World-building is hard. Designing an entirely different world may look easy on screen, but any up and coming writer who has actually sat down to design a fantasy world has found it much harder than it seems. Of course, the mere fact that they are dozens of fictional worlds out there showcases that it can be done… it just requires a lot of time and work. To get your creative juices flowing, here are 7 books with worlds you just get lost in. Maybe you can get inspired to design some of your own!
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7. London Below – ‘Neverwhere’ by Neil Gaiman
Anyone’s who ever read Neil Gaiman’s many and varied works knows he’s a master of imagination, characterization, and storytelling. But the most intriguing and developed world comes from Neverwhere: the world called London Below. Sitting beneath London in this novel is a fictional underground that bridges the line between the reality of London and the other side of its own surreal culture. Subway stations become full kingdoms, and the tunnels are full of all manner of strangeness. Things you take for granted in the real world (like minding the gap stepping off the platform) become infused with terror, as monsters dwell in the dark space in the gap and can snatch you off your feet. Neil Gaiman creates a fictional universe that places London in an alternate reality full of intrigue, monsters, and strange concepts, making for a grand location that we wished to see more of.
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6. Miraji – ‘Rebel of the Sands’ by Alwyn Hamilton
A fusion between the Wild West and classic Arabian fantasy tropes, Miraji is the titular world of Rebel of the Sands, a desert nation constantly at war. Magic is held in check through the backwater towns that populate the desert sands, as they spew black dust that keeps the power of the god-like First Beings from being gifted to normal folk. Scheming sultans, colorful Djinn, and a religious war are many of the elements in this fully-realized world, a harsh but imaginative one.
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5. Bas-lung – ‘Perdido Street Station’ by China Meiville
Weird doesn’t even begin to describe this novel, but it’s a strong place to start. Author China Meiville decided to chuck seemingly everything and the kitchen sink into his world, a city called Bas-Lung, in his famous novel Perdido Street Station. Bas-Lung is self-described as a fantasy version of Victorian England, dirty and full of crude, steampunk-esque technology. Magic, robots, insect people, bird people, monsters, giant killer moths, and so much more inhabit Bas-Lung; it almost reaches the point of being overstuffed. (Almost.) But China Meiville’s skillful writing keeps everything in balance and, despite the madness of the concept, grounds it enough in reality that Bas-Lung becomes a developed world rather than just a crazed place of ideas. Of course, it nearly reaches that point as well.
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4. Urth – ‘The Book of the New Sun’ by Gene Wolfe
Urth of The Book of the New Sun is actually our world (say ‘urth’ out loud), but so far into the future that it has become a nearly unrecognizable, alien world. The sun is dying, and the remaining population has exhausted all its resources, meaning the planet is on the verge of a slow death. There is some advanced technology, but the story reads more as a sword-and-sorcery tale, humanity having regressed to a more primitive state of mind. Although strangely written, akin to a waking dream, the world this novel creates is at once beautiful, haunting, and certainly uniquely crafted.
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3. Kekon – ‘Jade City’ by Fonda Lee
Kekon of Jade City is a sprawling island metropolis much like our own, possessing modern conveniences such as televisions, phones, cars, the works. But it diverges in one very important point: the existence of jade. Jade is a substance that is found off of Kekon’s waters and, properly harvested, can be used to grant supernatural abilities to its wielders. Kekon is ruled by four rival crime families, all with jade at their disposal, and, as the novel unfolds, the families descend into war. Kekon is inspired by Asian mythology, complete with jade-given powers that you might see in kung-fu action films. The island itself becomes a memorable character all on its own, with jungle hills beyond the bustling, rain-soaked cityscapes and fisheries lining the slimy docks at the island’s coasts. It’s a unique location and certainly one you could see yourself wandering about under stormy skies, listening to the sea and seeking your next piece of jade.
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2. The Known World – ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ by George R.R. Martin
One of the most developed worlds in recent memory, the Known World of A Song of Ice and Fire feels like a living, breathing culture. Martin’s ability to make it feel incredibly real, even when introducing elements such as the dragons, the white walkers, and blood magic, is a huge part of the series’ massive success. From the mega continent of Westeros with its freezing Northlands, swamp-like Riverlands, and the sheer beauty of places such as King’s Landing, to the most barren regions of Essos, every part of the world feels carefully constructed; no amount of detail is spared. Although more grounded in reality than most fantasy, Martin’s world still feels incredibly imaginative and lived-in. Just watch your back: everyone plays the Game of Thrones for keeps…
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1. Middle-Earth – ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by J.R.R. Tolkien
The first is often the best for a reason. Middle-Earth is the standard by which all other fantasy works are judged, a truth so obvious it hardly requires explanation. (But don’t worry; we’ll explain.) Tolkien’s world is so vibrant, so detailed, and so full of life you’ll swear it was real even just by the words he chooses to describe each part of it. Tolkien’s craft is so meticulous fandom is still finding new details about his world today from the expansive timeline, to the lore behind the smallest of locations, to the origins of the various races, to the rich history of various character’s own family trees.
(Not to mention the beautiful natural world Tolkien creates, from the towering peaks of the Misty Mountain inhabited by swarming hordes of orcs, to the great grasslands of Rohan where the horse-riders race across the hills, and the humble countryside of the Shrine home to the isolated, yet happy hobbits. Except I have no choice but to mention it.)
It’s a world that set the standard and in some ways, can never be topped.
What are some of your favorite fantasy worlds that you draw inspiration from? Tell us in the comments!
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