The Ingenious cover by John Coulthart
Modern cities are vast, wondrous, awe-inspiring things. The soaring heights, the play of light over the buildings, the constant energy in the streets—and each with its own unique ambience. But isn’t all good: cities contain secrets, and pain, and hidden pockets of rot and disrepair—whether through abandonment or willful neglect by the powerful, there are places that carry a much darker energy than the bright lights and bustling streets would have you think.
This dichotomy is what makes a city such a wonderful fantasy setting: introduce speculative elements to my mixture described above, and suddenly you can birth an impossible city, rife with shifting architecture, secret passages, and strange surprises. Here are seven of our favorite impossible cities in fantasy books—wonderful to visit, probably too strange to live in.
Athanor (The Ingenious, by Darius Hinks)
Floating outside of time and space and only coming to rest once a year for the annual Conjunction—during which it adds new districts to itself—Athanor is a massive living city controlled by a secretive group of alchemists known as the Curious Men. While the danger of the place is immediately obvious within two chapters of Darius Hinks’ new novel—its lower levels are ruled by a twisted gang of mutants, the cops know how to hide a body way too well (and also all wear cultist uniforms), and one of the Curious Men has been straight-up murdering people with a skin-shroud so he can take control of and literally bend reality. At the same time, the place feels vibrant and alive in a way few fictional metropolises do, literally pulsing and teeming with life as it travels through and around spacetime. Its constantly changing nature gives it the sense of a wild, beautiful, protean place, its danger as seductive as it is horrifying.
New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville)
Built in the ribs of an ancient, madness-inducing eldritch abomination and home to several gods, impossible monsters, and just all-around upsetting people, New Crobuzon is another city both terrifying and, at the same time, weirdly compelling. Miéville’s gods and monsters lend the city an epic air, a feeling that anything that can possibly happen does, and a great many impossible things too (but that’s what happens when you’re home to a trans-dimensional spider-god that crawls across the web of reality, cutting threads and making changes will-nilly). Even the most horrific of horrors are kind of morbidly compelling at a remove—wouldn’t you like to see the gigantic robot god that uses a corpse to talk to humans? To book a lunch meeting with the Ambassador of Hell? New Crobuzon is a terrifying place for those living in it, of course, given that the government is a fascist nightmare and the citizens are at the mercy of numerous, sometimes dream-consuming monsters. Visit its twisting streets, sure. But book your return ticket in advance, just in case.
The City (Doña Quixote and Other Citizens, by Leena Krohn)
Krohn’s unusual prose slowly builds a city out of encounters between Doña Quixote and the various other residents, and in her weird interactions with the city’s various locales, like the strange tower in the middle of the park and a carnival house of mirrors that reveal odd secrets about those who look into them. It’s one of the most livable cities on this list, given that it’s basically a magical-realist version of Krohn’s own Helsinki—with the addition of Doña Quixote, who seems to change the landscape and even the nature of the people she encounters. While a little disorienting, the city and its strange citizens aren’t actively hostile, and Dona Quixote seems like a pretty good person to know, even if the tenor of her interactions with others tend to vary wildly. On top of which, the glass sculptures scattered everywhere must make for some gorgeous evening ambiance.
Ambergris (City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer)
Not many cities can claim their own freshwater giant squid. It’s pretty much just Ambergris and Lake George, if we’re being honest. But while that alone would put it ahead of the pack, Ambergris also has numerous living saints, artists, cafes, religions, and bookstores (the most prominent being the Borges Bookstore, named for one of Ambergris’ major inspirations). But while there’s a weird dreamlike atmosphere and wonderful aesthetic to Ambergris, there’s also something supremely off about the place, whether it’s the riotous festivals that cause fatalities, the extra-dimensional refugee in the city sanitarium who claims he wrote the entire city, the invasions by the indigenous fungus-people the metropolis displaced, or the ongoing uprising against foreign occupation—an incident that features one of the more cheerful mass poisonings in literary history. These contradictions are part and parcel to enjoying Ambergris, a city weird and wonderful in equal measure—even if its more horrifying elements would be best experienced on the page.
Dayzone/Nocturna/Dusk (A Man of Shadows, by Jeff Noon)
The first novel featuring perpetually out-of-his-depth private investigator Nyquist, A Man of Shadows’ gigantic city is actually three cities layered on top of each other, each neighborhood experiencing a different hour of the day: the bright Dayzone, perpetually lit by artificial bulbs representing sunlight; the moody darkness of Nocturna; and the eerie Lynchian Dusk, wrapped in perpetual fog and filled with abandoned art-deco theaters and oddly empty streets. But, lest this be thought of as simply an aesthetic, the city isn’t just lit for different hours of the day but actually seems to be comprised of them, requiring special medication and constant watch-resetting to traverse, as it’s common to experience time-slippage. Despite this, the city(ies) seems like a friendly enough place if you can adjust, though watch out for falling lightbulbs.
The Tower of Babel (Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft)
While not the weirdest place on this list, the Tower (which feels more like its own world, with its various and diverse “ringdoms,” ecosystems, and bodies of water) is still definitely up there. A clockwork sphinx watches over the various demesnes, and the place has a decidedly wild aesthetic, reminiscent of all the best weird weird fiction yet still entirely its own thing. Through the eyes of flustered everyman Thomas Senlin, the tower seems even more bizarre, its byzantine culture often hindering him as much as it helps him ascend further up the tower in search of his missing wife. Bancroft adds a nice juxtaposition to Senlin’s tour in the form of the cheerfully unhelpful Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, a travel book that’s advice stands in stark contrast to the horrors and wonders of the impossibly high metropolis.
Eth (Viscera, by Gabriel Squailia)
Eth is built on the organs of dead gods. I feel like I should get that out of the way ahead of time. It’s home to a death cult that gets high off of gigantic poisonous bugs and is building an army of flesh-golems out of guts, and was once known for being stunningly progressive—before the riots and constant revolutions meant everyone competent ruler was strung up by their entrails so the revolutionaries could briefly put a dog on the throne… before getting overthrown themselves. That this only scratches the surface of the metric ton of violent weirdness that happens in Eth says something about the city, whose numerous weird happenings are outlined in Squailia’s twisted and highly enjoyable novel of identity, revenge, and wholesale evisceration. Viscera‘s setting never distracts from the complicated, messy, and very human heart underneath all those entrails.
What impossible city would you most like to explore?