World building was my first love. Or one of my first loves at any rate. Somewhere in a box from my youth are carefully drawn maps, sheets of paper filled with descriptions of flora and fauna, collections of census data from urban spaces that have never existed and will never exist. Part of the pleasure of writing has always been in figuring out details like this.
I’m sure that we all have our own ideal of world building. The creation of Middle Earth. The cultures of Westeros. The alternate realities found in many comic books. In fact, the impetus behind this post was a ‘travel guide’ to the worlds found in Marvel comics. The book itself was fine enough, but more importantly it reminded me just how extraordinary fictional worlds can be.
My favorite fictional world is not as well known as the ones that I just listed. It exists in Melanie Rawn’s Exiles series – these were some of the books that I stole from my father’s bookshelves as a child – and is extraordinarily thorough. The series and its universe straddle science fiction and fantasy genres. The first book, The Ruins of Ambrai, describes how a millennium ago people with magical abilities fled to the planet Lenfell, but that world was soon torn apart by competing magical factions. During this war, magic polluted the earth, caused genetic damage to future generations, and unleashed terrible creatures known as Wraithenbeasts. Though the rifts caused by these disasters have begun to heal, people still distrust magic, and the tension between magical groups still exists. But in a quest to finally gain dominion over this world, one magic user has decided to begin a new war, one that could threaten everyone on the planet.
Rawn obviously poured her energy and time into creating the world of Exiles. The series features a complex caste system, governmental maneuverings, complicated familial histories, religious and magical systems, and new flower symbology. It can be a lot to take it. I adore it.
If anyone investigates the books further, I have to warn you that though Rawn intended the series to be a trilogy, she never finished the final book. If you get an early edition of the second book, The Mageborn Traitor, you’ll find that the end has a sneak peek of a chapter from the third book. Later editions of The Mageborn Traitor simply list that chapter as an epilogue. I was shattered when I noticed the change. In 2014, however, Rawn suggested that she would revisit the series and finally finish the last book. (I don’t entirely believe her. I’ve been burned before and now view claims like that with suspicion.)
My own copies of the series are battle-worn. They have seen many readings, and their pages and spines show it. Perhaps for that next special occasion, I’ll have to give myself the gift of new versions of these. I would be heartbroken if mine ever dissolved entirely.
Though Exiles hosts one of my favorite examples of world building, dozens of other wonderful ones exist. If you have any that you would like to share, I’m very interested in hearing about them. I could always use anther book or twelve to read.
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Pauline Baynes, “A Map of Middle-earth”, George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books, 1970.
Melanie Rawn, The Ruins of Ambrai (Exiles, Vol. 1), DAW, 1995.