If you don’t want to bother with the entire meme but still want to play, it is highly encouraged to list some of your own favorites for today’s category in the comments.
Setting is something you usually only hear about in the context of a checklist for putting together a work of fiction, but my home base as both a writer and a fan is SFF, where setting can be practically everything. So I pay attention to it, and it wasn’t hard to come up with a pile of favorites.
Note that I say practically everything, and that it can be. Sometimes the awesome setting can’t make up for the wooden characters or dumb plot, and I’m not standing by the entire work for any of the below. But I’d probably jump at the chance to live in its world, or at least take a lengthy visit.
Point in case, I gave up on Mercedes Lackey a long long time ago, but given how many of her books I’ve read, it would be a disservice to not recognize that something kept me reading. Maybe the schmaltz itself is the key: the covers of the Heralds of Valdemar paperbacks look like the pink aisle in a toy store, and after outgrowing the latter, a girl could be forgiven for seeking it out in the former.
What’s Valdemar like? Well, gryphons are present as POV characters, for starters. Heralds are reborn as equine “Companions” to choose -- sorry, Choose -- more Heralds. The Companions are white because apparently magic has bleach in it (isn’t that great?). Everyone has modern speech patterns and progressive values, unless they’re evil.
It’s a pink toy store life, but with sex. As if that wasn’t indulgent enough, it taps into our primal need for understanding and connection through one of the fantasy genre’s favorite tropes: a telepathic link to an animal-shaped entity who loves you and knows you and will never leave you. It’s too bad that today’s young adults get post-apocalyptic fiction instead.
For years it was my running joke to enter “The Island of Misfit Toys” whenever address was a required field. I like toys (see previous item!) and I like islands, and I’d rather describe myself as a misfit, with all its negative connotations, than special or different or unique. Those are all well and good, but I’m far more acquainted with the painful experience of trying to be part of the crowd but continually getting it wrong.
So, jokes aside, I really did find it kind of touching when Rudolph had a sidequest at a sanctuary for animate objects who wanted to belong to children but had been rejected for their failure to conform. None of them really have anything wrong with them, of course, so it’s a perfect set-up for matching them all up with grateful kids in a simplistic message of the Christmas spirit.
BUT WAIT. In a stroke of glorious incongruence, the island is ruled by King Moonracer, who doesn’t appear to have anything in common with his subjects. (I mean, it’s a stop-motion animated movie, so all the characters look like toys, but I’m pretty sure he’s meant to be flesh and blood, like Rudolph.) He’s not a misfit. In fact, he’s a badass winged lion. The toys have a monarchy and the monarch is a lion -- can there be any doubt that I belong here?
As a genre, Weird West doesn’t particularly do anything for me, which is to be expected as neither do its parents, the wild west and horror genres. Also I’ve only ever spent a couple evenings playing/observing this game, and those were ages ago. Since I’m approaching this meme autobiographically rather than objectively, that should give you some idea of how much of an impression Deadlands made on me.
If I may try to summarize the setting: just before the Civil War, some native shamans performed a ritual in an attempt to rid the land of the white settlers. It backfired, releasing evil spirits who feed on fear and are spreading a mystical blight with the ultimate goal of transforming the planet to a living hell. Due to their influence, the war continues to rage on, and the dead soldiers may rise up as zombies. California sank into the ocean, just like we always knew it would, but there was a superfuel underneath that ushered in steampunk technology (and beyond). Hoyle’s Book of Games was published with an internal secret code teaching the savvy to perform magic tricks as the “Huckster” class. There are jackalopes; jackalopes are real.
The gameplay brought you further into it: along with polyhedral dice, a deck of cards was used for randomization. The handbook was written in an old west dialect with options to build your character with traits like “Yeller” or “Hankerin’”. The group I knew played on a poker table with no light except a few gas lamps. Yeah, they were committed, but it’s the kind of game that rewards it.
Now, this is really why I don’t need Valdemar anymore. Sparkly pastels? Check. Magical adventures as a thin veneer over excruciatingly simple relationship conflicts? Check. Talking equine characters? CHECKITY CHECK. I mean, the only real drawback to ponies in fiction is that there are always humans around stealing their airtime, right? Welcome to friggin’ Equestria.
(To bury it early, I don’t approve of Equestria Girls, but you shouldn’t have had to ask.)
Not that it needs any justification beyond that, but, straight talk, there actually is some pretty good worldbuilding in this series by general fantasy standards, so let’s take a quick tour. Equestria isn’t the name of the planet; there are lands outside of it, but borders aren’t that clearly defined so it’ll do as a catch-all name. As implied, the residents are primarily equine, but all kinds of other fantasy creatures and real-world animals live there as well. Some talk, some don’t. The latter need ponies to take care of them, just like plants need ponies to nurture them and weather needs ponies to function.
Even saturated with magic as it is, a society run by ungulates seems like it would pose some problems, like the lack of opposable thumbs. Early MLP versions got around this by having things stick to the ponies’ forelegs. FIM doesn’t get around it. Every object that a pony handles is designed for a pony to handle. They use their teeth a lot. Any job that truly requires fine motor skills goes to the unicorns.
It gets better. But Kairos, you ask, how can it possibly get better? I’ll tell you how: horse puns. Six seasons in and I’m still not done rolling the word “Cloudsdale” around in my head.
A concept like this one could have fizzled, and I’m not sure it’s enough of a setting to support more than a single movie. I’ve often said it seems like a great way to talk to young children about their emotions, and I’m guessing that was intentional on the part of its creators. But I’m all grown up, and these characters hit me in the feels, and the characters are feels, so those feels became my feels and now my feels are characters. It’s complicated okay.
Anyway, what really impressed me was how tightly the concept of a mind as a populated landscape was constructed. It’s not just the five emotions arguing with each other; there’s a control room with a panel that begins as a single button in Riley’s infancy, causing her to cry or laugh depending on whether Sadness or Joy presses it. As she grows, more controls appear, along with more emotions to operate them. That alone still wouldn’t give the premise much depth, but here we get some brilliance: the control room is just one small part of the world.
As the story rolls out, we see the production and storage of memories, islands representing facets of Riley’s personality, a dream theater, a subconscious boyfriend fantasy, and the permanent loss of a once-beloved imaginary friend, offset by frequent reminders that this is all taking place within a single young person’s mind. There are plot holes, but the metaphor works on every level. All of us have a world inside.
For most of the previous ones, however I phrased it, I meant the entire world/’verse used in the work of fiction. For this one, I just mean the Shire. I’m fond of the rest of Middle-Earth, sure, but the Shire is where it’s at.
Oddly, this is also closer to real-world history than anything else on my list. We know it’s fantasy and that hobbits are a mythical race, but for all intents and purposes, they’re short barefoot humans, and there’s very little about their ways that wasn’t directly inspired by English culture, or that we couldn’t adapt for our own lives. And by Elbereth and Gilthoniel, I surely would.
The Shire isn’t a paradise in any traditional sense, especially compared to Middle-Earth’s Elven settlements. It’s not majestic, and no pervading sense of love and wisdom guides its residents. Hobbits can be petty, jealous, and lazy. They’re just people, looking after their own needs in a little piece of the world.
But here’s what they’re doing right: their own needs are enough. They don’t care that they have no power beyond their own easily smashable towns. What they have instead of power is better: good food and drink, pipeweed, music, satisfying work, laughter, dancing, fertile land, family, and stories. They keep balance with nature, not because they’re heroic defenders but because the balance is mutually beneficial.
The innocence that Bilbo and Frodo bring to their respective stories is at least as important as their courage. The courage may come from their own hearts, but the innocence comes from the Shire, Tolkien’s Garden of Eden.
Now we’ll have some fun: this here is my token example of a really crappy story with a really awesome setting. When I think about how bad Avatar was I don’t feel angry about it, because it was fun, but roughly 100% of the fun came from the awesome world where it was set, and the SFX used to pull it off in all the glory it deserved.
Starting with a planet that’s just one big honkin’ jungle is always a plus. (I understand there’s also oceans, and, what, plains and stuff on Pandora as well, but it’s not like I’m going to rewatch it to categorize them all.) The biodiversity makes the jungle fantastic as well as making it fantasy, although with a nice sci-fi veneer (nope, not space opera, sorry) to help pretend it’s for grown-ups. The foliage is sprawling and beautiful and dangerous, and the fauna looks like foliage, but more beautiful and more overtly dangerous.
And then there’s the icing: the Na’vi. They look like Nightcrawler, they live in harmony with nature, blah blah, but wait -- they also have creepy magic tentacles coming out of their braids and they can use them to connect to other forms of life in their world on a spiritual level. What does that feel like? How could it have evolved? Do they connect braids during sex? Obviously yes to the last, but anyway, super cinematic worldbuilding.
The idea of dividing magic up into the four traditional elements is...really, really overdone. But it also has an enduring attraction for the kind of minds that enjoy thinking about magic at all, so no big deal about the cliche. I’ll add that Avatar: the Last Airbender puts a few unique spins on it, not least of which is applying the elements to actual civilizations.
Although the series is still heavily steeped in fantasy, the racial, cultural, and geographical differences between the Water Tribe, Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, and Air Nomads have a delightful way of grounding it. It’s made clear from the start that “bending” is passed on genetically and statistically uncommon, but it’s also such a familiar reality that civilizations are founded on it. When we skip two generations to get to The Legend of Korra, the careful thought that the writers put into this world shows, and it’s brilliant: the advancements in bending that the characters have made are treated as an industrial revolution and put to good use, and the effects these changes have on the population are given a major focus. Fantasy worlds tend to go through a lot of cataclysmic events, but it’s seriously rare to see them develop naturally.
Okay but yeah, full disclosure: it’s the fauna that really won me over (again). Lemur-bats. Triceratops rhinos. Koala sheep. A...bear? Weird.
You know, this one might have been on the list as an afterthought if I hadn’t been in the middle of a re-read. It was in many ways my introduction to the genre, and I was young, so it got pushed to the back of my mind as a “default fantasy” and only now am I fully appreciating just how innovative and complex the Wheel of Time is, and how much of that is the setting.
Fandom named it “Randland”, but within the text it’s simply the world, and general consensus pins it as a parallel dimension to the real world, complete with crossovers if you can spot them. It’s a Renaissance analog with many of the usual high fantasy trappings, including magic, but the word ‘magic’ is never used; instead, characters ‘channel the One Power’. Kicker? The One Power is divided into a male and female half, and due to events in the extensive history of the world which is gradually revealed, if you’re a guy and you try channeling, you’ll eventually go insane and rot alive.
Hence, gender politics took a heck of a different route than it has in our history, and male channelers get hunted down like dogs while women, whether they can channel or not, have a standing equal to or greater than men at every level of government.
Now, it’s not perfectly visualized. For instance, don’t get me started on the Aiel, but just the fact that a single culture within the story can generate enough controversy for a don’t get me started is a feat in itself. Also, I just got through the Rhuidean chapters and now I can argue both sides of the Aiel controversy. Try me.
I’ve talked about daemons before and I already feel kind of self-indulgent putting this one at the top of my favorite settings, so I’m going to start by mentioning a couple other facets of this universe. (Parallel universe, that is. It’s confirmed by the text this time, and though again it doesn’t have a name, it makes sense to hitch it to the main character and refer to it as the place she knows best.)
It’s steampunk! Practical air travel options include ballooning. Humanity is more or less the dominant race, but we also have angels, sentient polar bears, and a couple critters of varied intelligence who pop up to remind us that the world is much bigger than we’ll ever know and then vanish into the narrative. The geography is recognizable, and some locations and institutions even have the same or similar names as the ones we know. Even the use of the Church as a Shadowy Government Agency (™) works in context if you ignore the authorial intent.
Okay, that’s enough. Back to daemons. Each human is accompanied by an animal which reflects his or her inner character and shapeshifts until adulthood, when personality has settled. Everyone has one, including you and me, although ours are internal. You don’t touch someone else’s daemon, although daemons touch each other. They can speak. It hurts, and can be fatal, to be too far from your daemon. Most importantly, rules are made to be broken.
There are so many reasons that this concept wouldn’t work in reality that it’s not worth bringing them up, but I don’t care. The symbolism is fascinating and I want a daemon.