Fantasy Literature Project – Part 2

Voila paragraph 1!

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(link to part 1 –

Part 1: Setting


  1. On Maps

Maps are a helpful addition to the immersive atmosphere of the setting because they depict distance between places whilst also being a visual aid for the passage of time within the created world.  Maps also give the world a significant amount of realism because the existence of a map presupposes that somebody within the created world documented its geography at some point in time.

This is especially important in George R. R. Martin’s GOT, in which the maps of North and South Westeros are highly detailed and contain clear divisions between the different regions. Although Martin is explicit in describing journey length, both maps display the immensity of the setting. It takes Jon Snow eighteen days to travel from Winterfell to The Wall; these are two locations in relative proximity to each other. [1] The astute reader can calculate the vast length of time it takes the Starks to travel from Winterfell to King’s Landing, two locations that are a great distance from each other. Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, presented as the memoir of a dragon naturalist, includes three maps of the quasi-Slavic setting drawn by the ‘author’ of the memoir, replete with landmarks and etchings that pertain to certain moments in the text. The inclusion of diegetic maps makes the memoir seem authentic and Brennan’s world more realistic.

It is interesting when characters use these maps. Some fantasy settings do not contain the advanced technology of the present world, so it is highly likely that the making of fantasy maps in these worlds is limited to cruder or more primitive forms of cartographical technology. It is also difficult to determine whether these maps in the front or back matter of the book are the same maps available to the characters. It is likely that they are a polished professional version of the scribbled maps some of the characters have on their person. Although authors in the present world are drafting these maps as a visual enhancement for their created worlds, Martin’s map, for all its detail, contains some inaccuracies which lead to problems when travelling through the lands. When Tyrion travels North from Winterfell with Jon, he soon finds that ‘the map [is] one thing and the land quite another’.[2] Maps also contain a wealth of encoded information regarding the political environment of the worlds. In Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon and Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, each map depicts the lands from the perspective of a particular ‘kingdom’. This gives the impression that these maps are not wayfarers’ rough sketches but commissioned works of professional cartography.

Morgan’s and Wells’ texts do not include maps at all. In both these texts, it seems as if the emphasis is more upon how the character navigates and deals with the harsh and unforgiving setting rather than the setting being the vehicle for character interaction. In Wells’ text, The Cloud Roads, the protagonist, Moon, searches for self-knowledge and knowledge of his people, the Raksura. The Raksura are a humanoid shape-shifting species divided into Aeriat, those who can fly, and Arbora, those who cannot. [3] The lack of maps adds to the isolated atmosphere of the text and complements Moon’s feelings of being lost in a vast world. Morgan’s The Steel Remains is situated in a grim post-war world where displaced refugees swarm the roads between cities and power divisions are tentative at best. In this text, the lack of maps adds to the disorienting and ambiguous atmosphere of a world still reeling from a massive conflict.[4]


2. On Introducing the Setting

I define ‘setting’ as the environment of a world and the diegetic aspects of the text; that is, anything within the world that is an intrinsic part of its overall structure. Except for A Natural History, all the texts commence with a backdrop of danger. Martin’s text contains a horrifying prologue in which members of the Night’s Watch are attacked by ‘the Others’, leaving one survivor.[5] In the following chapter, this same survivor is beheaded by Lord Stark for the act of desertion.[6] The relationship between Martin’s prologue and the following chapter stresses the importance of perspective. In the prologue, the survivor, Gared, has a name, backstory and personality, whereas in the ensuing chapter he is just a deserter awaiting his execution. This dichotomy between the prologue and initial chapter firmly establishes the harsh nature of Westeros, suggesting that the world is cruel and benefits only he who manipulates the world to his will.

Rothfuss’ frame narrative begins in a local inn amongst a small crowd of five people which ‘was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were’.[7] This quote implies the existence of an unknown menace and a suggestion that Rothfuss’ world of Temerant has fallen on dark times. Rothfuss foreshadows danger through characters gossiping, before revealing the danger when a bloodied Carter stumbles into the bar carrying the body of a giant spider that has attacked him on the road.[8] The relationship between foreshadowing and the ‘grand reveal’ creates narrative suspense and assures the reader of the high possibility of danger in Rothfuss’ world.

Morgan’s, Ahmed’s, Wells’ and Hurley’s texts all commence with gritty and life-threatening action scenes. Morgan’s protagonist, Ringil, kills ‘corpsemites’ who have reanimated the body of his friend’s deceased mother.[9] An unknown man tortures a guardsman in Ahmed’s brutal quasi-Arabic world.[10] In Hurley’s world, the pacifistic Dhai in one universe burn Lilia’s village and kill her mother in a parallel universe.[11] In Wells’ world, another larger Raksura hunts the protagonist, Moon, giving him the impression he will be eaten.[12]

Although the protagonist of Brennan’s text, Isabella Camherst, is not in any life-threatening danger within the first few paragraphs of the story, death and danger are still present. A seven-year old Isabella finds a dead ‘sparkling’, an insect-sized dragon, on a bench, which sparks her fascination with dragon anatomy.[13] In the world Brennan depicts, which is similar to 19th century England, this is an inappropriate interest for a lady.[14] Isabella’s danger is potentially life-ruining because being interested in ‘unsuitable’ things could jeopardise her future opportunities to find a husband.[15]

It is important to consider what an author presents in the first stages of his text because the aim of the first chapter is to establish a setting that entices the reader to continue reading. This is a ‘snapshot’ of the author’s world, a brief description. The choice to include sudden danger identifies that a fundamental aspect of these worlds is the proximity and reality of death. Returning to Le Guin’s quote, not only is this ‘wilderness’ unsafe, but danger is ubiquitous.


3. On the Type of Setting

The important question here is how the author establishes his setting to paint a picture of the world. In his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, J.R.R. Tolkien describes the difficulty of making ‘a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible’.[16] Tolkien argues that a good fantasy author presents a world that is consistent and rational but utterly foreign as well. A reader must also suspend her scepticism for fantasy settings to seem real; she must allow herself to fall under the author’s spell.

Wells’ ‘Three Worlds’ is replete with alien races, flying islands and giant predators, and Hurley’s world of Raisa contains sentient plants, gender-ambiguous characters and an interesting magic system governed by ascendant satellites. When characters interact with the settings, this brings the world to life. The possibility of flight adds an extra dimension to Wells’ mono-perspectival text. When Moon takes his first flight, further description of the hilly island setting surrounding the Cordan’s camp emerges.[17] With each flight comes more detailed description of the setting, presenting the world from a ‘bird’s-eye-view’. In Hurley’s world, there are different social customs depending upon the region. For instance, there are two genders in Dorinah, male and female; three in Saiduan, male, female and ataisa, an intersex gender; and five in Dhai, female-passive, female-assertive, male-passive, male-assertive and ungendered. The characters modify how they refer to other characters depending upon the region. When Roh, a character from Dhai observes Luna, a character from Saiduan, being dressed, he wonders what gender Luna chose. Soon after, he realises that in Saiduan, gender is determined by others, an interesting account of social difference across the various settings in Hurley’s world.[18]

Morgan, Rothfuss, Martin and Brennan use settings that are not dissimilar to present-world historical settings. For instance, Brennan’s world is almost Victorian and Martin’s world is reminiscent of feudal Europe. Given that there are multitudinous possibilities to world creation, why does an author write about a world that is not so far from our own? Perhaps an author uses settings that are not wholly original so that he can focus on a more profound concept, or to reveal something about our own world. Brennan’s text explores the experiences of a woman in a patriarchal world and Morgan’s text tackles how non-heterosexual characters navigate a world that punishes them by death.[19] Martin’s world investigates Machiavellian politics between warring families who ‘play the game of thrones [and] either win or die.’[20] Rothfuss explores non-linear structure and interesting narrative techniques by having the hero tell the story of his own legacy.

Ahmed includes a colourful epigraph of fictional verse poetry that gradually paints a picture of the city of Dhamsawaat.[21] The fictional poet, Ismi Shihab, describes Dhamsawaat as the ‘king of cities’, conveying its vast size, and likens it to a ‘jewel’, expressing its beauty and grandeur. When he explains that ‘a thousand thousand men pass through and pass in’, this conjures up imagery of overpopulation and crowdedness. He alliteratively juxtaposes ‘bookshops’ with ‘brothels’, detailing the various possibilities of this city. The final line expresses that ‘he who tires of Dhamsawaat tires of life’, suggesting that this city is never boring and can fulfil any mortal desires. Being a reader from a European background living in New Zealand, this text took me to an unfamiliar and vibrant world. Yet this might not be the case for someone living in a busy Middle Eastern city who perhaps may find that Ahmed’s descriptions of Dhamsawaat are like that of his own city. A reader’s experience with a setting is entirely relative because one reader may relate to a setting and another may find herself transported to another world.

So, why read about different worlds? To delve into an immersive fantasy world is like going diving for the first time; at once you are astounded by the new and unfamiliar surroundings but are also in a state of wonder and fear. Yet, while reading the text, one becomes accustomed to the setting and how it may influence certain choices a character makes. On the one hand, I am attracted to fantasy because of the brief respite it provides from the present world but, on the other hand, I enjoy reading how authors experiment with certain aspects of the present world in their created worlds. In the texts I have looked at, tyrannical rulers manipulate their subjects, women and minorities are oppressed, and death comes often and painfully. Despite the multitudinous possibilities of fantasy literature, it is interesting that these authors create worlds containing problems from the present world. For instance, Martin exposes the great lengths people will go to for power and Morgan creates a world wherein non-heterosexuals are executed for their sexual preferences. Tolkien argues that these created worlds make our own world seem more magical.[22] By reading fantasy, the reader transports herself into another world. These created worlds initially seem vastly different but then turn out to be not so far from our own. Although these texts are by no means didactic, I enjoy reading how characters overcome problems and navigate their created worlds. Perhaps it can be argued that, by reading about an author’s presentation of a problem that is also existent in our world, we are able to learn from and potentially figure out a solution for a problem in our own world.




[1] George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 121.

[2] ibid., 118.

[3] Martha Wells, The Cloud Roads (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2011), 761-65.

[4] Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains (Great Britain: Gollancz, 2008), 275.

[5] Martin, 1-11.

[6] ibid., 13-15.

[7] Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind (London: DAW Books, 2007), 3.

[8] ibid., 7-10.

[9] Morgan, 3.

[10] Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon (USA: DAW Books, 2012), 1-3.

[11] Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire (New York: Angry Robot, 2014), 11.

[12] Wells, 8-10.

[13] Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons (New York: Tor, 2013), 1.

[14] ibid., 17.

[15] ibid., 3.

[16] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, Tree and Leaf (London: Harper Collins, 2001), 47.

[17] Wells, 29-31.

[18] Hurley, 400.

[19] Morgan, 49-50.

[20] Martin, 488.

[21] Ahmed, 4.

[22] Tolkien, 50.


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