It’s a great feeling to get lost in a book. To be so thoroughly transported to a new world that you can imagine exactly what it would be like to live there. Fantasy and Science Fiction books give the reader something other genres don’t and that’s the ability to experience something completely new. There are many experiences on Earth, historical or contemporary, that we will never experience personally, but the thrill of alien worlds and magic-wielding heroes is satisfying in a way that real-life experiences, no matter how compelling, just can’t compete with. Here are a few of my favorite authors to read just for the world building. They do, of course, also have great stories but I am drawn back again and again for the exotic new places I can visit through their works.
1) Brandon Sanderson
My favorite Work (so far): Stormlight Archive
Brandon Sanderson is an Epic Fantasy writer. He was thrust into the limelight when he was selected to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I have regrettably not yet read his first published book Elantris, but it was well received. His most well-known series are Mistborn and the Stormlight Archive. Mistborn takes place in the Final Empire a location in the Cosmere where all of his books take place. Here the sky is red and ash falls from the sky constantly. Magic is fueled by metals which are consumed and then “burned” in the user’s stomach. Different metals grant different abilities and the users are able to burn one or all of them, nothing in between. There is another trilogy and other books set in this world which I have not had the pleasure of reading yet.
You can see that I cheated when I chose my favorite work of Sanderson’s. The Stormlight Archive is a planned ten book series that takes place in Roshar, another Cosmere planet. Here magic is fueled by stormlight that is trapped in gemstones. The light is consumed from the gem and then expended to use magic. The gems can be re-infused during the massive storms that sweep the planet. So far the first three books of the series are out: The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and Oathbringer. There is also a novella that could be considered book 2.5 called Edgdancer I highly recommend them all. But be warned, they are massive.
Brandon Sanderson is a master of world building. I would love to see how he organizes all of this ideas and details. There is not a thing he hasn’t thought about from language to dress to food to weather. It is completely immersive. After picking up a Sanderson book you are immediately swept into the story and the world and can’t wait to find out what happens next.
2) China Mieville
My Favorite Work (so far): The City and The City
China Mieville is a Fantasy writer classified under the New Weird movement. And his work is definitely weird. He has won tons of awards and nominations including Hugo, World Fantasy, Arthur C Clarke, and Nebula. His best known works include Perdido Street Station and Embassytown. It’s hard to even describe Mieville’s work. He does have a few novels that take place in the same world but I have, unfortunately, only read the first one so far. They are all so different. There are magical elements but it would be hard to define the magic system as with Sanderson. With the exception of one book, Kraken, everything of Mieville’s that I have read has taken place in an extremely foreign world filled with oddities. It’s almost like someone made a cabinet of curiosities come to life. If that cabinet was from another universe entirely.
I had a hard time choosing my favorite work. It is really a tie between The City and The City and Railsea. The first is about two cities that exist in the same space. The inhabitants of each are forced, by law, to ignore the other and there are dire consequences for lapsing. It is a mystery story that forces the protagonist to face his assumptions and beliefs and question reality itself. Railsea is an adventure. It takes place mostly on trains that rove the dessert world like pirate ships. Most of the ground is covered in tracks and touching the earth is taboo. This book was exciting and more whimsical than dark, as some of Mieville’s work tends to be.
Getting into a Mieville novel may be the most challenging on this list. You have to occasionally go back and make sure you read the last sentence correctly because what was just said should really not be possible. It is always a fantastic ride though and well worth the effort.
3) Jeff VanderMeer
My Favorite Work (so far): City of Saints and Madmen
Jeff VanderMeer was also associated with the New Weird movement before turning more mainstream. The first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy was the basis of the movie Annihilation. He has won many of the same awards as Mieville including some for his non-ficiton writing book Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. I almost chose Wonderbook as my favorite VanderMeer work but decided to keep it to fiction. It is a great resource for writers, particularly fantasy writers, but it has great advice for any genre. The illustrations are helpful for the visual thinker and make the process of learning more interactive and fun.
I hate to admit that I have only read one of VanderMeer’s fiction works so far. But it was incredible. It’s called The City of Saints and Madmen and is actually an anthology of stories. They all revolve around the fictional city of Ambergris and mimic many genres of writing. There is a straight out short story, a historical account of the city, an academic piece on squids (complete with annotated bibliography), and much more. It’s so easy to lose yourself in the world and forget that all of it is fiction because he writes so convincingly in the other styles. These stories are firmly planted in the New Weird movement and pull you firmly into the strange, sometimes disturbing, world of Ambergris.
4) Dan Simmons
My Favorite Work (so far): Hyperion
Dan Simmons’ work has elements of science fiction, horror, and fantasy and he often uses many of these in a single book. His most well known work is the Hyperion Cantos which is comprised of four books and some short stories. His work also tends to draw on literary references, everything from The Illiad to Shakespeare to Canterbury Tales. His worlds are well crafted and detailed but not as weird as Mieville or VanderMeer. There is enough of the science fiction element to keep things a little more grounded.
My favorite of Simmons’ works is Hyperion, the first of the Hyperion Cantos. It’s direct sequel is Fall of Hyperion. It definitely has some horror elements that verge on fantasy. The characters are compelling and unique. The premise is that a group of pilgrims are off to a backwater planet to see a monster called the Shrike. On the way they all tell their own story of how they ended up on this twisted pilgrimage. It’s the kind of book that keeps you reading, gripping the edge of your seat, and guessing until the end.
These stories take place in a rich universe that spans dozens of planets. The history of the humanity is carefully thought out and details mentioned in passing become important later. Dan Simmons doesn’t spend time explaining things to the reader. He lets you figure it out from context, which can be frustrating at times. I often found myself wanting more. It is definitely a world to get lost in.
Tell me in the comments who your favorite world builder is.