If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might already know that I care about atmosphere, and a detailed setting really helps with that. You might also already know that I care a lot about plants – if not, get ready for the inevitable botany-related rants, because today I’m going to talk about what I think is missing from bookish settings, especially fantasy settings.
(Plants. It’s plants. You know me.)
All pictures in this post are mine.
specifically, not-snowy mountains
I don’t know what it is about fantasy books, but apparently their mountains and mountain ranges are either non-existent or always snowy, and the landscape goes from “prairie” to “rocks and snow” immediately. And… that’s not how mountains are, at least, not in all the places I’ve been? Also, I get that snowy mountains are cool as an idea, but if your characters live near them, they should probably know that going on a hike there can be really dangerous, and fantasy books almost never reflect that. (There is, generally, very little about mountain life and what people did to adapt there before modern technology in fantasy books.)
Also, there’s a good chance that in the summer the fantasy snowy mountains should actually look like this:
Which, to me, looks a lot more interesting. Generally, the more there’s plants, the more they’re interesting – ok, I’m studying botany and I’m biased, but the thing about rocks and snow is that there’s usually nothing but rocks and snow and cold, and gazing at the stars at night gets a lot less romantic when your characters are freezing to death. Mountains that aren’t snowy are just so much better as settings, and I wish fantasy reflected that.
Do American authors know that the Italian peninsula is a place that existed before and after the Reinassance and also outside of Venice? One wouldn’t think so, from their books.
One thing that really amuses me about Italian-inspired American books is that they’re so obsessed with what they think is the ~Italian atmosphere~ that they will place something you can only find in a very specific place everywhere – like gondole in a fantasy city inspired by Sicily or Florence – but they will never, ever bother to give their settings something that actually feels Mediterranean, because the author only visited the cities (if they’re even ever been here) and didn’t pay any attention to the “macchia mediterranea”, the shrubland biome that is everywhere on our coasts; no, you get generic “woods” or even “plains” instead (which, where? If you’re not writing something inspired by the Po Valley –
and why would you, really [sorry, had to] – nothing is ever that flat here).
How does the mediterranean shrubland look like? Here it is:
I might be biased, because part of this year’s botany course involved learning how to tell apart all the shrubs in there, but to me this is far more interesting that anyone’s 100th fake fantasy version of the soulless tourist trap named Venice.
I’d love to see a book that gets the shrubland’s sounds and smells right, that knows what happens to it when it burns (our shrublands have the stressful habit of burning down every twenty years or so) and what happens to it after it burns. A book that knows that the characters living there don’t just see the place as “shrubs”, because some plants are resources – as food, as spices, as fiber – and some can be dangerous. And this goes also for other kinds of settings: more characters in fantasy should know the place they live in. Their lives depend from that.
Interesting coastal settings
There is, overall, a dearth of coastal settings. My city is basically sandwiched between the sea and not-snowy mountains, so I can’t not notice how both are almost absent in fantasy books. And the Mediterranean shrubland, even though it’s beautiful, is far from the only interesting coastal setting. I know – and really appreciate – that I have read some books that got how beautiful tide pools can be, but there’s more, so much more. I am Italian, so I mostly know of fishing villages (you’d think someone would set a book there seeing how well-known the Cinque Terre are?) based on many different kinds of fishing, but I know there are so many ways a coast can look. It’s the boundary between two worlds, and I want to see it more often.
From the overwhelming homogeneity of fantasy settings, I almost think that authors are most likely to base their settings on things they’ve liked in other fantasy books than on real places. Otherwise, I can’t explain why you never see something like this:
[plant life! It tells you all things about the setting, like the fact that this picture, unlike the previous two, was definitely not taken in Italy, but in a place with a completely different climate. There are other non-plant hints, but they’re not as clear.]
I love a creepy wood just as much as anyone else, but the fact that the author usually doesn’t bother to describe which trees there are in the creepy forest is disappointing. And lazy writing, I’d say, because a beech forest is radically different from a larch forest, which is different from a chestnut wood (which needs far more human maintenance than a beech one) and not only for the trees but for what grows under them, the lighting, and the overall atmosphere.
These two pictures are of a beech forest and of a larch-and-mountain pine (I’d say Pinus cembra and Pinus mugo?) forest. They look really different, in many aspects, and the atmosphere of the hypothetical books set there would be completely different.
Anyway, a shout-out to Wilder Girls by Rory Power and Here There Are Monsters by Amelinda Bérubé for actually telling me which trees there were in the creepy forests, even though I didn’t love the books themselves.
(that actually tell me which kind of pines there are)
I could tell you that I love pine forests – and I do, because there’s something about conifers that makes them unlike other trees in many ways – and that I wish more books were set there. However, “pine forest” is an extremely vague descriptor. Look at Pinus hwangshanensis and how different it is from a Pinus pinaster and from a Pinus longaeva. There are more than a hundred species in the genus Pinus. While one can’t exactly throw around binomial nomenclature in a fantasy novel, one could at least attempt to describe the plant/the wood. From now on, every time I see a only vaguely-described “pine forest” that is supposed to be mysterious, I’ll just assume that it’s made completely of Pinus mugo plants out of spite.
Also: I know the English language likes to apply the world “pine” to basically every conifer, like firs, spruces, junipers, cypresses and even araucarias, which makes the “pine forest” description even more useless.
For example, none of these are actually pines:
[Left to right: a fir (Abies sp.), some spruces (Picea sp.), and an araucaria (Araucaria bidwillii). Not pines, but if someone wrote a fantasy book set in an araucaria forest, I would die of happiness.]
This, instead, is a pine tree – a mountain pine (with a friend):
Underwater settings are really uncommon. And in a way I get why, because before modern technologies the sea was a complete mystery – and in part still is even now. However, the thing about fantasy is that you can make everything up, and you don’t need to write a mermaid story to write a story that takes place at least in part underwater.
But I’d love if someone did write a story set underwater, especially if there were no coral reefs involved – I get it, they’re beautiful, but if you’re writing something in a setting inspired by Europe, they’re also out of place, and it’s not like the rest of the underwater world isn’t interesting, or all looks the same (it doesn’t). And you don’t even need to go into the abyss to have an interesting setting; I loved that Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant did, but it’s not necessary – there’s something magical even only about how the light looks when you’re underwater.
Another thing I know from being an underwater photographer: sand, when underwater, is often covered in rainbows. [insert a “the ocean is gay” joke.] You really don’t need coral reefs to make your underwater setting pretty.
The overly specific underwater setting I’d like to see? Seagrass meadows. I could act like this has to do with the ecological importance of Posidonia oceanica meadows in the Mediterranean sea, or even with the fact that I’ve never even seen them mentioned in fiction (the only book I know that mentions seagrass is A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, but there, it’s the name of a character), but the main reason I’d like to see them in a novel is that I think they’re scary.
When you’re swimming over them, you can’t see anything of what’s under you. And while the chance of anything dangerous being able to hide in something that, after all, doesn’t reach 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) in height is very low, something in my brain is disagreeing.
I don’t have a picture for this one because they don’t exist in my country and because I’d be far too afraid of them anyway, but I’ve been fascinated with them for so long. They’re algae but they look like trees, and I don’t know if it’s my dendrophobia speaking, but this is the perfect place to set a horror book in. A really aesthetically pleasing horror book, someone who actually has seen a kelp forest in person please write it
Fantasy Cities that Actually Have Plants in Them
Of all the things to complain about, you could say. However, I can think of only one book that actually bothered to describe plant life in a city (a shout-out to The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad for all the gulmohar descriptions).
This doesn’t make sense to me. Many real cities are full of plant life, but fantasy authors seem to think that the only plants that exist are roses, which only grow in beautiful gardens where the main characters can kiss. They don’t see how pretty buildings can get when they’re overgrown with creeping plants, they don’t see the beauty of what can grow over the ruins. Talk me about weeds and unkempt overgrown flowerbeds and what grows in the cracks on the side of the road and I’ll love you.
I walked for a few minutes in my city and took two pictures of the most remarkable plant life I could see. If my city can have them, so can the invented ones in fantasyland.
Interesting Spaceship Design
Finally a part of the post in which Acqua isn’t going to talk about plants!
…joking. As Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee showed me, you can have plants, trees and even koi ponds in your spaceships even when you’re writing military sci-fi.
Not only you could, you should.
Apart from the plants: from biological spaceships that are basically an excuse for more gore to more realistic ships in books that actually talk more or less “realistically” about what humans would need to function in space, I really appreciate when it’s clear that the author put some thought into what they were doing, instead of only thinking “yes they vaguely look like the ones in Star Wars”.
TL;DR: Less Generic Settings, More Plants. What do you want to see from SFF settings?