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.