What makes a fantasy series successful isn’t the number of dragons its author jams into it. Given the grand scale of fantasy, both readers and writers can sometimes forget that stories don’t necessarily come from big stakes, but from small moments. Although the genre deviates from reality, the center of any story is an emotional one: an exploration, however abstract, of the things that make us human. (Or, at least, what makes elves human enough that we bother reading on.)
Clearly, Tomi Adeyemi has done something right—more than one thing, by the looks of it. At only twenty-three years old, Adeyemi scored a shockingly lucrative book deal forChildren of Blood and Bone, a YA fantasy trilogy inspired by Nigerian culture & mythology. OneEntertainment Weekly article entitled “Is Tomi Adeyemi the next J.K. Rowling?” emphasizes Adeyemi’s cultural feat: “it’s not every day that an unknown-23-year-old sells the movie rights to an unpublished fantasy trilogy for seven figures.” In a rare move, Fox 2000 bypassed the optioning phase entirely and purchased the rights directly. Adeyemi credits her Nigerian immigrant parents with much of her success, claiming that they instilled a hard work ethic into her from an early age. But perhaps some of her success has come from the weight of her mission: “Write a story that’s so good and so black that everyone’s going to have to read it—even if they’re racist.”
Image Via Teen Vogue
Many think that writers primarily sort themselves into one of two categories: plot writers and character writers. In reality, there are at least four. There are good plot & character writers—and there are the others.
Adeyemi self-identifies as a writer to whom plot comes more naturally, but that doesn’t mean she neglects her characters. After writing the plot, she told attendees at her 2019 BookCon panel, she spends “every draft” figuring out the ways in which the plot changes her characters. “Fantasy has to be human,” she emphasized. “Fantasy needs to be especially human.” Authors can get caught up in the gravitas of their own worlds, often forgetting that our own reality holds the same high stakes. The world tends to be ending, not as a prophecy but as a general statement of fact. That tends not to be our main motivation on any given day. Even if you are an activist whose primary focus is societal responsibility, there are friends and events and moments that matter to us outside of that objective. Adeyemi discussed the ways in which some high fantasy can draw a low level of engagement:
There are a lot of popular fantasy series that are the fantasy series of our day, and I just don’t care about those people. I don’t care if they get killed by a dragon. I don’t care if it happens – I’m hoping for it to happen. I know I cracked a character when I fall in love with something about that character. The most epic moments in our lives… for you it’s epic, but for someone else, it’s nothing. Reality is something different to every single person.
As for good and evil, the binary of most works of fantasy, Adeyemi believes it’s all a bit more complicated than that. “I have to believe what my characters believe,” she admitted, but at the same time, “I have to acknowledge what is right and wrong about those beliefs. Everybody is a little bit right, and that’s why they keep coming against each other.” In order to create engaging characters, we have to acknowledge that evil is a buzzword, not a motivation. “I’m not letting people off the hook,” she emphasized, “but I find the percentage of people being bad for bad reasons is incredibly small.”
So… is Adeyemi the next J.K. Rowling? Probably not—it’s a different fantasy world that inspired her from an early age.
Image Via Fine Art America
Avatar: The Last Airbender inspired Adeyemi’s worldbuilding and changed her perception of the role culture could play in a story. She recalled one Twitter user recommending A:TLA to cure their Children of Blood and Bone book hangover:
I was so honored because that’s the world I want to live in. Even when it wasn’t my dream to be a writer, it was my dream to create a world that people get lost in. A lot of people were so inspired by Harry Potter, but for me it’s Avatar. Culture is more than what people wear, what they eat. It’s the way they interact with each other in the world. So it was a joy to do that with my own heritage.
Of course, Adeyemi wasn’t always as successful in her world building. Improvement is just as much practice as it is understanding the mechanics of storytelling—arguably, you can’t understand those mechanics until you practice! “All my fantasy worlds before were like, ‘ok, now they can do lightning!’ They didn’t have depth,” Adeyemi explained, “but now, I can build a world with heart and meaning.”
Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into separate villages. They go on to face wildly different fates; Effia marrys an Englishman and lives out a life of comfort, while Esi is sold into slavery and shipped off to America. One vein follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of turmoil in Ghana as the Asante and Fante nations wrestle with colonization. The other vein follows Esi’s descendants through the plantations to the Civil War to the birth of Jazz and dope houses of Harlem.
Zélie calls Orïsha home, and her home once hummed with magic. Burners could set things ablaze, Tiders could pull forward waves, and Reapers like her mother could summon souls. Everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a tyrannical king, maji were killed, orphaning Zélie and leaving her people in darkness. Determined to bring back magic and tear apart the monarchy, Zélie enlists the help of a rogue princess. Together, they must defeat the crown prince, who is battling to eradicate magic for good. Danger lurks at every corner, but Zélie slowly learns what truly threatens her triumph. Already losing control of her powers, Zélie finds herself growing feelings for her enemy.
Tracey and Aimee dream of being dancers. However, only Tracey has the talent to succeed. Aimee is the observer, full of ideas and talented in another way. As the two friends grow older, they have a falling out, never to speak again. Tracey earns herself a few gigs as a dancer but eventually falls into poverty. Aimee becomes an assistant to a famous singer, traveling the world and learning what it feels like to live a lavish life. Empowered, Aimee travels to a small West African nation hoping to lift a village out of destitution. Through the pair, we explore how dance can and can’t transcend racial barriers.
At thirteen years old, Jojo struggles to understand what it means to “be a man.” In his short life, he has had four key figures to study. Among them, his black grandfather Pop predominates. But there are other men who blur Jojo’s understanding: his absent white father, Michael, soon to be released from prison; his absent white grandfather, Joseph, who doesn’t acknowledge him; and the tales of his uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. His mother, Leonie, is a troubled woman too preoccupied battling her own demons. When Michael regains his freedom, Leonie packs the kids in a car and drives them north to a penitentiary in Mississippi. There, the ghost of a dead thirteen-year-old inmate teaches Jojo about fathers, sons, legacies, violence, and love.
Dr. Nzinga’s runs a clinic where anyone can get their lips thinned, their skin bleached, and their nose narrowed. You can even opt for a complete demelanization to unburden yourself the societal price of being black. When the opportunity presents, a father is faced with a choice to erase half of his biracial son Nigel’s identity. The pressure grows as violence swarms their home, a near-future Southern city. All the while, Nigel’s black birthmark grows larger and larger by the day.
Eccentric and withdrawn, Aster isn’t phased when people call her an “ogre” and a “freak.” She lives in the slums of HSS Matilda, a space vessel as segregated as the antebellum South. The vessel carries the last of humanity to the Promised Land they’ve been searching for 325 years. The ship’s leaders police and dehumanize dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Meanwhile, Aster navigates the ship’s horrors looking for a way off. When she learns that there’s a connection between her mother’s suicide and the ship’s ailing Sovereign, Aster realizes she may prevail if she’s willing to fight for it.
When Boy Novak turns twenty, she finds herself yearning for a new life. In what turns out to be a serendipitous twist, she lands in the town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts. It’s there she meets Aruto Whitman, craftsmen, widower and father of a young girl named Snow. To Boy, Snow is the mild-mannered endearing girl Boy never was. Soon after, Boy gives birth to Snow’s sister Bird. Bird is dark-skinned, exposing the Whitmans to be light-skinned African-Americans posing as white. A divide forms between Boy, Snow, and Bird forcing them to question unspoken power of the mirror.
In this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, we follow the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia, as she tries to escape her shackles. She’s approached by a another slave, Caesar, and they hatch a plan to head north. Things go awry when Cora is forced to kill a white man trying to capture her as Ridgeway, a slave catcher, is hot on their trail. What follows is a harrowing tale, ripe with bravery and tragedy, as the pair set out to tread the Underground Railroad.
Saul and Saachi pray for a child, and they’re blessed with a baby girl named Ada. Ada grows into a mercurial and fractured child. Eventually, Ada moves to America for college where she is one day assaulted. The trauma causes the different selves inside her to manifest. Her alters, Asughara and Saint Vincent begin to take control of her mind as she slowly fades away. Spiraling out of control, Ada’s life begins to fall into danger and darkness.
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 Antasy 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, Carlton was “inspired to begin writing the seriesduring 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, Carlton 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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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
Upon the publication of Grossman’s most famous novel The Magicians, The 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.
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.”
According to Publisher’s Weekly, Children of Blood and Boneby Tomi Adeyemi won big at last night’s 24th annual Audie Awards. Held in Manhattan, the awards recognize outstanding audiobooks and spoken-word entertainment. Children of Blood and Bone is the debut novel from young author Tomi Adeyemi, and it depicts the story of a young woman called Zélie Adebola who leads her clan of maji against a brutally oppressive regime. A popular YA fantasy novel, the book the first in a highly-anticipated series and has already climbed the ranks of The New York Times’ bestseller list. The audiobook’s narrator is Bahni Turpin, known for her roles in Malcolm X and Cold Case Files.
The book took home the award for Top Audiobook of the Year, a well deserved win for such a striking debut. Other highlights of the evening included Edoardo Ballerini winning Best Male Narrator for his narration ofWatchers by Dean Koontz, Julia Whelan taking home Best Female Narrator for Educatedby Tara Westover, and Richard Armitage nabbing Best Audio Drama for The Martian Invasion of Earthby HG Wells.
Tomi Adeyemi and Bahni Turpin are no doubt very pleased with their win. We look forward to seeing more entries in this series!
The Nebula Awards may honor the most out-of-this-world science fiction and fantasy, but its finalists are highly representative of the diverse world we’re living in. White men may still dominate high school reading lists (and the government, depending on your country of origin), but women and nonbinary authors of color are filling the rosters for one of genre fiction’s most prestigious awards. Chances are, you’ve read some of these. And chances are even higher you’ll love all the ones you haven’t.
Image Via The Wild Detectives
Categories for winners include Best Novel, Novella, Novelette, and Short Story. There’s also a specific prize for YA sci-fi and fantasy: The Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Fiction. Since there are fifty nominations in total across each category, let’s focus on the ten nominees for Best Novel and The Andre Norton Award, two categories in which some real some real magic is happening. First, let’s take a minute to reflect on exactly how big a deal these awards are: YA superstars J.K. Rowling (who you know) and Holly Black (who you really should) have both been Nebula Award-winners.
Now that we’ve established the prestige level of this award (to clarify: massively high), let’s consider that, in these two categories, female and nonbinary authors of color comprise fully half of the nominees. In case this actually needs establishing, that’s a massive deal.
Though the other categories don’t boast such incredible statistics, they’re still strikingly diverse. The Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation has two particularly high-profile works among its nominees: Janelle Monae‘s album Dirty Computer;Boots Riley‘s film Sorry to Bother You, and Ryan Coogler‘s international sensation Black Panther. (This list seems to indicate that including Tessa Thompson will statistically increase your chances of a nomination. Is this true? True enough.)
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YA has always been a particularly diverse genre, quick to shirk the confines of more traditional literary fiction. As the YA craze reaches a wider audience, it has more people to represent. Let’s just say the genre has risen to the challenge. For example, let’s look at underrated YA romance release Let’s Talk About Loveby Claire Kann, depicting the experiences of an asexual and biromantic black teenage girl with a nuanced and thoughtful touch. Many feel that the publishing world’s interest in YA reflects an alarming cultural trend: a departure from the classics and other works of value. But literary fiction is a genre like any other—it’s not a synonym for good. Publishers aren’t the only ones all over YA fiction; readers gravitate towards the books that represent their own experiences.
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Diverse YA releases like Tomi Adeyemi‘s Children of Blood andBone, a fantasy debut inspired by Nigerian mythology, have gotten massive attention—from media coverage to a reported seven-figure book deal. And everybody’s talking about Samira Ahmed‘s upcoming Internment, a dystopian novel in which American Muslims are detained in camps. While many are quick to complain about the market’s saturation with YA genre fiction, readers shouldn’t be so eager to decry its literary value—some of these dystopian worlds no longer come with all the logic of an Internet personality quiz. Instead, these groundbreaking authors are using technology and magic as metaphors to comment upon reality.
Image Via Samira Ahmed Twitter
YA is growing increasingly diverse from the top down—even lesser-known releases are incorporating richer cultural contexts into their works. An underrated December release, The Disastersby queer author M.K. England, features a world in which space exploration has been driven by African and Middle-Eastern science and technology. It’s all space ships, shenanigans, Muslim calls to prayer, and seriously making sure you’re not wearing a bright turquoise hijab when avoiding interplanetary mercenaries in a crowd! (Looking at you, character-who-will-not-be-named.)
Though many are quick to associate sci-fi in particular with white teen boys thirsting after Princess Leia, these skeptics should maybe slow down with the assumptions.