Why setting matters: on cities in novels

Katya Becerra © 2011

I’m a believer that a story’s setting is as important as its plot or the characters’ development. 

As I look back at what stood out for me from the overabundance of the YA and non-YA ParFic (ParFic=Paranormal Fiction, yes I’m introducing a new term here) in my last three years of überreading, often the answer is – novels with appealing and uniquely written settings.

I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was thirteen, and though I didn’t get to see New York with my own eyes until (many) years later, the city held me in its thrall effortlessly the whole time in-between. There are other fascinating books set in New York, of course, but only a few have the same soul-moving effect on me as does The Catcher. In fact, the Catcher’s NY impressed me so much, I’m still likely to become interested in a novel by its mere virtue of being set in New York. 

I wonder exactly how many books are set in New York. 

My guess would be: many. 

Also: not enough. 

Authors of all genres keep coming back for more. They just can’t help themselves. I’m one of them. I love New York. I maybe even want to live there. That’s how much I love it.

New York is a huge part of the reason why I picked up Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series. The first three books in TMI are sensational. Clare’s New York is gripping, fresh, irresistible; the city has a voice of its own that spills from the pages, comes alive. Maybe it’s because NY has become this universal archetype in the way that it appeals to everyone on some level – even if you haven’t been to NY, you still have an idea of it (like I did for years). So when you read that Clary Fray grew up in Brooklyn, you immediately get that happy feeling – yeah, I know what this means, I understand it.

Katya Becerra © 2011
Similarly, London in Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices is beautiful in its grey, rainy and dazzling ethereal beauty. Just like in the first three books of the Mortal Instruments, London in Clockwork Angel is a character of its own. The city lives and breathes. Unfortunately, as the series progresses, the city moves away to the periphery, becoming a mere background, a setting to scenes because things can’t or at least shouldn’t happen in vacuum. 

Katya Becerra © 2011
Cities described in books affect us, help form our visions of places, can influence our further reading choices and even affect our travel aspirations. The Catcher in the Rye, the key catalyst for my New York obsession resulting in my never-ceasing love for this city, was the reason I picked up Black Swan Rising. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita remains the major  (if not the only) reason I’m capable of seeing a version of Moscow that’s different from reality – I can see the city that is a stunning, magical place where crazed, naked, broomstick-flying witches deliver their brand of rough justice to literary critiques by trashing their apartments. Yes, I think I could live in Bulgakov’s version of Moscow (well, not the regime part of it…), even though I don’t think I would last long in real Moscow. Unlike Delphine in Promise (Colorado) (in my WIP)* I do not have the right spirit to make it in Moscow.

Karen Marie Moning’s The Fever series is another case where a city as a character has a strong presence throughout the series. Though I do have certain issues with what comes out of (protagonist) Mac’s brain and mouth (many things she thinks and says, especially early on in the series, are not particularly smart, while some are blatantly racist), Dublin is portrayed intriguing enough for me to want to visit (Ok, I always wanted to go to Ireland, and not because of the Moning books, but Darkfever reignited that desire for wanderlust).

Ixion, the fictional island setting of Marianne de Pierres’ Burn Bright was a stunner. And, I believe the huge part of the reason Angel Arias (Book 2 of Night Creatures series) fell flat for me is that 90 per cent of it had happened outside of Ixion. By the time de Pierres took Naif back to Ixion in Shine Light (the finale of Night Creatures), its magic was kind of lost on me. Though, again Ixion in Burn Bright is something that makes it all worth it.  

Last, but not least: the portrayal of Russia in Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. I was pleasantly surprised with Mead’s view of Russia. When Rose, the VA protagonist went to Russia with a nefarious intent, in search of her mentor/lover, I became edgy all over due to my prejudice (I'm cautious of authors writing about Russia without actually having been there). But Mead delivered – she captured the glamorous side of Russian life in Saint Peter’s, then contrasted it with the rural settings of a small town in Siberia. Yes, I can totally see how Russian Strigoi (bad kind of vamps) would be so freakin’ scary – not only they are the gut-wrenching bad kind of monsters but also, they are Russian.

Yay, for Russian vamps.     

* My Work-in-Progress YA urban fantasy - where after ten years away a heroine returns to her home town and discovers that nothing is what it seems and all the scary things that hide in the woods don’t need to wait for the nightfall to come out


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