So, this week’s prompt over at The Egotist’s Club is: Best Story Setting.

After much thought, a discussion with the Beloved Husband, and a large glass of milk, I’ve decided that I like the pseudo-modern fantasy setting that Anne Bishop uses in her Black Jewels novels. It’s got a sense of familiarity and comfort, but retains a palpable sense of magic that makes the world that much more alien and mysterious.

American Heritage Dictionary defines “setting” as:

a. The context and environment in which a situation is set; the background.
b. The time, place, and circumstances in which a narrative, drama, or film takes place

So, we’ll tackle the physical trappings of this world first. Overall, it’s pretty familiar – modern plumbing exists, so we have showers and toilets, etc.. Readers see other familiar objects as well; stoves, refrigerators, even taxis. All this makes the readers comfortable – we know what we’re dealing with and can picture the scenery pretty easily.

There is a twist though. Everything is powered by magic. Refrigerators are called “cold boxes” and need to have the spell that keeps them cold renewed once a week. Stoves are lit with a psychic/magical manifestation called “witchfire” (something that can be summoned at will, anywhere, by anyone with the ability), as are lamps and candles. The taxis are called “coaches” and can be driven only by someone with proper magical strength, as they travel through the  “in-between” plane called “The Winds”. That makes for an interesting social dynamic, since non-magic users have limited to no access to fast transportation – they have to use horses.

What’s really kind of funny is that changing the names totally preserves that sense of magic other-worldliness. I was halfway through the fourth or fifth book before I started to put two and two together and match the magic-driven objects with their real life equivalents.

While the physical setting of this world is pretty familiar, the cultural setting is not. Bishop has created a culture unto itself – one that’s complex enough that you have to read the books to get it. It’s kind of like visiting a foreign country for the first time. You can have the customs and social hierarchies explained all you like, but it isn’t until you’re immersed in them and see them in action that you start to “get it”.

Quick overview – the ruling magic users are called “The Blood”; non-magic users are called “landens”. For The Blood, their magic/psychic strength is stored in Jewels that they wear as jewelry. The darker the Jewel, the more powerful the person is. Lighter Jewels cannot perform the same spells that Darker Jewels can and vice verse. Beyond the strict power hierarchy of Jewel strength, there’s a complex social one as well. I’m not even going to try to explain that one.

That completely alien cultural setting, layered on top of the familiar physical one makes for a unique and enjoyable read. I find that that particular blend of familiar and un-familiar make it easier for readers to get sucked into the novels. Because we can recognize the trappings of the world, we have a leg up on figuring out the social dances that fill the series.

Anyways, the point is (if I haven’t bored you to tears yet and you’re still reading) that because of the complexity of this setting and the unique flavor it gives to the series, I think the world of Anne Bishop and its three Realms qualifies for being one of the best settings I’ve encountered in a while.