Fantasy writers (and science fiction writers, to a lesser extent, since they are less often in the position of starting entirely from scratch) worry a lot about worldbuilding. It’s really the most unique thing about writing in this genre. In addition to crafting character, plot, theme, and all of the other various parts that make up a novel, you’re in the position of actually creating an entirely new world.
The problem lies in building your world while also preserving the quality of your story and your prose–introducing the reader to the exotic while still focusing on what’s really important: character. In the end, the world must serve the characters, or you’re doing it wrong. As much as we’d all like to self-indulgently nerd out over the details of our world’s history or the intricacies of our super-creative, ultra-unique new magic system, ultimately it’s all for naught if the story and the characters that drive it get lost in the confusion.
I just finished reading Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, the first novel of a fantasy trilogy in which the author accomplishes the task of balancing worldbuilding with character and story quite well–which is to say, the former is used quite conservatively, and only when it adds flavor to the latter.
By necessity, I’m going to have to go into some spoilers here, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading here. Otherwise, see you after the jump.
Lawrence’s novel, which is book one of The Broken Empire trilogy, is a fast-paced, boldly written piece of grimdark fantasy that grabs you from the first page. It’s short, for an epic fantasy–333 pages. But Lawrence packs enough racy, violent plot and dark, twisted character into that 333 pages to make George R. R. Martin blush. The novel is written in the first person, told from the perspective of Honorous Jorg Ancrath, Prince of Ancrath, heir to one of the Hundred Kingdoms; son of a murdered mother and little brother who remain unavenged by his narcissistic father the king, Jorg’s story begins on the road, where he has spent years as a roving pillager. Departing his homeland after his mother’s death, Jorg gave up his name and rank to travel the world with a group of murderous thieves, only to return four years later seeking his birthright. In so doing, he inserts himself into a cutthroat game of kingdoms that has been playing out for centuries.
Lawrence plunks you in in media res, and you’re well into the book before the true nature of its setting becomes clear: what at first seems like another alternate version of Europe’s middle ages in fact turns out to be a far-future, post-apocalyptic world. The action does indeed take place in Europe, but a Europe at least a millennium in the future.
Lawrence’s ability to draw you in and feed you bits and pieces of the world is what makes Prince of Thorns an example of great worldbuilding. At first, the mentions of Plato and the Greeks and Romans make you think that you’re merely in some alternate medieval period, as many other authors have done. Then Jorg casually mentions the fact that his family sword, which he stole, is forged from the steel rebar lining the concrete walls of his father’s castle, and you realize something else is going on. The “Builders” are mentioned, which turns out to be the name Jorg’s people give to the civilization that destroyed itself–presumably, us. Then the references to Plato et al. take on new meaning–it’s the same Plato, the same Rome.
As the story rolls on, at a thrilling pace, you learn the following: humanity destroyed itself over a thousand years ago in a massive nuclear apocalypse. It’s unclear what the date of that cataclysm was, so there’s no real way to know how far in the future the story takes place. In the ensuing centuries, the survivors have slowly rebuilt civilization (in Europe, anyway) into a second middle ages, complete with plate armor and swords and knights on horseback. The key differences, of course, are that the ancient ruins of the old world are still lying about, and that magic now seems to exist. The reader is left to decide for himself whether the apparent supernatural abilities and phenomena present in this world are truly paranormal or, by way of inference, whether the effects of the nuclear fallout included mutations that could explain the differences scientifically.
Jorg’s father, the King of Ancrath, gives him a seemingly impossible task upon his return–destroy a near-impregnable keep–in an effort to either get Jorg killed or, in the alternative, gain an impossible victory for himself. The Hundred Kingdoms, see, were once one great Empire, and all of the petty kings are still fighting over the imperial throne. Jorg surprises everyone by getting it done, in an unexpected way: poring through old books, as is his wont, he discovers evidence that leads him to believe there are ancient weapons of the Builders that still exist. I won’t spoil the details, but long story short: Jorg finds and detonates a nuclear weapon. It’s an awesome scene, and an awesome idea, and Lawrence’s execution of it takes two seemingly incompatible things–a nuclear weapon and a medieval cutthroat, and unites them in one grand pastiche of nihilistic ambition.
The point, here, is that Lawrence’s worldbuilding is real and powerful without being distracting. There’s no info-dumping going on in Prince of Thorns. The centerpiece and entire focus of the novel is Jorg: his character and his sociopathic behavior. But between beats, Lawrence lures your deeper into his world with bits and pieces designed only to make you want more, and he does it with concision and style. That’s good world-building: leave them wanting more. Give them just enough to make turn curiosity into a craving, and leave them wanting a lot more.
The first book of a trilogy should leave you with many more questions than answers, and Lawrence achieves that.
Worldbuilding can be the sauce that turns your fantasy world from a simple repast to a memorable meal, but be sure not to drown the meat.