The words “fantasy novel” bring a whole lot of tropes to mind: a quasi-European kingdom, some wizards, a dragon or three, and armies of armored knights fighting monstrous hordes. While these stock ingredients are still common, there are plenty of books whose world-building doesn’t rely on Tolkien as a general template. Here are six absolutely brilliant fantasy worlds unlike anyplace you’ve ever visited before.
Updraft, by Fran Wilde
Wilde’s debut novel offers one of the most unique, mysterious, yet sturdily-constructed settings we’ve seen recently. In an unnamed city composed of living bone towers growing upwards from the long-forgotten ground, citizens soar on glider-like wings, and young Kirit wants nothing more than to pass her wingtest and join her mother as a trader, flying through the city’s spires and exchanging exotic goods. When an attack by the horrifying skymouths (think the Flying Spaghetti Monster, with teeth…lots of teeth) uncovers Kirit’s rare, potentially world-changing power, the secretive Singers who rule the city force her to become an apprentice in their order. What’s truly magical here is the restraint Wilde shows, holding back information about the details of her world, some of which will presumably come in later novels. The effect is mesmerizing, not the least because of the imagination on display.
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
Anyone seeking an escape from the Elves-and-wizards of generic fantasy will find their way to Mieville eventually. The world of Bas-Lag (and its city-state New Crobuzon) rely on almost zero standard fantasy tropes, instead inventing all new substitutes, most of which have very little relation to the traditions of Tolkien, or even George R.R. Martin. The plot has as its instigating incident a request of an eccentric scientist named Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin to replace the shorn wings of a creature known as a garuda, psychic violence stemming from der Grimnebulin’s experiments with a strange rainbow-hued caterpillar, and a drug literally called dreamsh*t. It’s obvious this is not your grandfather’s sword-and-sorcery fantasy epic (we didn’t even mention the reality -warping, insane interdimensional spider god).
Rider at the Gate, by C.J. Cherryh
Set on a world where shipwrecked humans discover that all the alien animals and plants are telepathic—and very dangerous—Cherryh’s novel offers up a world that has all takes elements of classic fantasy and does unexpected things with them. The humans can bond with the Nighthorses, native creatures who are benevolent, and whose psychic link provides protection from the dangerous emanations of other creatures, allowing humanity to survive. Bonded humans are called Riders, and while they are essential to the community’s survival, they are also shunned, as most people distrust all the animals and plants, no matter what. The psychic bond can go both ways, with humans broadcasting emotions out to the “ambient” around them—and when a Rider suffers a tragic loss and snaps emotionally, the entire planet is in danger of being literally driven crazy.
Empire in Black and Gold, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
On the one hand, Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt universe is very traditional: there is a peaceful civilization, a marauding empire of fierce warriors, and a lone man smart and far-seeing enough to spot the threat on the horizon. But Tchaikovsky’s conceit of the “insect-kinden,” humans who have insect physical traits and capabilities (Spider Kinden, Mantis Kinden), makes his world unique and exciting to dive into, as every setting and character brings in a wholly new race that change the rules of the game slightly. Add in his concept of the Apt (those who can utilize machinery, but not magic) and the Inapt (the other way around) and you’re left with a world that is complex, deep, and utterly original.
Under the Empyrean Sky, by Chuck Wendig
The idea of the rich living in floating cities of luxury while the poor languish on a burned-out earth isn’t totally new, but Wendig brings plenty of imagination to this story, developing a unique, weird world in which genetically engineered corn has grown out of control, so much so that people have to fight hard to contain it, let alone cultivate it. A young adult novel, the story centers on an unsatisfied boy who tires of scavenging in the unending corn fields to supplement his family’s poor existence, and who despises most of the rules handed down by the rich up above, especially the face that a government-chosen mate will be forced upon him in lieu of his true love. Taking one simple idea and imagining every possible permutation, Wendig constructs one of the strangest—yet most believable—fantasy worlds ever.
The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells
It’s hard to think of a series that works harder to create a wholly new fantasy environment than Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura. Inventive creatures play a role in many fantasy novels, but they are almost always playing second fiddle to a human protagonist. In The Cloud Roads and its various sequels and spin-offs, there’s hardly a human to be found—all the major characters are Raksura, shapeshifting creatures whose natural form is a sort of bipedal winged dragon. The Raksurans have their own complex social order and traditions, which Wells slowly develops with great attention to detail. And the Raksua are hardly the only strange thing about the Three Worlds—the setting also offers other oddities to savor, from living cities built into giant trees, to island leviathans that swim across the surface of the sea with buildings resting atop their backs, to land masses that hang unsupported in the clouds.
What’s your favorite strange fantasy world?