Max Gladstone on writing urban fantasy in a secondary world

Max Gladstone was awesome enough to write an utterly amazing guest post regarding something that has fascinated me of late: urban fantasy set in secondary worlds. Most often urban fantasy is set in this world, the primary world, and anything set in secondary worlds usually doesn’t have the same urban feel. Gladstone combines the two things wonderfully in his Craft series. Here’s what he has to say on the subject.


Cities have always seemed fantastical to me.

I grew up all over, but my first serious chunk of childhood was in a small town outside of Cleveland.  We visited the Ground Round for the kids’ menu on Tuesdays, and I remember long roads and strip malls, but it wasn’t Suburban Wasteland by any means—there was a small stand of woods behind our house where I’d play Ninja Turtles or Star Trek.  When I was ten, we moved to a much smaller town on a mountaintop in Tennessee.  The woods spilled over the bluffs’ edge, and patchwork farms spread to the horizon.

I met New York for the first time on a trip up north toward the end of high school, and enough farmboys have written enough farmboy impressions of New York you probably don’t need to read mine—towers, avenues, lights, crowds, Times Square, Broadway, a city big enough to close its arms around a forest, the weirdness of a two-story McDonalds.  I met Beijing between high school and college, enormous sprawl and Bladerunner sky, old men kicking the shuttlecock beside a jade murk lake, old folks dancing to reedy ballgown music, a city that went on and on and on. Soon after that I met New Haven, smaller and scrappier, with a sky that reminded me of Beijing’s at night, like the line of one lover’s jaw might remind you of another.

I didn’t have a lot of experience with cities, so I couldn’t just live in them—I worked to apprehend them, to stitch together a mythology.  Building a myth of a place is a bit different from knowing that place.  They’re connected, certainly, but the New York and Paris and London and Beijing and Jingdezhen and Tokyo in my mind are dark mirrors or surrealist memories of the cities I’ve met.  I build parallel worlds as I travel.

Cities draw people together and force them apart; cities are crucibles of ideas, character, social movement—cities are the wilderness of modern life.  In fairy tales, the boy or girl sets out into the woods to find fortune, fight monsters, chase the golden hind, visit Granny; the modern version of that kid steps off the bus in the Big City, looking for—anything.  John Crowley’s Little, Big nails this change: in its second half, a young man sets off to find his fortune, and we’re three quarters of the way through a travelogue of his passage through The Wood before we realize he’s actually entered New York.  (Tina Fey loves this trope, too—it’s all over Kenny from Thirty Rock, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.)

But when I started to write the Craft Sequence, I built a secondary world.  At the time, I did it because it felt cool—but “it felt cool” is a convenient clumping of deep logic that I think I can make more explicit.  Cities have mythic resonance, but secondary world fantasy provides an incredibly powerful set of storytelling tools that are hard to even approximate any other way.

In a secondary world, the writer can emphasize particular elements of history or human character that interest her, teasing out connections that might be too subtle to show in mimetic fiction.  If Ursula K LeGuin wanted to play out the fascination with names, naming, and the mutability (or immutability) of identity that underlies her Earthsea books in mimetic fiction, she’d have to take a much more oblique approach, whereas in A Wizard of Earthsea she can dive headfirst into the deepest work.  Robin McKinley, in The Hero and the Crown, forces her hands right down into the earth of family and global history, of ambition and self-deception.  Secondary worlds have limits, too—but they allow a kind of reasoning that works nowhere else.

So there I was, with a city in a secondary world.  But I wanted to bring my readers into my cities, so they could orient themselves, and understand the ways I wanted to reshape my characters—so I drew on the mythical reflections of cities in my head, the almost-New Yorks, not-quite Bostons, sideways Ulaanbataars and funhouse mirror Pragues.  I don’t know those places, not absolutely, not the way Nalo Hopkinson knows Toronto, say, but I know pieces of them, and by breaking them apart and moving them together I can build griffon-cities (lion’s head and body, eagle’s wings) that people recognize.

And once I have these systems, I set about breaking them, which is, of course, the fun part.

maxgladstoneMax Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated twice for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award. Tor Books published FULL FATHOM FIVE, the third novel in Max’s Craft Sequence (preceded by THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE) in July 2014. Max’s game CHOICE OF THE DEATHLESS was nominated for a 2013 XYZZY Award, and his short fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine.  LAST FIRST SNOW, the next Craft Sequence novel, will hit shelves in July 2015, and is about zoning politics, human sacrifice, and parenthood.

5 comments on “Max Gladstone on writing urban fantasy in a secondary world

  1. Great post. I love world-building, the merging of the familiar and fantastical. Second world cities feels fresh and therefore intriguing as a story backdrop. The “creative” in creative writing is a powerful hook.

  2. I love reading the essays authors put together about their craft. Thanks for sharing some insight into your process!

  3. Great post.
    I have a question for Max about Dresediel Lex – I hope he sees the comments here and can answer!
    So, reading the Craft sequence so far it’s pretty obvious there are many parallels between his secondary world and our own. It’s almost certain the continents, oceans and ethnicities are very similar to the real Earth. I was wondering if it’s only a gross similarity or is there a 1:1 identity in geography? Does Dresediel Lex occupy a specific real-world location, maybe Los Angeles?

    • The continents have a gross topological similarity to those in our world—crazy stuff has happened in the Craft Universe, and some land masses exist there without clear parallels in ours. But DL’s location is a funhouse mirror version of LA’s, for sure.

  4. Pingback: July in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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