The best books with world building so immersive you may never find your way back out

Christian Schoon Author Of Zenn Scarlett
By Christian Schoon

Who am I?

I’m a sci-fi author and SF&F TV scriptwriter and I get off big time on building worlds. And fortunately, my novels and scripts have had some nice stuff said about their world-building (for which I offer up humble thanks to the Gods of the Review-Spigot, whoever they may be). So, if you’re someone who likes their fiction to be immersive and thought-hijacking and un-walk-away-fromable, tasty world building is likely high on your list of the Next Books to Fall Brain-first Into. And those are the types of novels I recommend on this site. Check ‘em out. And say so long to (highly overrated) reality for a while. Cheers.

I wrote...

Zenn Scarlett

By Christian Schoon,

Book cover of Zenn Scarlett

What is my book about?

Zenn Scarlett is a bright, determined, occasionally a-little-too-smart-for-her-own-good 17-year-old girl training hard to become an exoveterinarian. That means she’s specializing in the treatment of exotic alien life forms, mostly large and generally dangerous. Her novice year of training at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars will find her working with alien patients from whalehounds the size of a hay barn to a baby Kiran Sunkiller, a colossal floating creature that will grow up to carry a whole sky-city on its back.

The books I picked & why

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The Once and Future King

By T. H. White,

Book cover of The Once and Future King

Why this book?

Don’t be dissuaded by the fact this awesome and thoroughly delightful novel is a distilled, updated, and generally card-sharp-reshuffled version of Sir Thomas Malory’s story Le Morte d’Arthur written in 1485. Basically, it’s a deftly imagined re-telling of the tale of the humble kid who would grow up to become King Arthur – yes, the stable boy who pulled the sword from the stone and went on kingly glory. Why notable for world building? Because: boy-educated-by-wizardly-morphing-into-all-sorts-of-animals. When Wart (the young Arthur) is bodily transformed into a fish, hawk, ant, goose, and badger, he gains first-person insight into how humans are like and/or unlike these various creatures and so gleans vital life lessons that will serve him well in his eventual rise to medieval leadership in the future – a future that, of course, is actually Merlin’s past. So, yeah, character’s-psychology-building is all part of powerful world-building.

The Barsoom Series: A Princess of Mars; Gods of Mars; Warlord of Mars; Thuvia, Maid of Mars; Chessmen of Mars; M

By Edgar Rice Burroughs, J. Allan St John (illustrator), Frank Schoonover (illustrator)

Book cover of The Barsoom Series: A Princess of Mars; Gods of Mars; Warlord of Mars; Thuvia, Maid of Mars; Chessmen of Mars; M

Why this book?

This sci-fi series starts with A Princess of Mars and rambles on for like ten follow-up novels over the next 20 or so years. Is it pulp-y and sort of goofy and vaguely offensive in spots? Oh yes. If any of that bums you out, don’t dive in. But you’ll be missing a true classic from the Golden Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which laid the groundwork for all the epic SF & F to come. The Barsoom books are as much swash-and-buckle as ray-gun-and-aliens, which is just part of their charm. And Burroughs’ skill at conjuring up a believable-in-a-1940’s-way take on a Martian civilization is kind of wonderful as he builds up a vision of Mars as a resource-strapped planet where a bevy of unique alien races square off against each other with our oh-so-earnest Earth hero John Carter caught in the middle.  

His Dark Materials

By Philip Pullman,

Book cover of His Dark Materials

Why this book?

The three books of His Dark Materials are a grand example of an author tweaking our existing world in such a way that the familiar becomes bewitching and the every day is magicked-up into a glittering alt-version of itself. Drawing readers into the coming-of-age adventures of two uniquely relatable kids, Lyra and Will, the trilogy makes immersive world building look deceptively easy as Pullman transports us from a slightly strange Brit-like reality to a somewhat stranger place to a wildly new realm across the course of the three books. So, if you’re ready to take flight with some wayward witches, converse with armored polar bears and find out what it’d be like to have your own personality-compatible critter-daemon ever at your side, Pullman’s skillfully wrought, multiple world dimensions are well worth visiting.

The Lord of the Rings

By J.R.R. Tolkien,

Book cover of The Lord of the Rings

Why this book?

No list of this sort would be complete without the Hobbit-Meister himself and his astonishingly detailed, fine-grain-authentic realm of Middle Earth. The world building here is simply perfection itself. Part of the reason for that may be how the books draw on existing mythologies that already have narrative ecologies of their own that have been constructed, deconstructed, and then reassembled and buffed up again for literally thousands of years. From Norse legends to Greek and Christian myths to Teutonic epics, Tolkien’s lands are the stuff of dreams-made-real, somehow ancient beyond counting and yet as relatable, vital, and invigorating as a drink from ice-cold headwaters of the mighty river Anduin. Another major contributor to the credibility of Tolkien’s world is his ability as an academic linguist to have designed his own languages for his various Middle Earth inhabitants. All in all, an unparalleled demonstration of the world-builder’s art.


By Frank Herbert,

Book cover of Dune

Why this book?

With recent feature film and TV mini-series adaptations, Dune is in no danger of being overlooked by any conscious human being with a fondness for big-budget cinematic spectaculars. But the books in the series offer a much more intimate, up-close-and-personal connection to the planets that Herbert has devised as the backdrop for his sweeping sci-fi melodrama. From the watery sumptuousness of Caladan to the heat-hammered wastelands of Arrakis, Herbert makes you feel, smell, hear and somehow physically absorb the elemental nature of each global environment he creates. Herbert picks up on the innate desert-ness of an Arabic-inflected personal- and place-naming technique to draw the reader away from their comfy existence on this planet and pull them into the exotic wonder-worlds of this wildly imaginative series of interplanetary adventures.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in knights, Mars, and polar bears?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about knights, Mars, and polar bears.

Knights Explore 35 books about knights
Mars Explore 47 books about Mars
Polar Bears Explore 15 books about polar bears

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Fellowship of the Ring: The Lord of the Rings: Part One, The Sword in the Stone, and Foundation if you like this list.