I’ve long loved worlds that brim with their own identity, and cities, especially, have always held a certain attraction for me. Some of the earliest places I remember as standing out are Rivendell and the Mines of Moria from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Vienna as described in Tim Powers’ The Drawing of the Dark, and Sanctuary from the Thieves’ World shared world anthologies. I thought I’d share some more that stand out from books I’ve read recently (or in a few cases, not-so-recently).
Sanctuary from the Thieves’ World shared world anthologies
I am perhaps cheating here a bit as I mentioned it above, but it had a strong influence on my latest novel, Twelve Kings, that I wanted to mention it here specifically. I loved the city of Sanctuary when I first starting reading the anthologies in high school. I loved that it was the “armpit of the empire,” that it was a meeting point of old and new as the Rankan Empire drove into Ilsigi territory, that there were pantheons of gods vying for power, and in fact commingling even as they fought. Above all, I loved the vastness of Sanctuary and the hidden wonders it contained.
Beszel and Ul Qoma from The City and The City
One of the best books of the new century, The City and The City, features two cities that occupy the same geographic space, and it’s only by mutual agreement that the two cultures that live there together can coexist peacefully. This was a good police procedural, but it was fascinating look at our own cultures and willingness to look over certain segments of our society.
London from The Rivers of London
London certainly has an identity all its own. No need for fiction to bring much to it other than the truth of it. Ben Aaronovitch does that here with intimate knowledge of the city’s soul, but he brings to it a fascinating “other side” as detective Peter Grant investigates a murder and the curtains are slowly pulled back on the magic that lies in the cracks and shadows of London’s rain-soaked streets.
New Crobuzon from Perdido Street Station
China Miéville makes a second appearance on this list, but hey, he’s just that good. New Crobuzon is as complex as China’s writing in this weird, endlessly inventive novel. The richness of New Crobuzon perfectly matched the denseness of Miéville’s writing. It’s interesting to compare this with Ul Qoma and Beszel from The City and The City. Two very strange cities, but strange in very different ways. It shows just how gifted a writer and creator Miéville is.
The Dalton-Quinn Tree from The Integral Trees
This is perhaps stretching the idea of what a city is and isn’t, but I’m going to allow it because the setting of Larry Niven’s book, an “integral tree” in a gas torus surrounding a neutron star blew me away when I first read it. I honestly don’t remember a lot about the story itself (it’s been a few decades since I read it), but I loved the idea of these incredible, 100 km-long trees, the flying fish, the floating “ponds” of water, that stuff I remember. And can I make special mention of that iconic Michael Whelan cover art? It’s one of the most impressive covers from the 80’s, in my humble opinion. I used to stare at that cover for long stretches while reading the book, imagining what it would be like to live in that vast smoke ring.
Bulikov from City of Stairs
One of my favourite tropes in fiction is that of crumbling magic, echoes of grand creations that are now echoes of their former selves. In Bulikov from City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett has created a place that pushes those same buttons, but in very inventive ways. The Divinities, godlike beings, were driven from Bulikov and the continent long ago, leaving the city to slowly decay. Now, a murder mystery brings Shara, a spy for the neighbouring land of Saypur, is drawn into a murder mystery set in this wondrous, ever-changing city.
Camorr from The Lies of Locke Lamora
Ah, Camorr. What a wonderfully quirky mashup of fantasy, Medieval Venice, and the ruins of a mysterious race known as the Eldren. It was a place that was familiar, but altered just enough to give it a completely new and fresh field for the opening tale of Scott Lynch’s excellent Gentlemen Bastards series. It was the perfect place for Locke to grow up. Well, maybe not for Locke himself. He went through hell. But it sure was fun for us seeing him grow up and learn the ropes of being a right proper thief from Father Chains along with Jean Tannen and the Sansa twins.
Ankh-Morpork from Discworld
Ankh-Morpork lies on the River Ankh (the most polluted waterway on the Discworld and reputedly solid enough to walk on). I’ve only read one Discworld novel. It’s a hole in my reading I’m embarrassed to admit. But even with the one novel, I was struck by the city’s unique identity. I found it interesting that in The Art of Discworld, Pratchett explains that the city is similar to Tallinn and central Prague, but adds that it has elements of 18th-century London, 19th-century Seattle and modern New York City. I’d never thought of it quite like that, bit it certainly fits. Hopefully soon I can return to those city streets.
Elantris from, you guessed it, Elantris
Elantris is a city, and a novel, that are self-contained, but that travel well beyond their respective borders. I’d long wondered: can you write an epic tale in only a single novel? My question was answered in Sanderson’s debut novel, and a big reason why it was so epic was Elantris itself and the history surrounding it. It was deliciously creepy going from the palaces of Kae, the new capital, to Elantris itself, a place that was once so grand but is now a dingy shadow of its former self.
Audec Hal from Shield and Crocus
There are some echoes of New Crobuzon in this novel from Michael Underwood, the author that brought us Geekomancy, but a city born within the bones of some ancient beast are about as far as the comparisons can go. Where Miéville is dense and almost offputtingly strange, Shield and Crocus has a certain lightness to it, and enough familiarity to make it accessible to fans of super heroes and heroic fantasy. Whatever the style, it’s undeniable that Audec Hal has its own, unique identity that adds wonderful flavour to this dish.
Twelve Kings by Bradley Beaulieu is available now from Gollancz and you can buy it for £16.59 at Amazon.co.uk. Read our review here and keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.