Would you read a book that had a house or piece of land as an important character?
Long ago, in class, we discussed the role of the antagonist, aka the Bad Guy or Girl. We learned that a strong, smart, all-powerful opponent makes for great genre fiction, because their actions will push the heroine to her limits, forcing her to make difficult choices and in the process to grow and change before she eventually triumphs.
We also learned that Nature (a desert, a mountain, a storm) does not make a good antagonist, because it isn’t sentient. Even if it tests and challenges the heroine, it doesn’t respond to her actions. It doesn’t push back, so the story lacks zing.
That made sense to me at the time, but lately not so much. Because in a fantasy world a piece of land, or a house, can be sentient. If it can react, it can be a character, and lately I’ve read a few interesting books and series that use this trope. It’s an idea that holds so much potential. Part of any story’s power is what the reader brings to it, and almost all of us have deep ties to and strong feelings about places we’ve lived. Imagine if that place also had strong feelings about us, and the power to express those feelings? It’s not that much of a stretch if you’ve ever visited somewhere and felt stifled and claustrophobic, or instantly at home.
Ilona Andrews’ self-published Innkeeper series is set in a magical B&B in Texas that provides accommodation to visitors from other planets. Inns are grown from seed, but only thrive and grow powerful under the care of an Innkeeper and with guests to care for. The relationship between the heroine, Dina, and her Inn, is symbiotic and deeply emotional. The Inn responds not just to Dina’s instructions but to her thoughts and wishes. If she’s hurt, it feels terrible pain. In this world Dina is the leader, the inn is her trusty and beloved sidekick, and they stand or fall together.
KF Breene’s Magical Mid-Life Madness has a forty-year-old, recently divorced heroine who’s trying to create a new normal for herself and takes a job as caretaker of a house belonging to a family friend. She visited the house as a child and felt a strong connection with it, and when she returns as an adult she discovers that the house is a magical mansion that chooses its owner. By accepting a bond with the house, Jacinta (Jessy) gains her own power, reinvigorates a hilarious ensemble cast of ageing magical types, strikes sparks off the over-protective alpha of the town, and draws the attention of covetous, powerful, dark forces. I’ve only read the first book in what seems to be a long-running series, but so far the house strikes me as a picturesque, desirable repository of power. It has agency in that it welcomes or repels visitors and changes its configuration depending on what it wants them to see, but so far it feels to me more like a McGuffin than a character. I’m curious to see if that changes in later books.
Kate Stradling’s Kingdom of Ruses has a heroine whose family has spent generations maintaining the illusion of the Eternal Prince, a mysterious and powerful protector figure who watches over their small but magical kingdom. There are two special relationships in the book—one that develops between Viola and a mystery man who may or may not be the Eternal Prince, the other that has existed for generations between Viola, the Moreland family, and the kingdom of Lenore. I’d say Lenore as a character falls somewhere between the Innkeeper books and the KF Breene ones. The land is magical and that makes it desirable to outside forces. It responds only to special characters. The thing I like best is that it blooms as Viola learns that she can’t just draw on her relationship with it, she needs to tend it, too. I’m totally on board with that sentiment.
AJ Lancaster’s Stariel may be my favorite. The Lord of Stariel is about a magical estate that chooses its own ruler from among the land-sensitive Valstar family. The heroine, Hetta Valstar, doesn’t live on the estate anymore. When her father dies and she returns to Stariel to participate in the mystical Choosing ceremony, she expects either her prickly older brother or her land-hungry cousin to become the next lord. Obviously things don’t work out that way. All the Valstars feel a connection with Stariel, but the bond between the lord and the estate is off the charts. The lord can feel the estate—every person, animal, blade of grass—but what I love most of all is that Stariel is a quirky personality in its own right. It’s powerful and stubborn, and it knows what it wants. It can’t talk, but actions speak much louder than words, and Stariel can misbehave quite spectacularly if it doesn’t like the way things are going. Stariel’s not an antagonist, but it is a wild card. Its quirks and tantrums add an extra dimension to a very fun, feelgood read. I’ve read all three Stariel books (The Lord of Stariel, The Prince of Secrets, and The Court of Mortals) and I’m waiting impatiently for the final book (The King of Faerie), due in early August.
Have you read any good books that use this trope? What kind of character does the house or land play?
Do you like the idea, or does the thought of a sentient house knowing your every move and expressing an opinion on your behavior send you screaming?
I’ve read the second of the Magical Mid-Life series, and the house does seem to be developing/revealing a personality. There’s also the remnants of the original owner; both seem to speak to Jessy on occasion.
The dolls get another run, too 🙂
I thought the first book read like it was mostly setup, with a great cast of characters, the shadow of a Big Bad Antagonist and a series story promise. I’m definitely going to read the next one.
Those dolls, though. Seriously creepy!
My dad was a real estate broker and my parents, despite having seven children to drag along, flipped houses by moving in, fixing up and then reselling. I grew up in a very house-centered family–just not the same house.
I love the idea of a woman with a background like mine who flips houses without ever putting down roots and unknowingly moves into a sentient house that is determined to bond with her.
Ooh, I like that story idea. Or what about a woman with a background like yours who fixes broken houses and matches them with the right owner(s).
Or you could go very dark and have a detective type story with somebody who can connect with houses and find out what happened there. So many possibilities 🙂
I read Serena Mackesy’s romance Simply Heaven where the house is literally almost the downfall of the MC.
And in Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, the house that Diana’s Aunt Sarah and her wife Em live in Madison, is instrumental in deciding the visitors that feel comfortable and those that don’t. It hides things – and reveals things too! – and plays its part just as a character would.
Then there’s Wuthering Heights, the brooding moors providing an echo to Heathcliff and Cathy’s story. An interesting prompt to my thoughts/writing for the future. Great post!
Ooh, Simply Heaven sounds gloriously gothic! Some of those old English estates and manor houses just lend themselves to this trope, don’t they?
Fun discussion. Over the last couple of weeks, I threw out the story I had been working on for about five months…. and started from scratch. I am in world building mode right now and it has been fascinating and crazy beyond words, because one of my principal characters is a sentient planet that is completely connected with one of the protags and will be with the other as well. Going through the discovery process of how it happens and how it works and why, and soooo many more questions (I have pages of questions questioning everything but not nearly as many answers.) It is quickly spinning out into more than a planet and a story it is spinning out into an entire universe – which is both scary and exhilarating. Getting it right will mean everything. And it is absolutely necessary to treat it as its own character with its own backstory, motives, needs, wants, hopes, etc. It must be a fully realized character, plus!
Hi Penny! So glad to hear that you’re writing again as well as painting. I LOVE the idea of a sentient planet but wow, you like to challenge yourself, don’t you? I can’t imagine how many story questions a premise like that must throw up. And you’re right, it must be completely realized. Where do you start on a planet’s backstory? I really want to read this 🙂
I’ve got close to 5000 words in questions regarding the planet and one of its primary life forms, the Janus, already. The more I question, the more options and questions come up. But the more I let the thoughts and questions fly, the more things are coalescing and making some sense 😀 Simple questions like where to sentient planets come from? How are they created or destroyed? How do they evolve or develop? What do they want? etc…
This is a very different feeling than before – I’m not forcing anything – I’m exploring and wondering and I’m getting geeked out like a kid waiting for a new Star Wars movie- for the next question to think of to ask.
Exploring and wondering and getting geeked out–I’m getting a vicarious creative buzz just thinking about it. Good for you! And good luck 😀
I don’t think the place has to be sentient to shape the characters or compel them to certain behaviors. Where would the Phantom be without the Opera House? Or, as Sara said, where’s Heathcliff without the moor? Where’s Rebecca without that house? When the setting is so powerful that you can’t imagine the MC doing something or being somebody else without it, then the setting is character whether or not it’s magical or sentient.