All Sides of Fantasy: Fantasy Settings expand

Given the genre’s Western origins, it is not surprising that works of classical fantasy rely on a pseudo-European setting to convey the story. The level of ‘crapsack’ in that setting depends heavily on the niche the author chooses – the pendulum swings from a ‘knight in shining armour’ to a ‘serial killer knight on drugs’. Choices are endless, but the pseudo-Western setting remains. Since fantasy has its roots in folklore popularized by the 19th-century Romantic artists, it always brings familiar aesthetics to the table: an idealized version of Western Middle Ages with mystic beasts, dramatic clothing, and dreamy landscapes. We all know the beats.

Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, this special attitude toward folklore is not an exclusively Western phenomenon. In one way or another, almost every culture has its ‘Golden Age’, its version of ‘Renaissance’ and its promoters of folklore. However, in the 20th century it was Western European fantasy that took off. For better or worse, it was the first to be declared ‘classical’.

A Western setting? Just add towers. More towers. Pointy towers.

Expanding borders. Nowadays, Western settings are somewhat out of fashion. On the one hand, it is a promising development that breaks the boundaries of genre and demonstrates communalities between cultures. After all, one of the greatest pitfalls I see in history and literature is our focus on ‘othering’. The only way to breach the dichotomy of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ is to show how, in fact, most cultures follow similar patterns of development. Yes, they follow them differently. However, differences do not make us incompatible.

New fantasy settings highlight the likeness, while expanding our vision. You can enjoy and dissect all kinds of novels in all kinds of settings, recognizing the same bits and pieces and discovering new ones. In the end, art’s purpose is to challenge and change the world. Often, the change starts when you fall in love with something new.

Acknowledging the importance of representation in literature, I see a great bonus in this expansion of fantasy settings. It is not only a way to promote ignored and/or marginalized cultures and voices. It is also way to show how every culture and historical legacy (real and imagined) can have multiple interpretations. There is never a singular correct one. A fantasy setting reflects not only the fluidity of our perception but the differences in our approaches to historical legacies as well.

The Poppy war, the Secrets of Jin-Shei, Huntress are just a few novels that come to my mind when I think about fantasy settings based on China (a version of it). Yet, each of these novels weaves a very different world. They, perhaps, share common aesthetics, but they are otherwise not particularly similar. What they represent is not just one culture, but the great potential a culture offers.

And the sky is your limit….

Many settings and many voices. As a social historian, I constantly search for patterns. Acknowledging exceptions, I seek likeness to draw conclusions and build strategies. While all authors can get inspiration from all cultures and create original settings, your own background can give you a boost.

Few people understand the appeal of Eastern European history better than I do. I’ve been dealing with it since I was 17 (more than ten years, really). I know how it can capture minds and burn hearts. I also know how our regional biases can ruin us. I admit that sometimes foreign authors have fresher perspectives that we ourselves lack. I don’t need to agree with their interpretations. I almost never do. But I appreciate their attention to our folklore and history. Still, I will always tell them apart from one of our authors.

When a foreigner choses a Slavic setting, he will most likely focus on the story rather than on exploring our marginalization, conflicting legacies, and our place in this world. That is why the vodnik in Urban’s Hastrman feels so authentic to me. I understand where the author’s background and get his historical and cultural references. Because it is personal. Because Hastrman is not an urban fantasy to me. It is something only a Slavic author could have written and experienced – torn between empires and conflicting nationalisms. On the other hand, China Miéville’s vodyanoy dockworkers in Perdido Street Station are a brilliant addition to a thought-provoking book. Miéville’s novel is not a reflection on legacies or nationalisms. It does not need to be. He uses interesting mythical creatures to enhance his worldbuilding. (I have touched upon this in the article I wrote for Tor.com half a year ago)

It is, I surmise, a similar experience for all authors and readers, who draw inspiration from their own cultures. Our settings will always be ‘personal’ to us, even if we create a secondary world of our own. They are always in our bones. In this case, foreigners offer great insights that escape us because we refuse to keep the distance. After all, beautiful fairy-tales like the ones written by Novik and Arden are a nice homage to Russian and Polish folk stories. They don’t need to be Dukaj’s Ice and Urban’s Hastrman. It’s not their point.

Eclectic settings. Competition in publishing (and pretty much everywhere else) is so brutal that we all try to grab our readers by their eyeballs. The crazier the better. When real-life cultures no longer cut it, we turn to eclectic settings. Ever so often you’ll strike something so original and poignant that it outshines everything else. After all, one of the most recognizable fantasy Empires, Nilfgaard, is a mixture of the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, the Roman Empire….and what not. And these are only the inspirations I see there. The same is true for many other brilliant settings out there. Eclectic is always the way once you want to depart from the familiar.

Towers and lasers. And lakes. And ninjas. Dressed in togas. And on camels. The rule of cool at its best.

Good old Tolkien-style fantasy. There is no problem with traditional fantasy settings. Really. They are out of fashion currently, but, eventually, they will return. Better and fresher, perhaps. Some already have. Silk and Steel is one of those novels that contain the familiar races of humans, dragons and elves, but bend them in the most unexpected of ways. I wouldn’t call it a ‘traditional fantasy’. Because while we do get a hot elf and an even hotter dragon, the dark atmosphere, explicit sexual and mental abuse and the grim context turns the novel into a ‘PTSD-fuelled Kushiel’s Legacy meets Elder Scrolls‘. Is it still pseudo-Western? Not really. In some aspects. After all, it’s not just the setting that brings originality. It is the approach of the author and the ideas he choses to explore than make a book shine.

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