A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
When this question, and the chance to write a blog post about it, came up on Authors Allsorts, I jumped at the chance. Anyone who’s ever read my books will know that I luuuurve my settings and writing descriptions of them. My editor usually has to ask me to cut at least a few pages worth from each manuscript just to keep the action going.
Given the chance I will rhapsodise about the universe based on Northern India and Tibet, with golden leopards prowling across thickly forested mountains and great, green, terraced tracts of farmland, and icy silver-blue rivers bombarding the rock. I’ll bore you for hours with details plucked from the fairytale island nation inspired by Japan with a few touches of China, all mixed together with an invented Moon religion and magic based on weaving shadows into beguiling illusions.
For me, world-building and setting are an integral part of storytelling, and one of my favourite parts of putting together a story. I’ve had a lot of fun with all kinds of beautiful and terrifying settings over the years. Having said all that, though, my answer to the question might be a bit unexpected. Because much as I love my secondary worlds, with their invented landscapes and fascinating cultures, probably my favourite setting of all time… is a real one.
It’s the setting of my most recent book The Night Itself, the first in The Name of the Blade trilogy. The story involves the dangerous powers of an enchanted katana – a Japanese longsword – and the gods and monsters of mythological Japan breaking free into the modern world. One of the first things that pinged into my head was a vivid image of tentacles of unspeakable darkness unfurling against a landscape of steel and glass: London.
I live in the North of England, and transport links from my hometown are, to put it mildly, not great. So I only get to visit London a couple of times a year, usually when my publisher are kind enough to ship me down there to take part in events. Maybe that’s part of the reason why, for me, London has always felt like a magical place. A place where something wondrous or horrifying might lurk around any corner. A place where the mundane and the awe-inspiring jostle shoulder by shoulder, in exactly the way that sleek skyscrapers rub elbows with pitted, ancient stone on the streets. A place where anything might happen.
The Night Itself is different from my other books because it is, essentially, a portal fantasy. The real world is merely a launching point from which we travel deeper and deeper into magic and darkness, deeper and deeper into other settings that nestle together like painted Russian dolls. My heroine, along with thousands of others, lives in the daylight world of London, happily hopping on and off the Tube, ordering take-out sushi on her iPhone, and memorising the locations of all the local coffee-shops.
But just beneath the surface, hidden behind a veil as thin as the depth of human perception, other worlds lurk. The spirit realm, where the city is recreated in the form of a vast forest populated with mythological creatures.
The realm of dreams and nightmares, where nothing is real unless you believe it – and what you fear may be real enough to kill you.
And Yomi, the Japanese underworld, filled with dark and tormented creatures that have died but are forced to continue to exist in perpetual darkness.
Each of these places is, in a sense, London. Each of them is as different from London, and from the others, as night is from day.
Once the heroine has breached that veil between the worlds, nothing in London is quite what it seems anymore. Crumbling Battersea Power Station becomes a gateway to the underworld, warping and shifting under the force of the powers that have transformed it. It is a fairytale citadel, a fortress and battleground. The tangled old bush at the bottom of the garden shines with strange light, and strange creatures emerge from it, beckoning you to follow them down, away. The swift shadow that passes overhead is no longer a cloud riding the wind, but a terrible, winged monster that hunts its prey across the city. The sewer tunnel opens up into a hidden underground chamber filled with glowing stalecties and battling water dragons.
Anything might exist in this London.
The thrill of these fantasy additions to the city is how each of them forms in the shape of something sold and real – something that you or I can see with our own eyes, touch with our own hands, Google with our own laptops 🙂 London is the perfect setting because it’s already full of magic. It makes the fantasy very easy to believe. A little twist here, a tiny tweak there, and it’s almost impossible to tell what is real and what is imagination.
After all, no one knows what really lurks in Battersea Power Station in the dark of the night…
That’s why I’ve had more fun messing around with, and messing up, this setting than any other. I’m working on the third book of the trilogy now, and I can honestly say that when it’s finished, I’ll be as sad to say goodbye to my haunted, cursed and enchanted London as to any other character in my story.
Because that’s the thing about a really good setting. When you really get it right, it does become a character, just as important as all the rest.
YA novels: THE SWAN KINGDOM (Walker, March 2007), DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES (Walker, March 2008), SHADOWS ON THE MOON (Walker, July 2011), FROSTFIRE (Walker, July 2012), THE NIGHT ITSELF (Walker, July 2013), DARKNESS HIDDEN (Walker, 2014)