Love Them Landscapes: The Unique Geography of Speculative Fiction

It’s almost a given these days, especially with fantasy books–you open up the front cover and an enormous map sprawls out before you, denoting various continents, kingdoms, murky forests, coastal ports, and all the other bits and jots composing the world. Sometimes these locales have colorful names, such as Shadowlands of the Dark Lord, Bottomless Pit of Apathy, and Do-Not-Go-Here-istan. Other times, they’re a gibberish of glottal coughs and apostrophes.

However they’re named, though, so often these maps and representative lands are simply indicative of where the story happens rather than what the story is about. They’re just a reference point for those readers who dearly want to know if the heroine’s quest to save a hapless prince from a dragon took her through the pleasant town of Orcsg’utyo’u or not.

What if we tried a different perspective? Let’s strap on our Boots of Anti-Blistering, grab a wizard’s walking stick, and head off across worlds where the geography is as integral to the plot as the main characters themselves.

THE WINDS OF KHALAKOVO (Book One of The Lays of Anusakya) – Bradley Beaulieu

THE RUNDOWN: In an alternate world of flying ships, elemental masters, and battles that range across misty cliffs, Prince Nikandr Khalakovo is attempting to conceal his own magic-sickened health while going through an arranged marriage that will secure his family’s future. Yet when an elemental spirit assassinates the Grand Duke during a visit to Khalakovo, Nikandr is tasked with tracking its summoner down and proving his family’s innocence of murderous treason.

THE CONTRAST: The Winds of Khalakovo (and The Lays of Anuskaya series in general) often relies on unique landscapes and geographic focal points to further the plots. The history of a particular island is slowly revealed to hold incredible significance, while the main culture introduced in this first book (heavily influenced by our own historical Russian culture) is split between those families who rule the windy trade routes and the “Landed” families who grasp for power. Much of the conflict and battle scenes are fueled by magical airborne transportation through treacherous straits and mountains, and there is often an intertwining of physical and magical forces in the way characters interact with landmarks.

ELANTRIS – Brandon Sanderson

THE RUNDOWN: The city of Elantris once hosted a benevolent population blessed with godlike powers, until an unknown disaster twisted the blessing into a curse and left the city a festering wreck–and the people within driven mad by eternal pain and decay. Ten years later, Crown Prince Raoden is struck by the same curse and exiled to languish in the ruins of Elantris. There, he stumbles across secrets that may lead him to discover the source of the disaster and harness a long-lost power to save his people.

THE CONTRAST: (Minor Spoilers) Much of the conflict in Elantris revolves around ethical, religious, and political clashes–yet it’s revealed that the broken magic system once employed by Elantris and its people is essentially linked to this world’s geography and main city locations. Therefore, when the land changes, magic must shift along with it or the entire world will be thrown into chaos.

THUNDERER – Felix Gilman

THE RUNDOWN: Arjun has come to the city of Ararat seeking a mysterious Voice that may inspire his musical compositions. However, Ararat is in a time of turbulence, where numerous god are in conflict on the streets, boy-heroes incite rebellion among feral child gangs, and the city itself reshapes every time one turns a corner.

THE CONTRAST: The city of Ararat is central to the story, just as powerful an entity as any of the gods Arjun encounters in his journey. Rumored to be endless and unmappable by its denizens, Ararat is maddening in the secrets it holds and deadly in those it reveals. Much of its true nature is left unexplained, up to the reader’s imagination, yet it does provide an intense sense of exploration and the feeling that you could encounter anything from mad priests to unborn futures should you take a jaunt down a side-street.

THE VERDICT

As Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel, Elantris certainly shows off many of the creative talents he’s since become famous  for. Vivid characters, unique magic systems, and vibrant worlds. While it is nice to have a self-contained story in a rare stand-alone fantasy, certain characters and cultures feel under-explored and under-developed, while others (such as the nature of the central disaster) come across a bit oversimplified. Plus, it’s likely most fantasy readers are already quite familiar with Sanderson’s work and need no further encouragement to enjoy such.

Thunderer offers a grand adventure for those who enjoy mishmash settings where just about anything is possible. At the same time, the city of Ararat is sometimes so overwhelming and confusing as to detract from the main plots themselves. Certain core aspects of the city and its many gods and realities go unexplained even at the end, and the city never quite congeals into a functioning, cohesive whole–though perhaps it’s never meant to.

So the nod in this go-round is given to The Winds of Khalakovo and The Lays of Anuskaya series as a whole. The translation of various real-world cultures into alternate fantasy world provides a fresh twist on the usual pseudo-European medieval settings. A colorful variety of magic, ever-heightening stakes, and a true sense of a world worth exploring make this series stand out. And for those who might fear getting involved in a series and having to wait years for the sequels, you’ll be pleased to know the trilogy is complete with the third book, The Flames of Shadam Khoreh, recently released.

Now that you’ve got a few reading destinations plotted out, time to saunter forth and discover what awaits you along the way!

Just be sure to steer clear of any towns with names that include Death, Shadow, Grave, or variations thereof.

It’s just common sense.

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