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A few weeks ago I wrote about those times when there are just enough anachronisms or inaccuracies in a book’s worldbuilding to make it feel a little off. I was talking about a historical fantasy book in that case, but even in secondary worlds it’s jarring to have, say, people riding on horseback while shooting automatic weapons without an explanation for the low-tech transportation (or high-tech weaponry).

But what about those times when it’s not the worldbuilding that’s wrong, but our perceptions of it? I often find that if the book I’m reading features a pre-industrial, Western-esque society, I assume certain tropes and a certain mediaeval feel, particularly when there’s extensive use of bows and swords but no gunpowder in sight. For instance, when I first read the Throne of Glass prequels, I’d concluded in my mind from the first two novels that the series was set in a mediaeval fantasy world, and did a double-take when the book mentioned a beauty salon. I think I actually thought to myself, ‘They didn’t have those in the Middle Ages’ before I realised how incredibly ridiculous that was. After that, I noticed more and more instances in the series where the worldbuilding is far more reminiscent of the 18th- to early 19th-century – not surprisingly, the time period when fairytales like Cinderella were codified – than the Middle Ages.

To an extent, it’s normal to have particular expectations when reading a fantasy book. If the main character’s an orphan, for instance, you can pretty much guarantee they’re the long-lost princess or the child of the world’s saviour from twenty years past. Similarly, if people are fighting with swords and bows you can probably expect they won’t be pulling out a mobile phone to call an ambulance afterwards. However, there’s a difference between expectations and assumptions, and I find myself sometimes falling into the latter. The result is always the same. I feel jolted out of the world, then reconsider my assumptions and enjoy the book so much more now that I can really feel the world as the author’s created it. Obviously, it would be much better to skip the first step or two and just enjoy the book!

I’m curious, does anyone else do this? Or are you good at suspending your assumptions about the world?

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