I’ve spoken a little bit about different approaches to worldbuilding and the structure of plot around passing the relevant information to the reader. I myself tend to trend more towards the exploratory writer than the architect, with the twist that I tend to create really rich histories for my worlds and then create a gap and explore how the world has changed since my cut off point alongside the characters. I’ve had a good amount of success with it. This has strengths and weaknesses, I’ve been told that my characters feel very organic and readers feel surprised right alongside them, but it makes foreshadowing for twists a gigantic pain in the ass. I typically have to write up to and past the twist and then do massive amounts of revising to lay the foundation for it to happen. If someone turns on the protagonists and tries to kill them after finding the magical macguffin, I have to go back through all of their dialogue and figure out exactly what they were doing when not “on screen,” so to speak, so that a reader going through it the second time can pick up on certain tells and tics that retroactively reveal the intention from very early on. It’s never going to be as strong as someone who plots something out from the beginning up through the end, but it is fun to write and I hope the fun I’m having comes through in reading it as well.
This habit, I think, stems back to playing copious amounts of AD&D and various White Wolf RPGs as a kid/teen/wayward young adult. There’s a certain amount of worldbuilding that needs to be done like setting up any major religions, geography, big political strife, stuff that serves as kind of the crumbled castle foundation that the lichen of the story will grow over. I like the glimpses of that crumbled castle better than I actually like the castle as a whole, as a standalone set piece.
Castles are kind of a dime a dozen. Everyone of importance had a castle way back in the day, or belonged to a family that had one, or possibly just lodged in one. Each one has some unique architectural twists or oddities of geography that make it stand out, but they’re all defined by certain perimeters and after enough of them they just get kind of old. But a ruined castle, to me at least, is incredibly interesting. Why did it collapse in certain ways? Why are there these markings on some walls but not others? Why has the rubble built up along this side but been left clear here? Why is only one wall bashed in and why didn’t the guard tower fall with it? Who left these skeletons littered around without even a shallow grave? Why did the torch go out? Is that your hand on my shoulder? You’ve lost some weight and some skin–
But yes, dungeon crawling in old games formed the basis for how I tend to approach writing fantasy settings and some of my science fiction. I like entire functional societies laid low and then explored by characters who have slightly less information than I do, because based on the history that I allow myself to know I’m able to formulate realistic new things for the characters to discover on the fly, surprising both them and myself. It’s worldbuilding in glimpses, seeing what came before through the cracks of what remains rather than getting a massive expository chapter on world history like you’ve opened up a textbook rather than an adventure. If the deep, dark secret of my forgotten civilization is that they trafficked with the very demons that now run roughshod in the dark places of the world and kill all who approach them, I have a huge toolbox to play around with showing how these ancient demon interactions happened, why they happened, and it can unravel at a good but not rushed pace.
I’m a sucker for unreliable narrators as a trope because of this. If the characters of the world only know glimpses of it, any history that the protagonist (or antagonist) discovers is probably going to be heavily biased and tainted by the politics of the day. Look at something like the 300 Spartans for a contemporary example. If you ask a modern day American, you’ll learn that the Spartans were brave defenders of freedom, plucky underdogs against a decadent eastern empire who sacrificed their lives even through the ungrateful boyfuckers of Athens shunned their pleas for reinforcements. Ask an ancient Athenian and you’ll find out that the Spartans were massively misogynistic glory hounds who only made fun of homosexuality when it occurred for reasons other than because women were too weak and feeble to properly appreciate the male form like a fellow man could, and who probably would have lived if they’d better coordinated with the Athenian navy. Ask Xerxes and the ancient Persians and they would have pointed out that the Spartans were twofaced fascist assholes who claimed to uphold freedom even though their entire society was built on ongoing slave labor, and that there were actually over a thousand defenders at the hot gates but the Spartans happily left out the other martyrs to make themselves look better in the folk tales.
You can find similar accounts from any kind of conflict or major historical event, and it’s not even one of those truth-in-the-middle things so much as each side containing a grain of truth that gives us a cracked, possibly even shattered picture of how it might have gone down. See everything from the march of the Great Heathen Army to the battle of the Red Cliffs to Gaixa to Kadesh to Syracuse to… sorry, that’s the history major coming out and frothing, blinking at the harsh sunlight. But you take my point, if you want to do a really good fantasy setting you need to approach every historical event as if the victors are lying sacks of shit and the losers probably weren’t much better and everyone watching and recording had a vested interest in pushing their own narrative. That’s not to say fantasy can’t be good if it doesn’t do this stuff (I love the unbiased historical record style of Lord of the Rings, for example) but outside of a few classics I think it adds a certain gravitas to acknowledge that what your characters know probably isn’t all that factual.
That’s before you get into magic systems and religion. Imagine the conflict from two mutually exclusive prophets going at it like we’ve had in our own history countless times, but now with bolts of light being chucked around. Go far enough back to the ancient world and read about how conquering empires used to take gods’ statues (and thus the gods themselves) hostages from smaller villages and cities and imagine that these are literal, physical divine beings that you could interact with, and now start asking who in the story you might want to side with when you find out the empire thinks it’s safeguarding them from a god-eating thing beyond the borders even if it deprives outlying townships of their harvest deities for a time. Imagine if rather than an archetypal paladin figure Aragorn was a canny political exile manipulating events to get back into power and rally the remnants of feudalism against an encroaching industrialized nation, with all that lovely pro-Shire propaganda leaving out the poor quality of life for anyone not part of the nobility or the landed hobbit clans?
Which all brings us to Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I have heard good things about Tchaikovsky for a long time now and I keep meaning to pick up his Shadows of the Apt series in spite of my backlog several libraries deep. If they’re anywhere near as good as his latest solo offering, I’ve obviously been missing out. Spiderlight doesn’t subvert fantasy tropes to be edgy or simply for the sake of subverting them, he does so to make you think and question everything you assume about key aspects of the genre. And he plays it just straight enough with a sprinkling of black humor that it works out on several different levels. It asks the question of what happens when Bilbo and the dwarves conscript – at swordpoint – one of the giant spiders of Mirkwood to accompany them on a quest to vanquish evil. Also they work for a group of religious fanatics who genuinely believe that any being associated with the darkness is not subject to any rights and can’t even feel pain. At best they are fit only to be wiped out, at worst they can be twisted and warped into weapons deadly to their masters. Even if you just left it there, it would be a pretty damn good twist on the classic fantasy novel, similar to Mary Gentle’s Grunts with less of a focus on the comedic. Tchaikovsky takes it a lot deeper and starts asking some startling philosophical questions about perception and personhood, and never really stops asking them throughout the course of the novel. It’s enough to keep you off kilter, but in a good way. I wish I could go on at more length but that’s about as much as I can reveal without spoiling some of the best parts, although I will say that even days after reading it I’m still struck by one passage about how the spiders’ eyes serve as filters to the world while human eyes open one to a visual cacophony of blinding light and motion by comparison. I already love spiders and arachnids in general, so this was an easy sell to me.