The Wheelhouse Project: Setting

“Setting” is the last of the four “Doorways to Reading” for us to discuss, the doorways being librarian Nancy Pearl’s break-down of what draws readers into a book. In books with a vibrant setting doorway, readers feel taken in and entranced by the world of the book itself, whether that be a mining freighter in deep space, a fantastical land full of magic groves and wishing wells, or the court of Henry VII rendered in all its chilly, be-tapestried, dog-filled glory, air dripping with the miasma of grease and politics. When reading a book heavy on setting, you may find that the location feels as important as the characters or plot, either an equally engaging component or a space laden with symbolism and metaphor crucial to the book.

I would not place setting as one of my top doorways, although I do love to feel immersed in a book and its world, where the location feels exactly correct to move the characters forward on their journeys. And so I’ve chosen as an example a book, and series, that I really like, The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden, second in The Winternight Trilogy. This series takes place in medieval proto-Russia and merges both historical-cultural and fantasy elements.

The central kitchen in the home of Vasya and her family captivated me in these novels, notably the large central oven that most of the household sleeps on top of, particularly during the long, frigid winters. Like other works set in the medieval or Renaissance periods, The Winternight Trilogy showcases life during that time, both its challenges and small joys. (Honestly, these book never make me want to be a medieval re-enactor or time traveller; they just make me really grateful for central heating and grocery stores.) But because I do not know much about Russian history, particularly before it was even “Russia,” the details of this world jump out—the oven, the icon-covered churches, the towers in Moscow where noble women make their own small worlds of both shelter and imprisonment, the frozen river making winter the safest and best (albeit chilliest) time to travel. The world Vasya and her family live in is not one that I would choose, but it feels sort of magical, even before the magic comes.

And magic does come in! In terms of setting, I can’t shake the forest home of Morozko, frost-demon and god of winter: “The house resembled a stand of fir-trees that had decided to become a house for the night but gone about it badly. A livid darkness, as of clouds and fitful moonlight, filled the space near the rafters. The shadows of branches swooped back and forth across the floor, though the walls seemed solid enough. / But one thing was certain: the far end of the house held a vast Russian oven. … Beside the oven stood a tall white mare, licking at some salt.” Vasya senses at the corners of her eyes, but never sees, the invisible servants who bring her food and clothing and keep the fire stoked. When she asks Morozko for a comb to tackle her snarled hair, he reaches down to the floor, scooping up snow that is surely there but she cannot see, and fashions it into a comb. I get the impression that the house is all illusion, actually winter forest rather than home, but made tangible enough to shelter remarkable horses and one rather headstrong maiden.

Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay 

Setting functions as a crucial part of what makes The Winternight Trilogy so enchanting. Vasya is a charming heroine, but not an unfamiliar one. However, Arden uses the setting, which is to say place, culture, and folklore, to power Vasya’s story into places less familiar to contemporary American readers of fantasy about smart, stubborn girls who don’t quite fit in and may turn out to have magical powers. No shade to Vasya, but she needs the setting to overthrow the shadow of her literary sisters. And so do the other characters, from the fame-mad priest, to Vasya’s more conventional brothers and sisters, to the precariously-empowered czar. Because of the setting, what could have been a conventional YA fantasy becomes something more unique, special, and memorable.

This post concludes at least a preliminary examination of each of the four doorways, although I’m sure they will come up in my reading and my thinking about reading. If you’re curious, check out the previous entries on story, character, and language, as well as the original post kicking off the Wheelhouse Project.

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