6 Books You Should Be Reading for Unique Worldbuilding

I’ll admit it. I like the funky mash-ups.

I love the cross-genre novels that feature worldbuilding with cultures and elements that have never touched each other before. I think it’s fascinating when authors create fantasy and magic cultures as diverse as our world (which, let’s face it, is not solely medieval Europe).

Unfortunately, well-written stories with these elements seem to be the exception, rather than the rule, in most speculative fiction circles. But my diligent searching has not been totally futile. Here’s my list of five spec fiction books, in no particular order, that have unusual worldbuilding elements that are pulled off beautifully.

The Fourth Element Trilogy by Kat Ross

First of all, are these covers not the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen? The covers for the other two books in the trilogy, “Blood of the Prophet” and “Queen of Chaos,” are equally as beautiful and evocative.

In the Fourth Element trilogy Kat Ross draws on Persian and Arab mythology (a la Arabian nights) and adds a fresh twist. Guardians of the kingdom are bonded with young daevas, demons with human form, to harness their elemental powers to defeat the druj, creepy undead creatures that kill people and steal souls.

Kat weaves an intriguing and spell-binding tale of courage, love, and loss in a complicated story with equally complicated and engaging characters. Her plot and characters would shine against any backdrop, but Kat’s meticulous and colorful world-building, not to mention creative use of magic and “genie” myths, make this one of the best fantasy trilogies I’ve read in some time.

“The Third Daughter” by Susan Kaye Quinn

I love steampunk for the creativity and elements of exploration and adventure. But usually it’s combined with regency politics and takes place in a historical European or Western setting. In this delightful read Susan adds a spicy Indian twist to an already-engaging steampunk adventure story about a sheltered “back-up princess” seeking to find her own way.

Aniri just wants to turn 18 so she can marry her charming fencing instructor. But when she’s forced into the pretense of an arranged marriage with the son of their barbarian enemies to the north, all to discover the location of their secret weapon, well, it gets complicated.

Throw in airships, saber duels, and a heaping helping of royal intrigue Bollywood style, and it’s a colorful adventure story you’re sure to enjoy!

“Toru: Wayfarer Returns” by Stephanie Sorensen

When I saw this book advertised as a Japanese steampunk samurai tale, I couldn’t snap it up fast enough! And, for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.

In “Toru,” Stephanie tells the story of a Japanese young man, stranded at sea, who is picked up by Americans and lives among them for awhile. Eventually, he returns to Japan (despite the threat to his head for doing so) with the goal of preparing Japan with modern Western weapons and industry to meet the American challenge of their isolation policy.

What follows is an intriguing look at an alternate steampunk history where modern technology is brought to Japan by a mysterious fisherman and Perry’s forced opening of Japan is repelled by airships and Western guns.

Though the story suffers, at times, from an over-deep delving into the complexities of Japanese history and culture, for buffs and steampunk-lovers alike, this is a fun and interesting twist with characters who will keep you turning pages.

 “Breakwater” by Catherine Jones Payne

A charming undersea mermaid tale with an unexpected Regency flavor, Breakwater highlights the societal intrigue of an underwater city Catherine brings to life with engaging characters and beautiful world-building. She tackles racial prejudice, political backstabbing, and the complexities of young love in this coming-of-age story set against the stunning backdrop of a coral reef.

A red tide is rising. As the daughter of one of the mer-king’s trusted advisors, seventeen-year-old Jade has great responsibilities. When her fiancé murders a naiad, plunging the underwater city of Thessalonike into uproar, tensions surge between the mer and the naiads. Jade learns too late that the choices she makes ripple further than she’d ever imagined. And as she fights against the tide of anger in a city that lives for scandal, she discovers danger lurking in every canal, imperiling her family and shattering the ocean’s fragile peace. Can the city’s divisions be mended before the upwelling of hate rips apart everything Jade loves?

“Meg Mitchell and the Secret of the Journal” by Kimberly McNeil (A.C. Williams)

I’ll admit to a little bias, as I read early versions of this book growing up. But the story has grown and matured along with its author, and “Meg Mitchell and the Secret of the Journal” remains one of my favorite examples of unusual and effective worldbuilding.

When Meg Mitchell and her siblings fall through an interdimensional rip and are adopted by a family of humanoid aliens and walking, talking fox people, they never expect to revisit Earth. But when they discover their cousin may still be alive, they return to search for their only remaining family. When Meg’s sister is kidnapped and a deeper plot is revealed, Meg must accept the help of two prodigy teenage detectives to find her sister and cousin before it’s too late.

Kimberly McNeil (A.C. Williams) balances two worlds and multiple cultures effortlessly, bringing Andaria and the Hindi-influenced culture to life with as much realism as the streets of modern-day San Francisco. She crafts a hilarious, fast-paced YA adventure story with incredible depth thanks to creative and meticulous worldbuilding on the scale of an epic fantasy.

Return of the Darkening Series by Ava Richardson

Fans of dragon tales and classic fantasy will love this tale of Thea and the dragon riders facing the return of the Darkening. Low-born Seb is chosen by a dragon and enters the prestigious dragon riders’ school. He clashes with his new dragon-riding partner, Thea, who comes from a noble family of dragon riders and is determined to prove herself.

They must set aside their differences, however, to learn to work with their dragon and face a new enemy that threatens the very existence of their kingdom and way of life.

Though not a new concept, Ava weaves the worldbuilding and characters together with note-worthy excellence. Ava adds depth to her story with an expansive society centered on magic and dragon-riding, while keeping the focus on the characters and their journey. The main characters’ telepathic conversations with their dragon are funny and fresh, and lighten up a coming-of-age story that could be heavy or weighed-down by extensive worldbuilding.

Strap yourself in for a high-flying adventure story with dragons so real you can feel their fiery breath.


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