In our “Reading Recs for…” series we’ll recommend reads for certain topics that we run into often.
One of the most fun and also most painful parts of building an epic fantasy world is world-building. (To be fair, all genres should have good world-building).
THE BELLES by Dhonielle Clayton
why we rec: This world was created to make social commentary on ours while still being hugely fantastical. It’s an accomplishment of Dhonielle’s that she makes us think about some very complicated social constructs such as beauty, gender norms, and sexism in a way that allows us to reflect on our world while still being completely immersed in Orleans. A society that uses beauty as capital needs to be more than surface in order to have any power in the message. Beauty permeates not only the way people view each other in Orleans, but also how class constructs are built and how people interact with each other.
Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.
But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.
With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.
COURT OF FIVES by Kate Elliott
why we rec: A world that hugely influences all the characters and how they make their decisions. That’s a very important thing in fantasy world-building. What Court of Fives does so well is create not only a cool world, but it thinks about religion, food, family, and societal relationships. The relationship of the main family is so intricately built and highly influenced by their station in society. It also talks about class and ethnic groups in a way that is realistic and seamless.
On the Fives court, everyone is equal.
And everyone is dangerous.
Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family, she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for the Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors.
Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the two Fives competitors—one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy—causes heads to turn. When Kal’s powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test her new friend’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.
In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.
TRUTHWITCH by Susan Dennard
why we rec: Susan Dennard has often said she was raised on epic, high fantasy growing up. That is very apparent in the Witchland series. The world is sprawling and politically complicated. Warring worlds with dynamic characters caught in between. The issues that Safi, Iseul and Merik face are created because of world-wide conflicts and therefore, they are often powerless players in a game of political intrigue. This makes both the stakes and the solutions they come up with more intense.
In a continent on the edge of war, two witches hold its fate in their hands.
Young witches Safiya and Iseult have a habit of finding trouble. After clashing with a powerful Guildmaster and his ruthless Bloodwitch bodyguard, the friends are forced to flee their home.
Safi must avoid capture at all costs as she’s a rare Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies. Many would kill for her magic, so Safi must keep it hidden – lest she be used in the struggle between empires. And Iseult’s true powers are hidden even from herself.
In a chance encounter at Court, Safi meets Prince Merik and makes him a reluctant ally. However, his help may not slow down the Bloodwitch now hot on the girls’ heels. All Safi and Iseult want is their freedom, but danger lies ahead. With war coming, treaties breaking and a magical contagion sweeping the land, the friends will have to fight emperors and mercenaries alike. For some will stop at nothing to get their hands on a Truthwitch.
SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo
why we rec: Leigh Bardugo did an amazing job in her first trilogy of fleshing out Ravka, but Six of Crows takes her world to a whole new level. I once compared it to the way that the Legend of Korra builds of the phenomenal world-building of Avatar the Last Airbender–in many ways, Bardugo does something by showing us an even wider world beyond the borders of her first trilogy, and building on the amazing magic and technology. She uses each of her POV characters to show us different aspects, beliefs, and facets of the Grisha world. Part of what makes her world-building work so well is the way that the world affects the characters, and the way the characters in turn affect their world. Whenever I have to put on my heavy-duty world-building hat, I think about this series and the intricate, honest way Bardugo crafted this world.
Criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker has been offered wealth beyond his wildest dreams. But to claim it, he’ll have to pull off a seemingly impossible heist:
Break into the notorious Ice Court
(a military stronghold that has never been breached)
Retrieve a hostage
(who could unleash magical havoc on the world)
Survive long enough to collect his reward
(and spend it)
Kaz needs a crew desperate enough to take on this suicide mission and dangerous enough to get the job done – and he knows exactly who: six of the deadliest outcasts the city has to offer. Together, they just might be unstoppable – if they don’t kill each other first.
AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir
why we rec: EMBER completely immerses the reader in the characters’ lives—from Elias and Helene at Blackcliff to Laia’s life as a Scholar. Many people have talked to me about the bleakness at the beginning of the novel; Tahir does not shy away from depictions of violence and grief, which is certainly a fair warning. The Roman-inspired world provides a backdrop of constant warring, which if history is any indication, realistic of the time period. The brutality and motivations of the Martial Empire are an important world building piece and without it, much of EMBER would not have the intense stakes that it does.
Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.
WINNER’S CURSE by Marie Rutkoski
Why we rec: Part of this recommendation comes from the knowledge that Marie Rutkoski based the world off of the conflict and interaction of the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans. It created a fascinating interaction of how the conquering people (Ancient Romans) adopted some of the gods and beliefs of the conquered (Ancient Greeks) while also subjecting them to becoming second-class citizens in a land that used to be their home. It makes the relationships very complicated and intricate and creates an amazing world background for the main two characters to develop their forbidden relationship.
Winning what you want may cost you everything you love…
As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.
One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.
But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.
Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.
Do you have any reading recommendations for great world building?