Ilona Andrews

The Wonders of World-Building

The other day, a friend messaged me to ask how the phases of the moon might affect a fight between a werewolf and a vampire. (Yes, I get these kinds of messages. Damn right you're jealous.) She’d just come from a party where someone was pondering whether a full moon would benefit a werewolf, or a new moon a vampire. My response was twofold: first, she’s going to right kind of parties; and second, it would depend on the mythology of the world in which the fight was taking place.

Have you ever stood in the ice cream aisle at the grocery store and pondered the seemingly endless options available to you? That’s maybe the best analogy I can think of for urban fantasy when it comes to worldbuilding and mythology. So many flavors and combinations! Some are our world but with magical or supernatural elements; others are so different that they hardly resemble the world we know at all. My Alice Worth series is the former; our world, but with supernatural elements and magic and the complications that come with them. Of all the dozens of UF series I read (and have read), perhaps the best example of the latter I can think of is Anne Bishop’s wonderfully imaginative The Others series, which takes place in a fantastically detailed and very unique alternate timeline.

How does one go about creating a world? I’m sure every author answers that a little differently. It probably depends on how different of a world he or she wants to create. What elements of the setting should be recognizable from our own world? How many will be different? It’s a wondrous continuum of ideas.

For me, it began with the idea of criminal organizations using magic to amass power, influence, and profit. From there, I developed the magic system of the Alice Worth series: innate natural magic based on air, water, earth, and fire, plus blood magic—powerful and illegal. There are spells and wards that require intricate combinations of symbols and energy. Magic is a powerful resource, and whenever there is a resource, there will be people who want to control it (crime syndicates and government agencies). Add in supernatural entities (ghosts, vampires, and shifters for starters) and you have the basics of a world for your characters to inhabit. The narrative fills in the details and brings that world to life, if you’ve done your job well. If you’re very good, your readers can feel as though they are in that world with your characters, facing the same challenges and seeing the same wonders. When it’s done well, it’s just…magical.

Of all the series I’ve read (and wow, are there a LOT), my favorite “world” is that of the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. It’s so different from our own world. “Waves” of magic and technology alternate throughout the day, rendering first all technology and then all magic inert in turns. This affects literally every aspect of daily life. In addition, Kate’s world is inhabited by every supernatural and mythological creature known to man and then some—and the vampires are, hands-down, the most unique of any series. I won’t spoil anything more because if you haven’t read this series, you are missing out on what I think is the best in the genre, or one of the best. It's so good that I really can't even do it justice without giving away too much. Total package, the Kate Daniels world takes my top prize for Best Worldbuilding.

Really, as with ice cream, it comes down to taste. Some prefer worlds that are more like ours; others love the chance to jump into a world that’s very different but stops short of being high fantasy. Anne Bishop’s The Others series is about as different and fantastical as I like to go. I like to see elements of our world in the one I’m reading about.

What are some other examples of excellent worldbuilding? I love Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan/The Hollows series for that, as well as Nailini Singh’s Guild Hunter and Psy-Changeling series, Karen Chance’s Cassie Palmer/Dorina Basarab series, another (short-lived) Ilona Andrews series called The Edge, and Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series.

This isn’t meant to be a complete list (goodness knows I haven’t read everything in the genre, and there are a dozen more I’d like to put on here), so I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations. What are some great authors and series I’ve left off the list, and why do you love them?

Thanks for reading! Now, I’m off to buy ice cream!

In Which I Ponder Girls with Swords

The sword: the weapon of choice (cue Fatboy Slim) for many urban fantasy/paranormal romance heroines and heroes (and villains). Browse the book covers in the genre and you’ll see many feature someone brandishing a blade. One would expect to see swords in high fantasy, but urban fantasy and paranormal romance are usually set in our world, where swords would seem to be anachronistic. From Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires to Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock, some of the best and most kick-ass UF heroines are masters of swordplay, despite having many other weapons at their disposal.

Why the fascination with blades in modern UF? Sometimes it’s because these heroines find themselves battling creatures who would be impervious (or nearly so) to bullets, either standard or silver. Also, swords don’t need to be reloaded, so you’re not going to run out of ammo unless you do something dumb like throw your blade away. In some series, our heroine finds herself fighting vampires, who seem to prefer blades to more modern weapons (since so often vamps seem unwilling to update their techniques), so she must be able to face them wielding her own sword.

But whatever the explanation for the heroine’s ability to shish-kabob her enemies, it’s worth thinking about the symbolism of the sword in the hand of a woman. For a very, very long time in all corners of the real world and with only a few notable exceptions, swords were a man’s weapon. Unless you were raised in Themyscira, women didn’t get sword training, not even to defend themselves. There are few weapons with a more sexist history than a sword. Even the sword itself is phallic, the act of running someone through coded as masculine.

With that in mind, consider a book cover or a scene featuring a woman wielding a sword and what that represents, not just to the genre, but historically. It’s a statement of self, autonomy, and courage, as well as defiance, not just against the enemy in the book but the historical oppression of women. Perhaps that is some of its appeal for writers and readers of the genre.

The fierce female protagonists of UF don’t always use swords. Alice doesn’t. But her weapons are formidable regardless, and the same argument applies regarding making a statement about autonomy and self-determination. A well-armed, well-trained heroine is the woman warrior in all of us, rising in defiance of everyone who stands against her, her sword raised (or fire whip coiled around her), a counterpoint to the damsels-in-distress or helpless victims of both other genres and history.

I know that it was this representation of a strong, capable, well-trained woman that attracted me to this genre in the first place, in addition to the imaginative world-building (which will be my next blog topic).

I have a sword, by the way; a real, very sharp katana. I bought it because it was beautiful, well-made, and deadly, and it matched my purse.