Worldbuilding. Such a tricky thing. Epic fantasy worldbuilds with a heavy hand (How many times do I have to read about a half dozen family crests or the mating rituals of the Bonebreak Goblin or which fork you’re supposed to use at what meal when dining at the table of a red-bellied Copper Dragon and all his cantankerous dragon pals?).
For me, the real power is when worldbuilding follows the story—when it starts slow, goes bigger as needed. When readers get just enough to move them to the next page, each small spoonful of the world act as a tantalizing mystery—a bite that keeps you eating instead of filling you up from the first word.
A book that does this particularly well? The first two books in John Hornor Jacobs’s Incarcerado trilogy. In the first book, The Twelve-Fingered Boy, we meet two boys sentenced to an Arkansas juvenile detention center who happen to have psychic powers. And at first, the world is small. It’s just them and the other boys and workers of the facility. That’s it. But slowly, the world shows its cracks, and you start to get the sense of a larger picture—factions and forces beyond them and beyond the walls. And by the time you get to the second book, The Shibboleth, the world grows much larger—but still not so much that you’re overwhelmed by it. The book still preserves mystery while parceling out all the crucial details of a secret world laid over our own. That’s when, for me, worldbuilding is successful—when it doesn’t overwhelm, when it works to show more than it tells, and when it serves the story instead of forcing the story to serve it.
In book two of the Heartland Trilogy, Blightborn, my goal was twofold: first, to open up the world, and second, to dig deeper into the characters. So, in effect, that means readers get to go out into the world but also go within the characters—and so, we learn more about Gwennie and we get to spend a lot of time on one of the Empyrean flotillas. We visit a lot of new locations and chalk up a lot of unseen characters—some we’ve only heard about before but never glimpsed. That’s part of the fun of a second book: you get all this other stuff out of the way and more time for sweet, sweet worldbuilding.