Studies in Setting

A few posts ago, I promised to discuss the outcome of reading three books and studying setting.  As a reminder, this is associated with a group of writers I gather with to discuss bestsellers, so we pick bestselling work for a variety of genres and look at different characteristics, often following Zuckerman’s book, but sometimes using other criteria.

In this case, we read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Throne’s, Molly Gloss’s Hearts of Horses, and Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth.  First off, I liked all of these.   So what did I learn?

In the context I’m using, setting is description of place, and also the details of the world – so it’s what one traditionally thinks of as setting as well as information.  That works with these three books since two of them are historical and one is fantasy:  none of them is set in a place we recognize from our day to day life.  If I presume most of you are science fiction writers and readers, you’ll recognize that situation.  Science fiction is seldom set in a place and time we’re comfortable with.

Oddly, the best use of setting and world building for me was Molly’s work on Hearts of Horses.  It’s set in historical Oregon, sort at the end of the Wild West and during the world war.  She gets extra kudos for her world-building because it was so sure, so invisible, and yet so always present.  Here is a small quote from her work that I loved.  “Snow began to fall out of the darkness that night and fell straight down all the early hours of the morning, and by daybreak it stood about a half a foot deep everywhere in the lower valley, though the sky then cleared off and a pale sun lit up the newborn world.”  I’m there.  Are you?  The whole book is infused that much deftness.  Small details, confident prose that shows off the setting and not itself.

George R.R. Martin’s work is as good.  It’s much showier — almost overwritten, but a good fit for his series.  I’ve already posted on this one in detail.   A simple setting comment like the Gloss above (and from the book I’m currently on having had to keep going with the series once I started it and even though I’ve read it before – if I was discussing hooks we’d have a book on them from this series).  Anyway, “The walls were equal parts stone and soil, with huge white roots twisting through them like a thousand slow pale snakes.”  Now, that does the job, right?  And that’s a single sentence buried in a paragraph.  Read it out loud and hear the sound of the line.

Follet’s work is about cathedrals, and the people who built them long ago, in the days when masons were learning to make more advanced arches.  I expected a lot of setting.  Especially since the book is almost a thousand pages long.  Yet this was the sparsest on setting of the three.  What’s there is done well, but Follet’s strengths as a storyteller are more in character and situation in this book.


4 thoughts on “Studies in Setting”

  1. I own both Pillars of the Earth and A Game of Thrones. I loved both these books. You’re right about Follett in his setting. I thought the setting was well done, the historical details were for the most part accurate, but his greater strengths are definitely his characters and storytelling ability. Martin also does a fabulous job with characters. In my opinion, he’s one of the best. His story does tend to drag at times with description of setting and lengthy exposition, but his world is vivid and seemingly real, with subtle uses of magic, and I really like that. I’m currently caught up to Book 3 on Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, still need to read Book 4. And I just finished reading A World Without End a few months back. A good read but no where near the caliber of Pillars. Have you read that one yet?

  2. No. I bought A World Without End, but I’m still in A Storm of Swords (same book you’re on) and looking forward the A Feast for Crows. And then I’m going on to pick the Noble Dead series back up and finish those. Too many books and too little time!
    Yes, I like the subtle magic, too. I love the hooks and most of the pacing and that the characters grow and the heroes make mistakes and sometimes they even die…

  3. It’s a really nicely done set of vampire books by Barb and J.C. Hendee, two quiet school teachers who used to live in the midwest. That is, until they started hitting the bestseller lists.
    I don’t even normally like vampire books (maybe that’s not true – but there’s been a glut of them and the whole sub-genre feels written out of new ideas, although this book has some).

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