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 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, 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.”
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
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.
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.”
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