The Serpent Sea by Martha Wells
How it starts The court is moving on air ships (not like steampunk dirigibles - these have sails, and their flying mechanism isn't... mechanical) to their new home. Moon is strolling across the deck and getting dirty looks from some of the warriors, who hate that a feral consort now has such an important place in their court. He's still recovering from having his body broken in a fight, but tries to look tempting so they'll attack him and he can beat the crap out of them.
General premise The Indigo Cloud Court arrived at their ancestral home, a gigantic mountain-tree, to find that the tree is dying because the seed has been stolen. Only someone who understood the tree could have done such a thing, and Moon feels conspicuous as rumors fly about a feral solitary (like himself) betraying the court. If the tree dies, the court will have to move again, and they have nowhere else to go. Afraid of embroiling himself and his queen in more political squabbles he doesn't understand, Moon is happy to set out to recover the seed. As the only one who has lived among outsiders, he's included in a team led by his queen and comprised of the old consort who found him, his mentor-turned-warrior friend who's also an outsider at court, and several of his rivals.
Page 13 quote
Moon leaned over the railing and tried to see the ground, but it was hundreds of paces down, lost in the shadows. Not far below the ship he could see platforms covered with greenery standing out from the trees and completely encircling the trunks, connecting the trees to each other in a web, many more than large enough for the Valendera to set down on. They looked like tethered chunks of sky-island, covered with grass and flowers, dripping with vines, most supporting glades of smaller trees. But as the ship drifted closer to one, he saw the platforms were thick branches that had grown together and intertwined in broad swathes, catching windblown dirt and seeds until they built up into solid ground.
Page 2 quote from The Cloud Roads
Hac looked like a typical Cordan: short and stocky, with pale gray-green skin and dull green hair. Most Cordans had patches of small glittering scales on their faces or arms, legacy of an alliance with a sea realm sometime in the history of their dead empire. On some of the others, especially the young, the effect was like glittering skin-jewelry. On Hac, it just looked slimy.
Usually when I'm bowled over by a fictional world, it's because of the intricate and original political/cultural structure. And these books definitely have that - the Raksura courts seem to be based on colony-dwellers like ants or bees, with a powerful queen, warriors, consorts, and various types of workers, all different sizes and abilities when in their altered (winged or climbing) forms. But I was left breathless by the physical world and its brightly-colored beauty.
The scenery's so lush and gorgeous. It brought me back to that awed longing I felt when I read Enid Blyton books as a kid, or watched cartoons involving fairy rings and toadstool houses or Wind-in-the-Willows-style panoramic views. Having lived in deserts all my life, visiting Sweden brought this same feeling - as if people shared enchanted space with nature rather than beating it into submission, or being beaten by it.
|rainy pond in a Swedish city|
Except the parts of Sweden I've seen are really, really green, while the world in these books is vibrant with all colors of the rainbow: flocks of flighted lizards in blues, golds, and violets that flutter away when startled; flurries of tiny yellow frogs that play in waterfall spray; flying islands covered in crumbling ruins that contain abandoned libraries of disintegrating books, overrun by wild vines.
|stone bridge in Sweden|
Anyway, non-earth-based worlds weren't uncommon in books I read in middle and high school. They tended to be science fiction, with FTL flight and a universe teeming with non-humanoid aliens, both of which seem to be making a comeback in science fiction after disappearing behind generational ships, worlds populated with humans who originally came from earth, and most recently, humans who never left earth at all.
I think it's a good thing fantasy moved away from LotR-style magic that seemed to be able to do everything and yet never actually did anything. But the other extreme is magic that's so much like science that people are afraid to play with it, and so we get minor variations on the same traditional magic over and over and over, until now I'm actually surprised when I come across fantasy that reads like a whole new world, rather than like medieval Europe with some of their less-interesting superstitions come true (vampires, werewolves, witches, what have you).
Thank you, Martha Wells. I hope this isn't a trilogy. I hope you keep these books going forever.
More books with nontypical, excellent world-building:
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Genre: magical realism/historical
Currently reading this. It's definitely earth-based, but the magic is so free of constraints that I have to just marvel at how coherent Morgenstern makes it all. It's a lush, achingly beautiful book.
Avatar directed by James Cameron
Genre: SF/F movie
Yes, I know it's fashionable to hate this movie, but I love it. The story's not particularly original, but the way it's told certainly is. My husband's done over 600 scuba dives, and says there's nothing original about the Avatar world, either. But for those of us who prefer our water in a glass or a shower, and prefer our fish...well, elsewhere, bringing the underwater world to the surface was just magical.
Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Genre: science fiction
The Ghost Brigades). It was like revisiting the classic SF I'd loved as a kid, where people hopped from one planet to another, where authors took the swashbuckling of the high seas and transferred it to outer space. Perhaps the world-building here isn't unique in the sense of Martha Wells's books, but it is fascinating.
And while we're on science fiction that's a throwback to the older stuff, I'll go ahead and recommend
Orphanage by Robert Buettner
Genre: science fiction
This is like Old Man's War; it's military SF that's a lot more like stuff I remember reading as a kid. I keep hearing that no one reads science fiction anymore. I don't think that's true. I do think there's a difference between science fiction aimed at people who have followed the genre's evolution since the 1950s or whatever, and those who want to be entertained by a good story that involves spaceships without having to retake AP physics first (though of course, if you took AP physics the first time around, understanding the science is probably not your biggest problem with the SF genre).