- Patricia A. McKillip and the Art of Fantasy World-Building by Audrey Isabel Taylor
Audrey Isabel Taylor begins her book with this statement: “This is a book about critical world-building” (7). While this may seem obvious or trite, it succinctly covers the main point of her book—to exemplify how to consider world-building critically by examining the world-building of a single author. Her main claim is that world-building should be studied critically, especially in the fantasy genre, because world-building is more complex than creating a simple setting. Taylor divides up different elements of world-building and then discusses how they were employed by Patricia A. McKillip across multiple novels.
Taylor starts off by defining her terms and approach in chapter 1. She explains what she means by such terms as “world” (7), “elements” (10), and “world-building” (13). Her basic premise is that world-building is different than selecting a setting; it serves more purpose than merely being an “intriguing artistic location” (12). Her concept of world-building includes extrinsic things like cities and landscapes, as well as intrinsic things like legends, politics, and relationships. She concludes by examining how various people view world-building: specifically, the author, the reader, and the critic.
Chapter 2 moves on to discuss fantasy conventions. Taylor explains that tropes or common elements of fantasy create expectations for readers, which authors then either meet or frustrate, exactly like in mainstream literature. She briefly discusses archetypes such as “the hero with the thousand faces” but explains she wishes to keep her discussion lighter than the term archetype allows (36). She gives an example of how McKillip subverts tropes in The Tower at Stony Wood (2000) by giving the maiden-in-the-tower story a feminist revision twist (40–42).
In chapter 3, Taylor discusses how important characters are to world-building. She explains that how characters interact with the world demonstrates how readers should understand the world. Her discussion of McKillip’s characters encompasses how age, gender, training, and temperament all affect the ways in which characters view their worlds and in turn how readers understand the fantasy world, as well as their own world. Taylor argues that characterization is essential to effective world-building.
Chapter 4 extends the argument by discussing how legends, as told and understood by characters, affect McKillip’s storytelling. Taylor presents many [End Page 359] examples of little legend bits that give McKillip’s novels an extra layer of history and depth, and is a device Tolkien also used. One example comes from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974): “Cyrin the Boar, for example, is introduced thus: Sybel’s father ‘caught like a salmon the red-eyed, white-tusked Boar Cyrin, who could sing ballads like a harpist, and who knew the answers to all riddles save one’ (4)” (94). This example demonstrates how bits of legend become part of descriptions in McKillip’s work, creating the sense of age and tradition common to tales told in the ordinary world. Taylor expounds on how using legends creates authority in McKillip’s novels.
Taylor then discusses traditional setting elements in chapter 5 (“Pastoral Landscapes”) and chapter 6 (“Cities”). These chapters explore the different ways the setting shapes the tales by the possibilities inherent in the physical location. The pastoral landscape creates a deeper relationship between characters and the natural environment, whereas the cities focus more on the complicated relationships between people, both familial and political. She draws on examples from multiple books in each of these chapters and compares and contrasts different relationships McKillip explores in her work.
Taylor’s book ends with her reflections on the multifaceted topic of world-building as explored throughout her book and sets up a space in the critical conversation for more discussion to follow.
One thing done well in this book is how deeply Taylor examines the critical conversation, even as she argues we should be extending the conversation in new directions. She not only talks about what people are saying about fantasy, but she explores other...