The best books with fantastical civic design

Jasmine Gower Author Of Moonshine
By Jasmine Gower

The Books I Picked & Why

Witchmark

By C. L. Polk

Witchmark

Why this book?

Witchmark is a gorgeous example of what some call “gaslamp fantasy”—where sorcerers and the supernatural exist in fantastical but post-industrial worlds. Following the journey of witch-turned-veterans’-doctor Miles, Witchmark is set in Kingston, a city that relies on an element known as aether to power its lights, trains, and telephones. The question of aether’s source is key to the conflict that Miles and his allies must untangle, so I won’t give it away, but the mystery surrounding it expertly utilizes the fantastical and themes of magic to raise questions in the reader about the cost of modern comforts and which members of society will actually end up paying it.


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The Resurrectionist of Caligo

By Wendy Trimboli, Alicia Zaloga

The Resurrectionist of Caligo

Why this book?

Tapping into Edinburgh’s grim history of graverobbers (which, if you haven’t had the chance to play tourist in Scotland before, is absolutely fascinating), The Resurrectionist of Caligo uses the dark fantasy staples of blood magic and necromancy to explore the death industry, its role in urban environments, and its storied connection to academia and medicine. Following the trials of Caligo’s local “resurrectionist”, Roger, this book examines what happens to the dead in fantasy worlds, tracing the journeys of their cadavers from death to autopsy to burial to exhuming, taking a closer look at the ceremony and taboo surrounding death and how cities manage the nitty-gritty logistics of storing (or utilizing) their dead once the funerals are over.


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The Perfect Assassin: Book 1 in the Chronicles of Ghadid

By K. A. Doore

The Perfect Assassin: Book 1 in the Chronicles of Ghadid

Why this book?

Harsh environments provide a compelling opportunity for fantasy authors to explore how otherworldly magic or technology can help populations build functioning civilizations and survive in such conditions. The Perfect Assassins setting of Ghadid, a desert city built upon massive platforms that rise above the dunes, does exactly this with an ancient plumbing system that provides its residents with water that not only fills their cups but also fuels the magic of their healers. While the water supply allows the residents of Ghadid to survive in such a harsh climate, its limitations further inform how the city handles farming, commerce, medicine, its calendar, and—most pertinently to the story—the threat of malevolent spirits from the sands below.


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The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

By N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Why this book?

The world-building in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms explores how the powering of societies can come at a human cost—though in this case, the humans have outsourced that cost to the gods. Enslaved by the Arameri aristocratic family that rules over the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, gods and godlings power the Arameri’s control of the city of Sky, allowing the city to flourish but at the expense of the common people’s or the gods’ agency. Compared to the other books listed here, this tale is more concerned with the structures of class and authority (and less so utility) that help turn the gears of society, but its examinations of these aspects of civics are still insightful and, ultimately, optimistic.


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Perdido Street Station

By China Miéville

Perdido Street Station

Why this book?

In the city of New Crobuzon, Perdido Street Station is built within the ribcage of some ancient, unknown beast. The layout of the city resembles the anatomy of such a creature, as well—roads and rivers acting as arteries, districts as organs, and its residents as parasitic insects (especially the ones who are part insect). Perdido Street Station uses its fantastical steampunk setting to reimagine real-world urban crises—bigotry, labor abuses, organized crime, natural and human-made disasters—as they would appear in a world of monsters. The most terrifying part is that despite all of the human-animal hybrids and thaumaturgy, these injustices are all too familiar. The nakedly-political themes of Perdido Street Station will hit especially close to home to readers who are particularly plugged into the civic struggles of their own cities, leaving behind a haunting feeling and, hopefully, inspiration to work toward a better world.


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