Setting a Balance

Most of the books I read are either mystery or fantasy. And when I say fantasy, I mean anything with magic in it – urban fantasy, faux-medieval fantasy, post-post-apocalyptic fantasy (stuff like Adventure Time), even things that other people would term “horror.” That’s not to say I don’t read other things – I read books from almost every genre, from sci-fi to historical fiction, but my favorite books tend to be either of the mystery or fantasy genre.

Most of the mystery books I read star private investigators (I blame noir). Most recently, I’ve been reading the Spenser books by Robert B. Parker. One of the awesome things about good private investigator books is that they tend to have a bunch of books written about them. Spenser, Mike Hammer, even Sherlock Holmes (who isn’t really a private investigator, but whatever) are all good examples. And don’t even get me started on the Hardy Boys.

There’s something that really good mystery novels have in common with just sort of good fantasy novels – interesting settings. A good mystery novel doesn’t need an interesting setting, just an interesting mystery at its core, or sometimes an interesting group of characters involved in a mediocre mystery. But most fantasy novels tend to be about the setting, and how interesting it is (and sci-fi novels too, for that matter, but I like fantasy a little more than I like sci-fi). This is actually one of my big problems with fantasy. Some fantasy authors focus so much on the setting that it can feel like the characters and the plot were tacked on at the end, a mere afterthought. It seems like they would have rather written a guidebook to their fictional lands than a novel.

But when a mystery writer focuses on setting (without losing focus on the mystery and the characters), it can turn a good mystery into a really good one. Take Parker’s Spenser books for example. His books describe Brooklyn and its people in a way that makes it as fleshed out and interesting as Kate Griffin’s London, in the Matthew Swift books – a great urban fantasy series, as long as one doesn’t mind having to muddle through a few confusing pages, especially at the beginning of the first book (but not as confusing as a certain other book I can think of).

Setting is important, but it isn’t the most important thing. I find that books that treat the setting like it is the most important tend to be super boring, and these books also tend to be fantasy or sci-fi. The best books treat the setting like just another character – perhaps one as important as the main character, perhaps another character that will be seen twice and never again. That’s why, even though I like fantasy, if I want to read something that has a low chance of boring me to tears, I’m much more likely to pick up something with a private investigator at the helm.

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