Finally, and somewhat strangely, given its long page-count and attention to detail, the book is fast-paced and gripping. In short, if you haven’t read this book, put it on your Christmas list. You’ll be glad you did.
What other fantasy books with great world-building and characters have you read? I’d love to hear any recommendations you have!