Best Worlds and Settings in Modern Sci-fi/Fantasy

Recently, I’ve been reading Literary Wonderlands: A Journey through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created by Laura Miller. It outlines literary works with the best world-building across history, from early myths to modern sci-fi/fantasy franchises. Inspired by this, I’d like to share with you some of the books with the most immersive settings I’ve ever read, books that had me walking their worlds long after I closed the pages. (I skipped the obvious ones like Harry Potter, which were of course featured in Literary Wonderlands.)

1. The Diviners by Libba Bray — Bray brings the past to new life in this supernatural-saturated version of 1920s NYC. Her thoughtful writing brings forth more than just a caricature of the jazz era; yes there are flappers, but there are also diverse sexualities and ethnic groups, racial tensions, and all the related issues that flesh out a cliche setting and make it more complex and believable. The icing on the cake is the judicious use of 1920s slang, especially when you hear it read out with the old-timey inflections of the audiobook narrator, January LaVoy. Read our full review here.

2. Pretties by Scott Westerfeld — I specifically chose this second installment of Westerfeld’s Uglies quartet because I was particularly intrigued and disturbed by the bubbly world of New Pretty Town’s brain-and-body-altered adolescents. Tally Youngblood lives in a society where everyone undergoes cosmetic surgery when they are 16 to become a “Pretty” and again to mark their transitions into middle- and old-age. The population is geographically and socially stratified along these lines and the young Uglies wish away their childhoods waiting to move across the river. The lives of the Pretties are filled with parties and silly slang but Tally suspects that the reason for their vapidity might be more than just teenage nature. This series may well have been the biggest dystopia work of the 21st century until Hunger Games came along, and for good reason.

3. Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr — This is the book that turned me on to the whole genre of modern faerietales. Marr depicts a faerie world that exists beside our human one and Aislinn alone among her human peers can see it. The fey are divided into four courts–Winter and Summer, High and Shadow–often at odds with each other. I love that Marr draws inspiration from some more obscure depths of Celtic folklore such as the addictive ganacanagh of Scottish myth or the raven feathers of the Morrigan that clothe the character Bananach, embodiment of Discord. The world Marr created is so vivid that it inspired a spin-off series of graphic novels called Wicked Lovey: Desert Tales.

4. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke — We all talk about getting sucked into a book, but what happens when that occurs literally? Even worse, what do you do when fictional characters slip out of their inky confines to inhabit your real world? Meggie is forced to deal with this blending of fantasy and reality when her father is visited by strange beings who may shed light on her mother’s disappearance years before. Meggie and her dad Mo are stand-ins for all book lovers; they learn Elvish to communicate in secret, pile books on the floor when they run put of shelves, and have a reverence for words that turns out to be well-founded. Their adventures are dark and frightening but in some ways are what every reader yearns for. Talk about a book coming to life!

5. Succubus Blues by Richelle Mead — Mead took the supernatural romance genre in a whole new direction by writing from the perspective of a reluctant succubus. Her wry portrayal of the denizens of heaven, earth, and hell (including an unlikely friendship between an angel and a demon) was refreshing and entertaining. I also love that protagonist Georgina Kincaid works in a bookshop. Of all the fantastic settings in the world, a building full of stories is perhaps the most magical of all.

What books dragged you into their worlds and never quite let you go? What settings really stuck with youn making you want to jump right into the pages (or run away in terror)? Feel free to share with me in the comments!

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