So one of the biggest things about the genre of Fantasy, especially High Fantasy (which I’ll touch upon later), is Worldbuilding. SF & F, and especially High Fantasy, has a special opportunity to create something entirely new for the reader in a way other genres don’t get. The very world the characters tread is worth as much development as the characters, since it is as new and exciting for the readers as the characters that inhabit it are.
So far, the best worldbuilders I have encountered have been:
1) Robert Jordan. Yes, he gets number 1, because even more than Tolkien, he has put effort into defining his world beyond the page. Readers get an idea of Seanchan and Shara without any major POV characters ever visiting it (except maybe Tuon, but even then, we never see her IN Seanchan). And for those lands we do visit, Jordan puts SOOOOO much characterisation into the nations he visits int he Wheel of Time that I really can’t put him anywhere but 1st place on this list. Whatever failings he may have, Jordan’s world building is first class.
2) Brandon Sanderson. Whaaaat, still not Tolkien? Patience, reader! We’ll reach the linguist soon enough. But one of Sanderson’s strengths is creating rich, imaginative spaces for his characters to live in. I haven’t read a lot of Sanderson–heck, I haven’t even touched Mistborn yet–but in what I have read, he is very good at inventing a world that is fundamentally different from our own and how that fundamental difference affects life on it. Warbreaker does this; a world where colour is a magical resource affects those who reject magic in interesting ways; their city is grey, and colourful clothing is seen as offensive, if not heretical. But the best place to showcase Sanderson’s creative worldbuilding is the world of Roshar, the setting of the Stormlight Archive, where vast storms ravage the continent on a semi-predictable basis, and everything from the societies to the fauna to the flora has evolved to take advantage of this quasi-natural phenomenon.
3) J.R.R. Tolkien. Ok, here he is, nerds. The Man Himself. Tolkien misses out on #1 and #2 because there is one crucial difference between him and most High Fantasy authors: Tolkien (based on what I’ve read) wasn’t trying to create a fully fledged fantasy universe. He wanted other writers to set things in Middle Earth and expand on the lore. He expected hsi readers to add to the experience, like Bethesda expects players to add mods to the Elder Scrolls games (except LotR is much better alone than tES games are…) Tolkien provided a mythos and setting to be filled and added to, which, sadly, has not really happened.*
4) George R, R, Martin. Aaaaaagh. Yes, OK, I like the worldbuilding is ASoIaF! Martin is very good at making me care about characters, which leads me to get pissed at him, but he is even better at making me care about worlds, or I would not have picked up A Storm of Swords again. He puts a LOT of effort & passion into making his world believable and have the depth needed to keep a reader interested even after their favourite characters die or get stuck in a trope-trap. 90% of why I continue to follow A Song of Ice and Fire is to see more of this world. Martin writes a world readers get to see from above (nobles, world-shakers, myths & legends) and from below (peasants, slaves, world-shaken people). If nothing else, I can praise him for that. (There is a bit of else, but…well, that’s another article for another day. Please wit until the for the wrathful anons.)
5) Sir Terry Pratchett. Another whaaaat? Maybe two whaaaats?, Jeremy puts Sir Terry as not-first on ANY list? Jeremy puts Terry Pratchett AFTER Martin? Hooooly Shiiiiiiiiit! But as much as I love Sir Terry’s work, and as much as I don’t enjoy ASoIaF, I must admit that Sir Terry’s genius lies not in his settings but in his characters, comedy, and satire. The Discworld is rife with worldbuilding contradictions, and I must say that the omission of a map until late in the series is a serious minus for worldbuilding points. However, the Discworld still outranks a lot of fantasy series because it evolves. While reading the Discworld, we get to watch the world coalesce, watch it move from your run-of-the-mill High Fantasy D&D world into the Discworld we seem to know at first glance and come to love as we laugh at its oddities. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it. Go read Discworld. You will NOT be disappointed!
So there we go, my Top 5 Worldbuilders in High Fantasy! Yes, this is mostly subjective, If you haven’t read any of the things on this list, I recommend you check them out (if only once), because these are also five of what I consider the writers with the most impact on the fantasy genre since Ovid.
Until next time, may you avoid the wrath of Dragons, be they human or lizard!
*If I’m wrong about this, feel free to message me about it. I unfortunately can’t cite the source I’m using here since it was a long while ago and I have a shitty memory. If anyone knows the article I’m talking about, please send me a link.
a small prequel to the Tower of Joy scene (both show and book canon) warnings for semi-accurate childbirth and blood, a lot of blood
She is 15 years old, a widow, a mother and about to die.
She can hear the sounds of the battle outside, but the handmaiden
stops her from getting up to look outside of the window to see who
had come for her.
“You mustn’t, mi'lady.” the maid says in her accent, so
foreign to Lyanna’s ears. “The babe is coming. You cannot get up
Lyanna screams out her pain, screams it into the wind and prays
that any of the Gods, Old or New, Red or Drowned, will hear her. It
cannot be Robert, Lyanna thinks looking down at her belly, let it be
one of her brothers who fights outside.
“Push, mi'lady!” The maid says over Lyanna’s screams and she
looks at her swollen stomach with worry, but Lyanna is too delirious
with pain to register it.
She prays for guidance as the maid tells her to push, the loud
clash of swords and shouting voice outside embrace her in their
Sir Oswald Whent had told her what happened to Elia Martell’s
children in a fit of drunken grief, and they are all what Lyanna can
think of now. Arthur Dayne had pulled Whent away quickly, but he had
told Lyanna enough for her to picture the three broken bodies of Elia
Martell and her children. She had spent half the night retching over
the chamber pot, and none of it had been because of the babe.
Sir Dayne had, in a solitary moment of kindness, reached out to
her then. “Sir Whent was out of line, my Lady.” He had said, eyes
sympathetic and even if his sympathy is only for Rhaegar’s babe
growing in her belly Lyanna soaks up the moment of kindness.
They all thought her a whore, Rhaegar’s kingsguard. They all
thought her cruel and seductive and had no kind words for her. And
now they were dying for her.
It cannot be Robert, Lyanna thinks again, let it be anyone else.
“I see the head, mi'lady!” The maid calls out and Lyanna
nearly cries in relief. “Push, mi'lady!”
It was strange how it was in that moment that Lyanna notices no
one had called her by her name in months – not since Rhaegar had
left to die.
She is mi'lady to her handmaiden, Lady Stark to the Kingsguard or,
if they were feeling particularly cruel, Princess Targaryen. She
hadn’t been Lyanna for months and it is in that moment that her heart
and body seems to tear in two.
She hears the maid gasp, as what feels like buckets of warm water
spread down her legs. Lyanna screams in pain and she hears the
fighting outside stop. There is silence all around her and the maid,
looking numb, lifts her arms.
Oh, Lyanna thinks as she looked at the maid, that is my blood. The
maid’s dress is covered in blood completely and her forearms are
painted a bright red.
“What happened?” Lyanna asks, hoarsely.
“You will be fine, mi'lady.” The maid says, smiling gently and
Lyanna does not have the energy to call her a liar. “Now you just
take a deep breath and push. That babe wants to get out.”
It feels as though she was pushing in time to the swords clashing
outside the tower.
“Good, mi'lady. One more push.”
The hot and heavy smell of iron surrounds Lyanna as she whimpers
through every push and she feels as though she is going to faint
“You have a little boy, mi'lady!”
Lyanna bursts into tears as soon as the maid comes around and
hands her her babe.
He is so small, Lyanna thinks in wonder, so small but yet so
perfect. And he looks nothing like Rhaegar, and there is a strange
sense of satisfaction in Lyanna.
He had taken her away from her family with sweet words and
promises of freedom and then locked her away in a tower in Dorne with
no one to talk to. She takes pleasure in not giving him the
satisfaction of birthing him the Targaryen daughter he thought he so
desperately needed to fulfill his stupid prophecy.
She was so stupid, Lyanna thinks as she looks down at her little
little boy. Rhaegar had promised her everything, and left with her
with a babe in her belly and no future. He had promised her a better
life and now she is going to die all alone in Dorne, so far away from
There is a shout from outside and Lyanna’s head snaps up. She
forgot of the fighting outside, and after the shout the clashing of
swords stops and the battle is over. She knows it in her heart.
It cannot be Robert, Lyanna chants in her head and she screws her
eyes shut, her grip going loose. The maid takes her little boy from
her and Lyanna keeps chanting, it cannot be Robert.