Worldbuilding for Fantasy Fans and Authors by M.D. Presley – Book Review
Format: Kindle e-book
Copy: Provided by the author for review
The great works of fantasy draw us back in, time and again. Not because of the plot, experienced and so no longer shocking; not even because of the characters (though they certainly help). It is the quality of the worlds that call back the loudest, and it’s a universal constant in the works of the most accomplished authors of our field: Tolkien and Le Guin, Jordan and Hobb, Erikson and Jemisin, to name a few.
Can you categorize the process that goes into the crafting of a world? M.D. Presley believes so. In Worldbuilding for Fantasy Fans and Authors, Presley first sketches out an ambitious set of goals (“to distill many of the existing worldbuilding theories and philosophies to create a shared vocabulary, to sift through…find the patterns, and compile them here.”), then defines the term “worldbuilding” itself (as verb and noun), and finally sets out the defining philosophy of the work (“tools, not rules”). All of that in the introduction alone.
The short of it is, Presley succeeds in his goals while keeping to a philosophy of offering the reader tools rather than prescriptions.
The book can be divided in two, the first part examining the more theoretical elements of worldbuilding—its nature, aims, and breaking points, to name a few. Why are tropes so popular and how do they function, anyway? What makes worldbuilding efficient, what makes it inefficient, what makes it inspired? Can mathematics ever be used to define an element of fantasy? The answer to that last one is a surprising “Yes,” accompanied by an actual function. Don’t let it scare you away.
Virtually no actionable element of worldbuilding is left untouched in the latter section of the book, whether examined closely (like geography, biology, physics and magic), or merely given a nod at, as is the case with culture, due to the overwhelming denseness of the topic. To write about culture in worldbuilding and cover it in full would necessitate a book even denser than this one. What Presley offers might be better; an introduction to the thinking required in creating and defining a unique society.
I disagreed with Presley on some points – which is natural, healthy, and makes for deeper engagement. The only thing worse than a bland academic text is one so agreeable you might as well stab yourself in the eyeball, if only to break the tedium. A particular annoyance is the use of “consumer” in tandem with “reader” and “author”—the connotations to mindlessly consuming entertainment rather than engaging with art make the term odious; no less so for how commonly it’s spewed from the mouths of entertainers, news anchors, politicians and everyone in-between.
The sheer amount of research done is staggering and a love letter to the process. The “Works Cited” section at the end of the book is a treasure trove of resources; dozens of works for further study and exploration await, some of them familiar to me—Erikson’s occasional essays and fire chats, Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel—much of them unknown.
Presley offers wit, good humour, and unmistakable love for the craft and art of creating worlds; having read the author before, these come as no surprise. The sheer quality of this academic work—now, that was a pleasant surprise. That’s not to say I had low expectations—I didn’t—but what I have come away with is a deep admiration of the work put into this book.
I will be sure to get a physical copy of Worldbuilding for Fantasy Fans and Authors as soon as I am able and I will browse through it often as I write fantasy fiction. Just as often, too, when I find myself lost for words and looking to define what efficient worldbuilding does right in one fantasy novel, what inefficient worldbuilding does wrong in another. It is a book I might very well choose to use in my academic career, going forward.
Recommending it to you, then, is a no-brainer.