A couple of weeks ago I recommended some authors who have atypical cultures - African, Russian, Islamic, etc. - represented in their work (here's the post, if you haven't seen it). This week, I thought I'd take a closer look at N.K. Jemisin's novel, The Killing Moon. Let's look at some of the layers of complexity she builds into her worldbuilding.
1. Physical Environment
The Killing Moon does a great job with environment, by using a technique that I highly recommend: taking an existing world environment and translating it into a fantasy setting. In the case of the Dreamblood series, that environment is Egypt in ancient times. A hot climate, cicadas, papyrus, a city divided into districts by caste. There are descriptions of travel through city buildings that allow us to grasp a sense of the distinctive architecture. There's also food in abundance, as for example in this passage:
"...crisp vegetables flecked with hekeh-seed and sea salt, balls of grain held together with honey and aromatic oil, medallions of fresh fish tied into bundles around wine-soaked raisins."
One of the things that Jemisin does best is use very specific, carefully chosen details. The passage above contains only a single non-English word, but conveys the nature of its ingredients very effectively, and thus also implies the presence of those ingredients in the surrounding environment. The sea is clearly nearby, and people grow grapes to dry or ferment, etc.
The first thing you'll probably notice about language in the book is that Jemisin has chosen a very specific "feel" for the foreign words and names. These fit with the environment and the classical language associated with it. She quickly takes it further, though. She does a lot with modes of address, titles, etc. People from the city of Gujaareh have two names, one for waking and one "in dreams." This fits in beautifully with the cultural concepts surrounding waking and dreaming, which I'll return to below. There's also a mode of address which involves appending a word of (metaphorical) relation onto the name of the person, as for example with Yeyezu-elder, Manthe-mother, Ehiru-brother etc. I'm just scratching the surface here, of course. Read the book if you really want to feel the language.
3. Cultural Diversity
Gujaareh is a chaotic place, a trade city where many groups come together. One of the things that makes that most convincing is the kind of cultural diversity that Jemisin sets up in her city. Gujaareen people come in several different castes (including servant, merchant, and two varieties of noble); there are also the people of Kisua, Bromarte, Jijun, and Khanditta. Because of my own natural desire to "figure things out" I put a lot of effort into trying to memorize all these distinctions at the beginning, but it's actually better - and truer to the spirit of the book and Gujaareh - to let them flow a bit. This is a very realistic kind of cultural diversity that means we can only have very solid social expectations of people we know well, and you'll find that the characters you know well have very distinct cultural traits. The uncertainty of social expectations with others mirrors that of naturally diverse environments in our own world.
4. Cultural Concepts
Developing cultural concepts is something I encourage everyone to do. Religion covers a lot of these, but usually not all of them. In every culture we have an understanding of right and wrong that is culturally based, and in this book you can see the concept of Death being interpreted differently by two different cultural groups; indeed, it's central to the main conflict. The other thing I love here is that each group's view of death influences its suspicions about what's going on in the central mystery of the story... and neither group is entirely correct, which keeps readers guessing. Peace is another cultural concept that is viewed very differently by different groups in the book, and lies near the center of the conflict. So are waking and dreaming, which for some of the book's cultures are just what you'd expect, but for the Gujaareen most certainly are not. This is how you know that the world and the story are one: you can see the evidence that culture is not an add-on, but goes right to the core. Concepts are associated with metaphors that influence description, and also the action of characters.
5. Character Placement
In this book, we experience the story from several different points of view. The worldbuilding, and specifically the sense of the world's completeness, are greatly enhanced by the fact that each of the main characters has been placed in a different cultural position relative to the world. Sunandi is the Kisuati ambassador; Ehiru is a distinguished priest and Gatherer, originally from a high caste; Nijiri is an apprentice Gatherer, originally from the servant caste. What this character placement does is allows us to see multiple interpretations of the story's central thread, and thus also to expand our sense of the way that conflicts would play out in this world, even as we're only experiencing one of them.
I hope these thoughts can get you more interested to read The Killing Moon, and also that they can get you thinking about your own stories and worldbuilding.