The Fiction Fox
Suspiciously Specific #6: Books where setting is as much a character as the characters themselves
1. The City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Setting: The city of Ilmar truly is more of the protagonist of this novel than any of the humans. We follow a wide range refugees, wanderers, murderers, madmen, fanatics and thieves, against the background of a city under oppressive occupation, at the brink of revolution.
2. Jade City by Fonda Lee
Genre: fantasy The Setting: an imperially ruled, Chinese-Cantonese inspired fantasy city, divided by the blood-feud between two powerful families that started over the production of rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.
3. Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft
The Setting: a fantasy adaptation of the tower of Babel: Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and steam engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines.
4. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
The Setting: mythic lost city of Weep, a place of myth and legends that mysteriously disappeared into oblivion. We follow a scholar with a special interest in the mythology of Weep, who joins an expedition of passionate people convinced that the City of Weep is real, and is desperate to find it.
5. Stravaganza by Mary Hoffman
The Setting: each of the books takes place in a different Italian city, and its fantasy counterpart, starting with Venice. This series made the list as it’s the first book that truly inspired me to travel to the place it was set in. Walking the streets of Venice had me truly feeling like I was within this book when I first visited it at age 11.
6. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
The Setting: four different alternate versions of London, all ruled by different magics. Our protagonist is one of the few skilled individuals capable of traveling between them and trafficking goods back and forth. More Magical London: Ordinary Monsters, Neverwhere
7. City of Islands by Kali Wallace
Genre: middle grade fantasy
The Setting: despite not completely loving the plot, I still cannot forget the beauty of the setting of City of Islands, which gave me major Atlantis-vibes. On a foggy archipelago within a magical ocean, we follow Mara, a young treasure-diver, scouring the ocean floor for valuables. Instead she finds the skeletons of strange creatures, thought to be long forgotten, humming with magical powers.
8. Sacaran Nights by Rachel Emma Shaw
The Setting: this titular city is dark in every way possible. a city divided and permeated by rot, decay and corruption. A city blanketed in perpetual darkness by a vulcanic ashcloud, where the only light comes from the bioluminescent fungi that litter the crumbling walls. A city where the shadows of the dead walk the streets, and the living will go to great lengths to protect their legacies from corruption… One of the most vivid depictions of a fantasy-city I’ve come across recently! Even greater: this book is by a very underrated indi-author, making it a hidden gem that I’m happy to shout out.
9. The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Genre: fantasy The Setting: A fictional version of New York City in which each of the different major boroughs has a living “soul”, in the form of a human avatar walking the streets. You can see how that would put a whole new meaning to “setting as a character”.
10. Godsgrave by Jay Kristoff
The Setting: a city built on- and from the bones of dead Gods. I have to say that I don’t like this series, but some of the concepts (the shadow-familiars and this city of Godsgrave in particular) live in my mind rentfree to this day.
11. We Speak in Storms by Natalie Lund
Genre: magical realism
The Setting: finally, this one is not quite “urban”, but there were simply too many vivid small country-towns that I loved not to include some in this list. In this case, we have Mercer, Illinois. A town still haunted by the memory (and ghosts) of a tornado left its scars on generations of Mercernites for over 50-years now. More small country-towns with ghosts: The Dead and the Dark, Blackmouth, Cicadas Sing of Summer Graves, Saturday Nights Ghost Club, Harrow Lake.