Great Worldbuilding

By Jennifer K.

One of the things I love about science fiction and fantasy is the worldbuilding.

Illustration by Pauline BaynesIt’s hard to explain what good worldbuilding is, but you know bad worldbuilding when you read it. What if the world is exactly like our world, except everyone has magic powers? Then it wouldn’t be exactly like our world anymore. That’s not good worldbuilding. What if the book has a tribe of honorable pale people fighting a tribe of evil dark people? That’s racist worldbuilding, and no one wants to read that. What if beavers talk and have sewing machines? That would imply that the beavers live in an industrialized society, and they clearly don’t.

In good worldbuilding, the world feels deep. It has history and culture that affect the way its characters think, and internally consistent rules that govern what the characters do. And the characters are important, too, because I don’t want to read an encyclopedia: I want to read a great story about about characters that I love.

Here are three examples of worldbuilding done right.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

The events of this big epic fantasy play out in a world that is superficially similar to late-medieval Europe: kings and queens, horseback knights with swords and armor, that sort of thing. But this world has a fascinating religion that has little in common with the Judeo-Christian background of Europe in the middle ages. There are five gods, each with his or her own symbology and devotees. There are complex (and often charming) rituals associated with each of the five gods, and a whole bunch of things like demons and saints that interact with people in interesting and unpredictable ways.  This religion suffuses every aspect of the world and drives the increasingly-complex plot, but it never overwhelms the story, especially not our main character, the quirky, wise, and brave Lupe dy Cazaril. This book is simply a great story, set against a backdrop that I wanted to visit again and again. (And, thanks to the sequels, I can.)

Jhereg by Steven Brust

Another fantasy novel, another first-in-series, but the gritty world of Jhereg couldn’t be more different from the courtly realm of Chalion. Dragaera is a world populated by tall, extremely long-lived magical beings, who long ago conquered humans. Their society is divided into caste-like Great Houses, each of which is associated with certain unique characteristics. House Jhereg represents greed and is essentially the mafia. Here we find our hero,  Vladimir Taltos, a human assassin and small-time crime boss who bought his way into the House but who is most assuredly considered to be a second-class citizen. The plot and pacing of these books owe everything to the snappy rhythms of noir crime fiction: this is Raymond Chandler in Fairyland, and it works way better than you think it would. Follow the wisecracking Vlad from book to book, as he finds himself defending his turf from Jhereg interlopers, getting dragged into revolutionary anti-Dragaeran underground, and meddling with gods who could end the world.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

From fantasy to science fiction of the most eye-opening kind. Imperial Radch is a galaxy-spanning expansionist military empire whose culture does not recognize gender – they use the pronoun “she” for everyone. The story is told entirely from the point of view of Breq, a former starship artificial intelligence now inhabiting an all-too-human body. Breq cannot reliably tell who is male and who is female and generally does not care. The result is a book (and Ancillary Justice is the first in a trilogy) in which the reader never knows the gender of any of the characters, including Breq. That alone wouldn’t make a good book – but the Imperial Radch is splitting apart in a civil war, Breq is on a mad quest for vengeance, and there are action sequences that I couldn’t put down. It’s an amazing experience. (There are a few loud people on the internet who find the whole concept offensive, so you can enjoy their tears as a condiment as you devour the Ancillary Justice trilogy.)

For more great worldbuilding, check out this list of some more of my favorites.


There are plenty of books featuring immersive worldbuilding that I haven’t mentioned. Tell me about your favorites in the comments!

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8 responses to “Great Worldbuilding”

  1. Gloria says:

    Oh, I think the Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell plays well with eco-biology development in another world…
    And OF Course – the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is awesome.
    Those are two of my favorites.

    • Jennifer Keirans says:

      I love The Sparrow! What a great book about good intentions and unintended consequences. And the world she creates feel so complex and real. I’m sorry to say I’ve never read the Mars Trilogy – it’s been on my TBR pile for ages.

  2. Erin L. says:

    Robin Hobb does a great job of world building. There are different trilogies that are each set in a different “country” in her world. Complex characters and in depth cultural descriptions make it feel like a real world the reader is discovering the more they read about it. And then there are the cross references to characters and places from other areas of that world from the other trilogies that add to the complexity.

    • Jennifer Keirans says:

      Thank you for the recommendation, Erin. I’ve never read Robin Hobb. Sounds like I really should.

      • Erin L. says:

        If you like fantasy with real relationships and flawed main characters and a little magic thrown in, then, yes. I started with the Liveship Trader’s trilogy starting with “Ship of Magic” and then read the Farseer trilogy starting with ” Assasin’s Apprentice”. But It is recommended the other way around. Either way, you can then go on as published. Some trilogies either take you to other countries and continents in that world and some re-visit previous areas and characters and you see how things have progressed there. They also visit each other’s countries sometimes so you see it as a foriegner first and then a local in the next trilogy.

  3. Isaac H. says:

    I love Ancillary Justice! It’s one of the deepest militaristic Space Opera epics that I’ve ever read. It kind of tosses you into Breq’s story and all the complex intrigue in the Radch Empire, and slowly guides you though what’s going on. The second book is a bit slower than the first but the revelations in the 3rd book are incredible.

    A similar series I’ve been enjoying is the “Mazalan Book of the Fallen” series. It’s militaristic fantasy, and it also that tosses the reader into a huge world with lots going on to slowly unfold.

  4. Erin L. says:

    I also can’t resist a shout out to classics like C.S. Lewis (Narnia) Anne McCaffrey (Pern) and Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover). They were of my formative reading years and have stuck with me. Narnia was my first memory of reading a chapter book by myself and I loved it!

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