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5 of Contemporary Fiction’s Greatest Worldbuilders

A truly expert worldbuilder is hard to come by in fiction. Many try their hand, but few rise through the ranks. Of course when we think of worldbuilding, we think of Tolkien’s extensive maps of Middle-earth, of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea. But they are not the only ones. Among fiction’s contemporary novelists are some of the greatest worldbuilders this particular world has ever produced. They are authors who draw us in to their richly imagined, vibrant, alive new worlds; worlds into which we are privileged to slip through the secret passageway of their pages. Here are five of contemporary fiction’s most exciting worldbuilders.


1. Clark Thomas Carlton 



An expert builder of worlds on a micro level, Clark T. Carlton explores the intricate world of insects in his series. The Prophet of the Termite God is the sequel to Prophets of the Ghost Ants, celebrated as “exciting, visionary” and “a tour de force” by Lawrence Bender, producer of Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Good Willing Hunting and An Inconvenient Truth. 

According to his FantasticFiction profile, Clark was “inspired to begin writing the series during a trip to the Yucatan when he witnessed a battle for a Spanish peanut between two different kinds of ants. That night he dreamed of armies of tiny men on the backs of red and black ants. After doing years of research on insects and human social systems, Clark says that “the plot was revealed to me like a streaming, technicolor prophecy on the sixth night of Burning Man when the effigy goes up in flames.”

Carlton’s latest novel tells the story of Pleckoo, once an outcast, who has risen to Prophet-Commander of the Hulkrish army.  But a million warriors and their ghost ants were not enough to defeat his cousin, Anand the Roach Boy, the tamer of night wasps and founder of Bee-Jor. Now Pleckoo is hunted by the army that once revered him. Yet in all his despair, Pleckoo receives prophecies from his termite god, assuring him he will kill Anand to rule the Sand, and establish the One True Religion. Can Anand, the roach boy who worked in the dung heap, rise above the turmoil, survive his assassins, and prevent the massacre of millions?

Writing is not the only way in which Clark T. Carlton explores the worlds he creates—he is also a painter, describing his work as “Grandma Moses on acid”. You can check out his art here.

Follow Clarke T. Carlton on Twitter, and on his website!

The Prophet of the Termite God is published by Harper Voyager Impulse; Paperback; June 2019; $7.99 & e-book; $2.99).).


2. V.E. Schwab 



V.E. Schwab is a number one New York Times bestselling author. She has written over a dozen novels, but is best known for her Shades of Magic series, a masterful feat of worldbuilding.

Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured by EW and The New York Times, been translated into more than a dozen languages, and been optioned a number of times for television and film. The Independent praises her “enviable, almost Gaimanesque ability to switch between styles, genres, and tones.”

Her Shades of Magic series is set in a number of parallel versions of London—Red London, Grey London, White London and Black London, each different, dangerous and thrilling in their own right. The series follows Kell, one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between the Londons.

Deborah Harkness, New York Times bestselling author of the All Souls trilogy says the series bears “all the hallmarks of a classic work of fantasy.”

On the importance of worldbuilding, Schwab is quoted as saying,

“I write primarily about outsiders and in order to understand outsiders you need to understand insiders and in order to understand insiders you have to understand the world that they are inside, and so worldbuilding and setting is actually the very first thing I come up with… Understanding the rules of the world is the very, very first thing that I do. Then, in addition to figuring out the construct and the rules, I start figuring out the culture. And a lot of authors have very different ways that they do that. Some of them focus on the food, and some of them focus on the agriculture, and the geography. I focus mainly on language, and so I will include everything from fictionalized languages like in the Shades of Magic series to folkloric elements and idiomatic expressions.”

Schwab has talked at length about the art of worldbuilding, and you can check out her video on the subject here!


3. George R.R. Martin



George R.R. Martin: A man who needs little introduction given the current climate (and by climate I mean the inescapable hurricane of GoT-fuelled rage that greets us every time we go online). But while the speed at which he is completing (or, indeed, not completing) the Song of Ice and Fire series has his name gracing the pages of many fans’ bad books, it cannot be denied that, whether we like it or not, we have a lot to thank him for. Martin is a master of worldbuilding, not only in the fantasy genre for which he is best known, but sci-fi too with countless Hugo and Nebula Awards under his belt for works such as Nightflyers. 

Hailed by Lev Grossman (who, incidentally, appears on this list and therefore is clearly an expert on the subject) as the “American Tolkien,” Martin is one of the most popular and influential writers alive today, due in no small part to the vibrant worlds in which his stories are set. Every aspect of Westeros, based on ancient Britain and Europe, is richly imagined from its landscape and people to its climate and history.

In his article for Tor.com, Brad Kane notes:

He accomplishes this through close attention to detail. For instance, consider his depictions of the Great Houses. You may have read fantasy books where nations are defined as “the people who build ships,” or the “folks who smoke the good tobacco.” Not so in Game of Thrones. The world of the Starks is very different from the world of the Lannisters, which is very different again from the worlds of the Targaryens or the Greyjoys. Local attitudes, ways of speech, tools of war, sexual mores—they all change radically from country to country.



4. Lev Grossman


Image Via Observer


Upon the publication of Grossman’s most famous novel The MagiciansThe A.V. Club called it “the best urban fantasy in years.”  Writing for The New York Times, Grossman stated, “I wrote fiction for seventeen years before I found out I was a fantasy novelist. Up till then I always thought I was going to write literary fiction, like Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith or Jhumpa Lahiri. But I thought wrong… Fantasy is sometimes dismissed as childish, or escapist, but I take what I am doing very, very seriously.” The book follows Quentin Coldwater, “A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. Unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory…”

While The Magicians is set in a magic school of sorts, it is not to be confused with Harry Potter. George R.R. Martin notes “The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea. . . . Hogwarts was never like this.” No, this is quite a different world.

Talking to Vox on the topic of worldbuilding, Grossman stated:

As soon as you mention that maybe, say, there’s elves and dwarves in a world, people know a lot about that world. They know that there are deep, sylvan forests with skinny, tall good looking people in them. And there are mountains, with deep mines, with sturdy, bearded dwarves chipping away at them. Those worlds are already in our heads. They’re completely built. You can do new things with them, but you’re renovating. You’re not building from scratch. There is a pre-existing structure there.

So when I approached Fillory, in a way what I was doing was, really kind of updating Narnia. [C.S.] Lewis was a great world builder, but he was incredibly sloppy by modern standards. Narnia was not up to code. [Laughs.] He’d just slap things in there. If he wanted fauns, he’d put in fauns from Greek mythology, and then here comes Santa Claus! We’ve got Santa Claus in there too. Most people have feudal technology in Narnia. They’re fighting with swords. But Mrs. Beaver has a sewing machine, which is a nice piece of Victorian era industrial technology. It doesn’t all add up and fit together.


5. Tomi Adeyemi


Nigerian-American author Adeyemi blew minds with her West African-inspired fantasy debut, Children of Blood and Bone, which became an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. The first in a planned trilogy follows Zélie Adebola tasked with restoring magic to the fictional West African kingdom of Orïsha, magic that was wiped out by King Saran along with all those who possessed it. Together with her brother and a rogue princess, they embark on a terrifying quest that New York Times-bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton assures will inspire you—“You will be changed. You will be ready to rise up and reclaim your own magic!”

Refinery29 called Children of Blood and Bone “a masterpiece in world-building and story, [and] also an exploration of extremely pertinent issues,” as the book is notably an allegory for many real world issues, while still being undeniably a fantasy world of its own. Orïsha has its own clans, its own sports, languages and richly wrought landscape, and no doubt Adeyemi’s expert worldbuilding is why Ebony is calling Children of Blood and Bone “the next big thing in literature and film.”



Featured Images Via Amazon and Goodreads

'City of Bones,' 'City of Ashes,' and 'City of Glass,' books 1-3 in the six book Mortal Instruments series

7 Unmissable Books for ‘Shadowhunters’ Fans

Happy Birthday, City of Bones! YA Fantasy superstar Cassandra Clare released her debut (the first entry into the sprawling Shadowhunters universe) on March 27th, 2007, which makes the book twelve years old. That would land it squarely in middle school—a familiar landscape which has nonetheless changed a lot since this book’s release. Some things have, of course, remained the same: children are mean and hormones so rarely help anyone. But there are some major differences—YA is more diverse; genre fiction is booming; and social issues have risen to the forefront of modern discourse.


'City of Bones' by Cassandra Clare

Image Via Twilight Sleep


Cassandra Clare’s novels have continued to do what they did at their outset: tell stories of characters who don’t often have their stories told. Clare’s LGBT+ rep throughout her body of work hits each of those four letters (and perhaps, soon, we’ll get some of the other letters that come with the +.) Clare has also recently gained attention for autistic representation that transcends superficial stereotypes. Her characters are bombastically human with all that entails—dramatic love stories, deep-seated emotional issues, ridiculous inside jokes. Clare’s obvious love for fantasy and the genre is second only to her understanding of human nature, and it’s obvious her work resonates for innumerable reasons: there are currently more than 50 million copies of her novels in print. The Mortal Instruments series in particular has inspired both a film adaptation and a successful TV series. And, of course, her work has always resonated with me.

Picture this: I’m thirteen. I’m wearing a horrific amount of bright blue eyeliner (read: any amount). I am distinctly not straight. Since it’s not terribly likely you know what I look like, imagine me this way: uncomfortable with everything. City of Bones featured one of the very first LGBT+ couples I ever encountered—withdrawn, struggling Alec and the ever-bold Magnus Bane—and changed the way that I thought about what are currently two of my favorite things: genre fiction and myself.

Gay puns on the respective 'Shadowhunters' characters' sexualities.

Image Via @Kayla_Darktale Tumblr


We’d call this a list of books to help you fill the Shadowhunters void—except, of course, that there isn’t one! Cassandra Clare has dutifully (and enthusiastically) expanded her universe’s lore since its inception, with new releases forthcoming in 2019: Chain of Goldthe first entry into a new historical fantasy trilogy, and The Red Scrolls of Magic, the start of a trilogy centered on the magical misadventures of Alec and Magnus. Clare even has a section on her website entitled “where to start,” acknowledging the fact that readers might be a little intimidated by the canon. Some advice on starting? Do it. Immediately.


Which 'Shadowhunters' Book Should You Start With?

Image Via Riveted Lit


But if, like me, you’ve already plowed your way through the majority of the seemingly limitless Shadowhunters canon, here’s a delightful mix of 7 Young Adult & New Adult classics to remind you of all that this genre can accomplish.

1. The Raven Cycle


'The Raven Cycle,' a quartet by Maggie Stiefvater

Folded Pages Distillery


Is this first on the list because it’s my personal favorite? Yes. Is it first on the list because it’s sure to be your personal favorite? Also yes. It would be a travesty to reduce Maggie Stiefvater‘s quartet to its LGBT+ characters, mostly because it’s so many other things besides strong representation: dangerous, raw, and human as its characters and all the things they want. Bonus content: Molotov cocktails, dead things that are supposed to be alive, alive things that are supposed to be dead. Every possible use of ‘Dick’ as a nickname for Richard. Distinguished boys who, for some reason, continue to wear boat shoes. The feeling of returning home and, for some, the immense desire to leave it. Bees…? One of the most unique series in YA fantasy today, The Raven Cycle is startling, strange, and filled with a cast of characters so real you won’t believe you haven’t really met them. Cassie Clare fans will live for the sarcasm, the limitless wit, the character dynamics, and the positive LGBT+ representation.




The 'Shades of Magic' Trilogy by VE Schwab

ImaGe Via Book riot


In V.E. Schwab‘s delightful, inventive, and ambitious trilogy, four different versions of London exist with varying levels of magic—and equivalent levels of danger. (Spoiler: that level is HIGH.) One is the London of old, one that we might recognize: no magic, lots of crime. One London is magic the way that we might imagine it. One is magic with all the cruelty that magic so often entails. And one—the most magic London of all—no longer exists. Or, at least, it no longer exists in any way that we might recognize. Oh, did that description make these books sound happy and upbeat? They are… when everything’s not busy going very, very wrong. Fans of Jace and Alec’s affectionate-yet-frequently-frustrated brotherly dynamic will love the give-and-take between adopted brothers Kell and Rhy. And it would be quite the challenge to build a world richer than Cassandra Clare’s—whose books are physically large enough to build that world brick by brick. V.E. Schwab’s attention to detail will delight those who are after a detailed lore.


3. The magicians


Lev Grossman's 'The Magicians' Trilogy

Image Via The Reading Room


The Magicians has gotten a lot of attention lately thanks to its SyFy TV adaptation—and if it doesn’t already, it deserves to have yours. This may just be the best book series you ever read about a fictional wizard school (and yes, I do know about the other one). Unlike many fantasy series, which can paint concepts of good and evil in the broadest brushstrokes, The Magicians thoroughly examines all the thematic implications of the fantasy genre, subverting every trope in the process. The humor is frequently raunchy, nihilistic. The magic is even more frequently absurd. And the story is consistently unthinkable in its imagination, pushing the limits of what magic (and the fantasy genre!) can accomplish. Lev Grossman‘s world is as dark and sensual as it is intellectual and calculating—but, in the end, it’s more startlingly earnest than it is anything else, a subversive novel written from a clear love of the genre. Bonus: disaster gays, talking bears who drink Peach Schnapps, a hell that looks like a high school gymnasium, and a story to remind you exactly what storytelling means.




'Six of Crows' Duology by Leigh Bardugo

Image Via Affinity Magazine

One of the best things about Cassandra Clare’s writing is the never-ending banter, each topic seemingly more ludicrous than the last… and somehow, for all its silliness, it only makes the characters feel more human and their dynamics more sincere. Leigh Bardugo‘s Six of Crows is a character-driven heist duology set in a richly-realized fantasy world full of crime; corruption; and badass fight scenes, baby! What’s the difference between a heist and a regular robbery, you might ask? Well, it’s pretty simple: a heist is what they call theft when it’s cool. But as fast-paced and high-concept as this well-oiled plot machine may be, it’s also a deeply character-driven story. This misfit (and very queer) cast of characters may or may not steal what they set out to pilfer, but they’ll certainly steal your heart. And possibly crush it—this book has one of the most devastating backstories of all time.


5. Carry On


'Carry On' and 'Wayward Son' by Rainbow Rowell

Images Via Amazon; image made with photocollage


Rainbow Rowell‘s Carry On isn’t exactly fan-fiction, but it’s certainly fiction written for fandoms. You might call it your average wizard-boarding-school book, except that there’s very little average about it. Carry On is oft called ‘the gay Harry Potter,’ but it’s certainly not derivative—Rowell acknowledges its predecessor in clear ways, and chooses to thoughtfully play with beloved genre tropes. Oh, and you’re not going to find any LGBT+ subtext here—it’s all very much on the page. Rowell herself has commented on the matter of overt representation in Vanity Fair: “there was a time when this had to be subtext… don’t [read] it for the subtext, don’t [read] it for the moments [in BBC’s Sherlock] when Sherlock and John make eye contact and the world sets on fire but none of it’s real. As a culture, we are ready for text.” As a bonus, she also doesn’t think she’s a social justice hero for including a gay couple. “I’m definitely not the first person to write a gay Y.A. story,” she acknowledges, “by a million years.” Regardless, we’re always happy for more! This fun, subversive novel will appeal to pop culture fiends across all fandoms—including Cassandra Clare’s!


6. Peeps


'Peeps' and 'The Last Days' by Scott Westerfeld

Image Via Pinterest


Scott Westerfeld‘s gritty urban fantasy is the It Follows of the mid-2000s urban fantasy world: college freshman Cal’s previous girlfriends (read: YA way to say ‘sexual partners’) have been infected with an unusual sort of vampirism. Sure there’s the whole lurking-in-the-darkness thing, but there’s also the anathema—Westerfeld’s vampires are repulsed by everything about their old lives, everything they once loved. (Especially Cal… although that may have something to do with him dropping off his vampire chlamydia.) A New Adult novel before the classification was coined, Peeps and sequel The Last Days are gritty trysts into the dark supernatural underworld of NYC reminiscent of Clare’s Downworld, where the parties can last as long as some of their attendees’ lifespans. The edgy, fun tone with surprisingly poignant moments is sure to remind audiences of Clare’s own work. This isn’t your average vampire story… probably because it isn’t a vampire story at all. It’s about home, lies, love and equally powerful hatred: things far more human than that.


7. Modern Faerie Tale


The 'Modern Faerie Tales' trilogy by Holly Black

Image Via yALSA

If you were around when the original three books of The Mortal Instruments were being released—that is, if you weren’t, like, eight years old—you may recall Cassandra Clare and established fantasy writer Holly Black‘s power-couple friendship. (I happen to remember Cassandra Clare’s livestream when she announced that there would be three more books in the series, so it’s safe to say I do.) Author of the children’s classic series The Spiderwick Chronicles, fantasy queen Black gave fans a nod to her close friendship with Cassie by including a mention of Jace and his fellow Shadowhunters in her books! In turn, Clare mentions the protagonist of Valiant in her trilogy as well. Does she use Valerie’s name? No. But which other bald junkie who lurks with the fey folk in subway tunnels could the unnamed character possibly be? Given that Black’s series (urban fantasy, NYC, chaotic fey) fits in quite naturally with Clare’s Downworlder mythology, it’s an excellent companion series.


Featured Image Via CNN.

Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians’ Subverts Genre Expectations

Past the page.

Expansive book series like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia give birth to a certain type of hope in children: the hope that one day magic and destiny will interrupt their normal lives and put them on the path to fulfill their chosen-one-esque destinies. Unfortunately, no lovable half-giants bring them birthday cakes nor do any mysterious Professors let them explore their closets (which is probably a good thing). As these children grow into adults, they continue to harbor this hope… albeit in secret. I imagine this hope was the inspiration for the adult fantasy novel, The Magicians.


Image Via Amazon


The Magicians is to Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia what A Game of Thrones is to The Lord of the Rings: an adult take on a classic type of tale/genre—but definitely funnier. The novel follows Quentin Coldwater, who, instead of attending an interview at Princeton, is magically rerouted to a college of magic in New York called Brakebills. Quentin is an obsessive fan of a series of books called Fillory and Further, a classic high fantasy series depicting a group of kids who discover a land called Fillory—basically a satirical Narnia. Turns out this place is real, and Quentin and company have to save it. Too bad they’re human disasters… and too bad Fillory is nearly as messed up as they are.

Lev Grossman defied genre expectations by injecting an earnest absurdity into these fantasy worlds worlds, adding hilarious characters who subvert hero archetypes—all the while never abandoning his clear love of the genre. You’d have to know and love fantasy to comment on it so astutely, and so it’s clear the genre means as much to Grossman as it does to Quentin. Quentin’s importance diminishes as a committee of well-rounded male and female characters are introduced. On top of this, he grounded the world in realism, presenting magic to the audience the same way one would a true weapon/vice. The Magicians was a hit in 2009 so obviously, Grossman followed it up with two sequels: The Magician King (2011) and The Magician’s Land (2014). Even more obvious is the fact that in 2015, The Magicians was turned into a television show on Syfy.



the magicians ember GIF by SYFY

Image Via Giphy


I didn’t realize they could say “fuck” so much on Syfy—series creator Sera Gamble has said they are allowed ten per episode. I also never expected a television show to surpass the books in almost every way. The show, now in its fourth season, organically challenges the idea of the male “chosen one,” cliche relationships, and side characters. The writers are fearless and confident, coining phrases such as “don’t c** ck out on me,” which is a valid critique of “don’t p***y out on me.”  The show manages to balance smart, funny, and emotional more brilliantly than anything in recent memory. Some of its themes are truly dark and harrowing and others light and invigorating. Although I used the word “satirical” before, the show does take itself serious enough to warrant emotional investment from its audience. It’s absurd—not meaningless. One minute an Aslan-like character is taking a dump in the well of all magic and the next a beloved character is sacrificing themselves to save their friends. The amount of world-building the show manages on a smaller budget is also thoroughly impressive.



Image Via Fandom.com


The Magicians has recently been gaining attention for its treatment of slash fiction, a type of fan fiction that romantically entangles characters from popular media that typically wouldn’t be involved. In episode five of season three, “A Life in a Day”, two of the main characters, Quentin and Elliot are sent on a quest to “discover the beauty of all life.” They end up in a past version of the Fillory (satirical Narnia) they know, stumbling upon a mosaic. The assumption is that if they complete the mosaic (in puzzle form) they will have completed their quest. Over the course of a truly moving montage that spans a lifetime, the viewer finds out that the only way to show the “beauty of all life” is to live an entire life. The montage briefly shows (but does not revolve around) the two characters hooking up. Most people thought that would be as far as that particular “ship” went, but, without spoiling anything the writers have revisited it this season in a surprisingly real and grounded way.



Image Via Hidden remote


The Magicians launched a series of novels that aimed to have fun with the genre. In creating his novels, Grossman has unwittingly unleashed a genre-demolishing franchise. The Magicians is a show that does whatever the hell it wants, and it does it brilliantly. The writers appreciate and listen to their fan base. The show is funny, but not ridiculous. It’s grounded fantasy dipped in relatability and heart. If you haven’t seen the show, watch it. It’s super fun—and, as we’ve established, super meaningful as well.



Featured Image Via Denofgeek.com