Worldbuilding can make or break a book for me. If the setting is strong enough, I’m able to sink into the novel. I’m an escapist reader, so I want to be transported elsewhere. It’s the reason I read primarily paranormal and fantasy novels.
What’s even better is when the world crafted in the book takes on a life of its own—when the city where the characters live and work becomes a character in its own right, I’m straight-up in love.
The best settings are the ones that influence the life of the protagonist. They aren’t just the surroundings, but what shapes the book, the plot, the people. Here are a few of my favorites.
In Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts series, Churchwitch Chess Putnam lives in the seedy Downside part of Triumph City. It’s the place with endless fires and air tinged by the slaughterhouse. This neighborhood is a maelstrom of filth, depravity and drugs. It mirrors, in many ways, how Chess sees herself. Drugs, sex and violence are all part of Downside, but there’s also this hope of getting by. Less people using facades to get through the day, because you are what you are in Downside.
Would we want to live in Downside? No, but how could a place like that not shape the people who live there?
I couldn’t make this list and not include Bon Temps, Louisiana, the center of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels. The laid-back nature of the small town is what makes its inhabitants feel real. Werejaguars live just down the street, but the sweet Southern style means we just shake our heads and serve up some chili at Merlotte’s. The small town also encourages busybody elements of the series and makes it everyone’s business to be involved when a vampire moves to town. Bon Temps and Renard Parish are as much a character of the Sookie Stackhouse series as Bud Dearborn.
In Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke, heroine Mina works for the police. It’s hard to get any respect in post-horde London, though. Not because she’s a woman. Not because she’s a cop. Because she looks to be part of the horde. Years before men came from the east, the horde used tainted tomatoes to infect the people of England with nanoagents, the kind that allowed the horde to take over their minds and bodies.
Mina is a Londoner, but her ethnicity shows she was borne of the horde. And for that no one will trust her. There is a strong shift into transforming the city’s past technology into something more pure while shunning its source. The culture of the town influences Mina’s actions, but doesn’t stop her from eating tomatoes.
There’s this common misconception that cities as a character only happens in urban fantasy books. While it’s more of a requisite there, the subgenre doesn’t own the market on killer worlds. J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood features a strong backdrop with the small town of Caldwell. Could these giant warrior vampires stay hidden in a bigger city? Probably not. The structure of the town, the integrations of local businesses on both sides of the fence (Lessers and Brothers) and the duality of opulence and dark alleyways matches the Brothers’ internal conflicts.
Old vs. New Seattle
Another romance series that does the city as a character element well is Karina Cooper’s Dark Mission series. It’s especially strong in the first book Blood of the Wicked when we discover the differences between Old Seattle and New Seattle. The city is tiered with most of the old city buried beneath the new city.
If you can’t afford to live topside, you’re going to have little sunlight, runoff water trickling down pipes and a whole different outlook on the world. The father down one lives, the darker their lives and the more dangerous it is.
Kim Harrison has crafted an alternative version of Cincinnati for her series starring Rachel Morgan, all-the-time witch and sometimes demon. The Hollows is the portion of the town where the magical folk—werewolves, vampires, witches, elves and the like—live. It’s not required, but think of it as the paranormal version of Chinatown.
What are your favorites? Would you include Atlanta per the Kate Daniels series? Fae-infested Ireland from the Fever books? Would you make an argument for Tempe as Atticus sees it in the Iron Druid Chronicles? Sound off below.
While Chelsea Mueller runs Vampire Book Club, she won’t turn down a sexy werewolf, demon or faerie. Her appreciation of Alexander Skarsgard is well documented. Bother her on Twitter — @ChelseaVBC — she likes it.