Conventional fantasy settings (often Tolkien-inspired landscapes) can be useful for establishing easy-to-understand lines between good and evil, or to skip the onboarding process of learning new systems and races. However, some authors choose to step away from the industry standard, creating a separate, distinct experience.
In Elle Katharine White’s Dragonshadow, the landscape of her Austenesque fantasy world drives each conflict. Sequel to Heartstone, which was a magical retelling of Pride and Prejudice, White’s latest book finds Alistair and Aliza Daired (her Darcy and Elizabeth avatars) happily married and called upon to defeat a mysterious monster threatening the castle of a powerful lord. The core conflict in White’s world is a direct result of an ancient pact between humans, wyverns and dragons, who fight together against the other dangerous magical creatures that opposed the pact.
Upon arriving at Castle Selwyn, the Daireds find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery, complicated by ancient grudges and secret avengers. White builds out her fantasy world naturally, setting pieces into categories: bad guys, good guys, neutral guys. This seemingly simplistic scheme plays into the novel’s central mystery—without spoiling anything, the story’s twists go to interesting and surprising places.
As a whole, dragon and human (and valkyrie!) relationships keep the beat-to-beat energy going, but they are ultimately in support of White’s primary story: the relationship between the newly married Alistair and Aliza. Their relationship’s growth and conflict mirror the entire arc of the murder mystery. White carves a metaphor into the setting and plot, and allows her fictional married couple to grow naturally within the space that the story creates. Similar to Heartstone, the epic setting and heroic events in Dragonshadow play second fiddle to the romantic struggles of Aliza and Alistair.
With the dynamic setting firmly in place, chock full of independent factions with ulterior motives and rich history, White paints her power-couple romance with a vibrant brush, splashing sorrow, joy and solidarity generously across the canvas.
On the other side of the spectrum, the setting of Mirah Bolender’s City of Broken Magic is the primary engine of her story and characters. The first in a series, Bolender’s debut thrusts the reader into a world where magic can take form as a hungry hive mind, consuming everything. This infestation’s only weakness? Locked and loaded sun-bullets (and other sun-things, but the sun-bullets were my favorite).
The city of Amicae claims to have eliminated such infestations entirely, and newbie exterminator Laura is a member of the Sweepers, a team responsible for keeping that farce alive. Each facet of Bolender’s magical steampunk island is fully fleshed out, with motivations and schemes mapped onto each faction and character. This incredible attention to detail is vital to City of Broken Magic, as Laura is generally responsible for trying to micromanage, overcome or save every single character she encounters. If that sounds exhausting, being a Sweeper most certainly is, and the city’s Renaissance Italy-level intrigue makes Laura and her boss Clae’s plight entirely believable. The pair’s banter and genuinely enjoyable relationship serve as an accessible lens to view the intricate complexities of Bolender’s land (which is like if Rome invaded Japan and ruined it really badly). Laura and Clae are set up as underdogs from the start, and rooting for them to succeed comes naturally as they wage a war against the setting itself, cannily crafted by Bolender to fight them at every turn.
Both of these novels use the setting as powerful third party, both guiding the stories to their natural conclusions and acting as an instigator of adversity and hardship for the protagonists. White’s setting is a gorgeous caravan, carrying characters carefully to their conclusion, while Bolender uses her setting as a bludgeon, beating her proud, struggling characters into the ground with its oppressive constraints. Neither novel would be nearly as engaging and fun to read without the energy of its colorful, fantastic world pushing the story along.
P.S. I strongly advise not reading the back of the book summary for City of Broken Magic. It quite literally spoils a major plot point.