Worldbuilding

Building Crescent City: How Maas Remixed Old Tropes

A map of Crescent City
Hey there, friend, do you feel like joining some vampires for a night out on the town? What about riding with a werewolf motorcycle gang or chasing down demons in the city’s unrealistically accessible sewers? I hope at least one of those things appeals to you, because today we’re looking at the worldbuilding of Crescent City, book one, House of Earth and Blood, by Sarah J. Maas.

This book is, as the sages say, a bit of a mess. It’s got fragmented plots, melodramatic dialogue, and several scenes where it feels like Maas is preemptively arguing with her critics that toxic romance tropes are good, actually. Despite that, the worldbuilding is excellent! I’m not saying you’ll enjoy the book,* but the setting is a fascinating example of how to create something that readers will easily recognize while still providing that all-important novelty.

Spoilers: House of Earth and Blood

The Good

Originally, I planned to ding Maas for a sexist setting, but then I realized that was mostly the plot. There are numerous scenes where protagonist Bryce has to be taken in hand and controlled by the men around her,* but that’s not the world’s fault. In fact, Crescent City is refreshingly egalitarian along gender lines, with just one reference to an old law in which fae women are property. Praise the gods, there’s not even any gendered magic!

Second-World Urban Fantasy

Crescent City is an urban fantasy metropolis that will be immediately familiar to fans of Buffy, The Dresden Files, October Daye, and The World of Darkness games. It’s got a mashup of your favorite pop culture monsters like werewolves and vampires, plus some angels thrown in for good measure. There’s also reapers, sprites, merfolk… the list goes on. All these magical creatures exist in a modern world. They use smartphones, dance at nightclubs, and fly helicopters.

The unusual thing about Crescent City is that none of this takes place on Earth. It’s a completely fictional world just like Middle-earth or Westeros. This solves a host of problems, the most notable one being that you don’t need a masquerade. Everyone’s known about magic in this world for a long time, and the story just happens to take place at a time when technology is roughly equivalent to the United States in 2020.

It’s hard to overstate how much freedom this gives Maas. Most urban fantasy stories have to either spend a lot of energy explaining how their masquerade works or not provide an explanation and hope the audience will suspend their disbelief. Either way, this limits what the story can do. Crescent City has no such limitations. Maas’s characters can battle demons in broad daylight without some contrived reason why no one notices.

More subtly, using a fictional world also means that Maas doesn’t have to worry about the historical implications of her magic. Most urban fantasy stories eventually run into the same problem: If magic exists, why hasn’t it been used to prevent historical injustice? Or prevent injustice, for that matter? There’s no good answer to these questions, and Maas cleverly skips it all together.

Automatic Conflict

Stories need conflict, and while you can depend on the plot for some of it, things will run much more smoothly if the setting generates conflict all on its own. It’s more difficult to create compelling stakes if your story takes place in a post-scarcity utopia where everyone gets along. Crescent City is not that.

Instead, Maas shows us a city that is rife with powerful factions struggling for dominance. Each type of creature has its own political block, and while they all work together officially, behind the scenes is another story. Fae and shifters maneuver for control of the city’s law enforcement. Vampires dominate the stock market, while merfolk take issue with anyone who dirties the river. Meanwhile, the angels rule from on high, showing favor to whoever best serves their interests.

This is the perfect setup for an urban fantasy story. If Maas wants to tell a mystery, as she does in the first book, then she has any number of magical folk to use as suspects. Nearly everyone is up to something, so not many of them will share information of their own accord. The hero not only has to worry about the villain she’s investigating but also about any of the factions she might cross in the process.

There’s also plenty of room to grow. A place like Crescent City can generate any number of mysteries, or Maas could eventually transition the story into a political drama. You might recognize that as the path taken by the Dresden Files, and I say, if it’s not broke, keep putting werewolves and vampires in it.

Oppressed Humans

Speaking of conflict, when I first read that there were humans in this book, I was really worried it was going to be another case of nonmagical mortals somehow oppressing the vastly more powerful magic folk. You have no idea how often that particular flavor of oppressed mages comes up in urban fantasy. Fortunately, that’s not what happens in Crescent City.

Instead, Maas does the opposite. Humans, who have no magic of their own, are on the receiving end of marginalization, while the magic folk are inherently privileged on account of all their powers. It sounds obvious when I write it like that, but so many authors get it wrong that this was a pleasant surprise.

Antihuman oppression is also a great setup for a human or part-human protagonist to be the underdog. Readers automatically cheer for the underdog, and it also allows the story to explore issues of marginalization without using any struggles from real life, which can come with additional complications.

Oddly, Maas only seems somewhat interested in this. Protagonist Bryce is half-human, but that doesn’t come up as often as you would think. In fact, it feels like Bryce faces more prejudice because she parties a lot rather than because she’s half-human. Weird.

Deep History

When creating a world from scratch, authors must decide how much history to give it. This isn’t an easy task. Too much history can overwhelm readers with unnecessary detail, whereas too little leaves the world feeling hollow and two-dimensional, like a Hollywood western town that’s actually just the front of each building.

In Crescent City, Maas strikes a solid balance. While she doesn’t try to cover every nook and cranny of past events, we do get several windows into the past, starting with the long lives of several characters. While Bryce is only in her twenties, some of her friends have been around for centuries. This is how we find out about a long-ago rebellion among the angels, something that mirrors the current human rebellion being waged against their magical overlords.

From there, we learn more about the setting as Bryce and her allies do research on their case. Some of this is just magical trivia, but there’s also a lot of compelling stuff about human civilization and how it was conquered after magic appeared in the world. There’s even a really compelling story about the last human army fighting a doomed battle to buy time for human books to be hidden so that something of their culture might survive.

In another unfortunate case of Maas’s plotting not living up to her worldbuilding, none of this actually ends up being important. Bryce is remarkably uninterested in humanity’s plight, and the angel rebellion barely features beyond an aborted side plot and a reason for the love interest to angst. I can only hope Maas does more with her excellent history in the next book.

Superpower Magic

Figuring out how magic works in an urban fantasy setting is no small feat. Mashing up so many types of magical creatures makes it extremely difficult to create a rational system, as each creature comes with its own background and aesthetic. It’s also easy for power creep to get out of hand. If you’re not careful, each creature will soon have its own suite of story-breaking powers.

While Maas’s approach here isn’t perfect, it’s better than a lot of other urban fantasy stories. In Crescent City, each type of magical creature has a limited, inherent set of powers, similar to the way superheroes work in settings like the MCU. Angels can fly and control winds, werewolves can shapeshift and have superstrength, that sort of thing. Fae stretch things a bit as they can have a multitude of different abilities, and sometimes they also get superstrength; otherwise, it’s fairly balanced.

Maas is also careful to keep her magical powers from breaking the plot.* Most magic folk are powerful, but as a rule they can’t level buildings or solve mysteries with a snap of their fingers. It never feels like any of the characters are intentionally holding back to preserve the conflict, except in one incredibly contrived reveal near the end, where we find out that Bryce has had a powerful ability this whole time that she’s never used. Sure, Maas.

The Bad

Despite my praise, not everything about Crescent City’s worldbuilding is great. It’s a long book, and if the plot is any indication, Maas was making stuff up as she went along. So it’s no wonder that a few problems snuck in along the way. Even so, most of them could be fixed without too much difficulty, which is fascinating in its own right.

Over-Budget Humans

With humans so badly marginalized, it’s no surprise that Crescent City also features a human rebellion. For about the first half of the book, this takes exactly the form you’d expect: an insurgency that depends on bombings and ambushes to inflict damage on a much more powerful enemy.

But then Maas seems to change her mind out of nowhere, and suddenly the human rebels are a conventional army that challenges their magical oppressors in open combat. Not only that, but they actually hold their own with high-tech mech suits. This is complete nonsense and doesn’t fit at all with what was previously established.

If humans are poor and downtrodden, they won’t have the money to whip up an army of mech suits. Even if they had some wealthy benefactors, that wouldn’t come close to matching the magical government’s vast resources. This is why modern insurgency groups almost never fight conventional armies head-on; they’re simply not equipped for it. What’s more, there’s no reason the magic armies couldn’t also use mech suits. And finally, the mech suits don’t even fit with the rest of the setting’s tech level.

I’m seriously baffled why Maas decided to make this change. Like I mentioned earlier, the human rebellion doesn’t actually have much to do with the plot, so you could leave it as an insurgency and almost nothing would change. The main bad guy does mention wanting to crush the humans as a motivation, but he’s also just power hungry, so that’s hardly necessary.

The Talking Dead

One of the weirder parts of Crescent City is that the land of the dead is a physical location. It’s not even far away; it’s one entire quarter of the city. No one living ever goes there for… reasons. So that’s already confusing, but far worse: the dead’s consciousness remains in some form, and the living can talk to them.

It’s almost never a good idea to allow for regular postmortem communication in your story. For one thing, it has existential implications that most authors just aren’t ready to deal with. Is someone really dead if all that happened is that now they live in the ghost quarter and they’re transparent?

More practically, being able to talk to dead people is a plot-breaking advantage in mystery stories, and, wouldn’t you know it, Crescent City is a mystery. The characters spend most of the book trying to figure out what happened when they could apparently just summon up some of the victims and ask them. This is never even brought up, even though it would solve so many problems.

As far as I can tell, the only reason this particular feature exists is so that Bryce can talk to her best friend’s ghost at the end. I’m glad they get that closure, but there must have been an easier way to do it. Maybe it could be some kind of psychic echo instead of a real ghost? Or make ghosts a rare phenomenon? Anything’s better than being able to call your ghost friend on command.

Unnecessary Houses

For the most part, Crescent City’s political situation is easy to understand. Angels sit at the top, and each type of creature is its own faction underneath. Some factions are actually coalitions of different creatures, like the shifters including werewolves, werefoxes, and so on. In other cases, coalitions are formed by environment, like how all the city’s aquatic folk pay at least nominal allegiance to the river queen.

Then, there are the houses. There are four of them: Earth and Blood, Sky and Breath, Many Waters,* and Flame and Shadow. Even after reading the book, I have no idea what they do. Okay, that’s not true, mainly what they do is offer convenient titles for each installment. But in the setting, they’re remarkably vague.

Sometimes they seem to just be arbitrary groupings with no political implications, since they apparently include monsters in addition to sapient creatures. But then we learn that you can be kicked out of your house? Somehow? By who? No one knows. It’s just an extra thing you have to remember that has no impact on the plot, other than a secondary character’s backstory where she switched houses, however you do that.

Confusing Terminology

Terminology is the point where worldbuilding meets wordcraft. What you choose to call things is important both for the words on the page and for the effect it has on your world. Unfortunately, Crescent City’s terminology leaves something to be desired, mostly because it’s so confusing.

I’ve been using terms like “magical creatures” and “magic folk,” but in the book, they’re actually referred to collectively as “Vanir.” This is already weird because the Vanir are a specific group of Norse gods, none of which are present in this book as far as I could tell. They certainly aren’t werewolves and vampires.

The book also makes a big deal about a witch who changes houses now being an “enchantress.” What does that mean? Are her powers different now? Is it just a different title? No one knows – you’re just expected to roll with it. In another confusing example, Maas continually refers to one character as a “wolf” in the early chapters, making it hard to tell if she’s actually a werewolf or if “wolf” is some kind of title.

The book is full of strange terminology choices like that, but by far the most annoying is that Maas uses “male” and “female” instead of “man” and “woman.” This is incredibly grating, and it makes the story sound like a weird nature documentary. When you read a passage like “the male stepped forward and growled,” you’re left wondering if he’s a lion or something.

Arbitrary Magic

Most of the magical creatures in Crescent City have a limited suite of abilities. Most. Witches are the glaring exception. Their magic is… whatever Maas wants it to be, as far as I can tell. Healing is most often mentioned, but they can also make binding tattoos, create magic wards, craft flying brooms, and enchant books to shoot laser beams.

This is a ridiculous number of powers compared to the other magical creatures, and the only reason the plot doesn’t suffer more is that none of the main characters are witches. To make matters worse, witches also violate the book’s theming. Every other type of magical creature is clearly nonhuman, but witches are just humans with magic powers.

Unfortunately, witches aren’t the only arbitrary source of magic in this setting. There’s also firstlight, a type of magic energy that seems to do anything and everything. It can heal, grant superstrength, and completely repair the city after Maas wrecks it in the climax. It’s also the main source of lighting for some reason? Feels like a waste.

This one is harder to remove than the others, since it features so heavily in the plot. Pro tip: if you ever find yourself using a type of magic to cover plot holes like tape, something has gone wrong.

What We Can Learn

I’ve been fairly glowing in my praise of Crescent City’s worldbuilding, but what can other writers learn from it? How can we emulate Maas’s successes while avoiding her failures? I’m glad you asked!

Tropes Are Open to Change

Crescent City’s worldbuilding is full of easily recognizable urban fantasy tropes, which, to be clear, isn’t a bad thing. Tropes generally get reused because they work, and they can save authors a lot of work. Instead of starting from scratch with every story, writers can rely on these established patterns to show readers what’s what.

However, Maas takes things a step further by altering the formula, primarily by setting her urban fantasy in a completely fictional world. With this relatively simple change, whole new possibilities open up, and a bunch of limitations go out the window. It’s so obvious in hindsight that I’m surprised not to have seen it before.

The lesson is that while you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you also don’t have to do the same thing everyone else does. There’s room for experimentation provided you have a solid foundation to build from.

Remember Power and Privilege

When it comes to power and privilege, Maas starts out well. We have oppressed humans instead of oppressed mages, and she shows us a city full of competing magical interests. That all makes perfect sense and is also a great setup for whatever plot she feels like crafting.

But things spiral out of control with the human rebellion. To anyone who knows how rebellions work, this section breaks any suspension of disbelief. She might as well have said the rebels were riding unicorns and sending chupacabras into battle. Wait, actually that would have made a lot more sense in this setting.

For anyone who doesn’t have a strong understanding of uprisings and insurgencies, Crescent City can reinforce harmful beliefs. Lots of people think of oppression as a two-sided fight, where both sides are doing something wrong. This both sides-ism stifles actual calls for change, as reactionaries waste time interrogating the marginalized group for wrongdoing that’s either irrelevant or not there at all.

Portraying the humans as a conventional army plays into that way of thinking. Even though they should be completely outmatched, they can somehow challenge the magic folk because there must be two sides to this conflict. The way Bryce seems to come down harder on the human rebels than on the magic government only makes this worse.

Stay Disciplined

The problem with Crescent City’s magic is that Maas got greedy. She had a perfectly workable system with different creatures having their own specific powers, but then she wanted traditional witches with broadly applicable spells. That way, she could use all the enchantments and magic spells that are so common in other urban fantasy stories.

Here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with tropes, but your story doesn’t need to have all the tropes all the time. In fact, your story will be stronger if you focus on just a few and work to fully develop them. It’s way more interesting to see how these different creatures make use of their powers than it is to see all these gaps filled in by witch spells.

This also touches on the issue of comprehension scarcity. Readers can only absorb so much, and the more complicated your world, the more comprehension it takes just to understand what’s going on. Sticking to only your core elements makes it easier for readers to fully grasp your story since they aren’t stuck wondering if a witch is also a human or not.

Finally, there’s the issue of satisfaction. Firstlight is so broad in its application that it’s not very interesting when Bryce uses it to save the day at the end. Sure, I guess firstlight can do that. It seems to do everything. Satisfaction comes from watching characters use their limited options to solve problems, not from a magic one-size-fits-all solution.

Match Worldbuilding With Plot and Character

The biggest problem with Crescent City’s worldbuilding is that it doesn’t seem to match what Maas was most interested in. For all the time spent describing the human rebellion, it barely affects the plot. The long-ago angel rebellion is used almost entirely to create angst for the love interest. He’s a former rebel himself, but other than one or two bits of dialogue, you wouldn’t know it from talking to him.

And yet, despite Maas’s seeming lack of interest, the human rebellion steals the show because it has so much higher stakes than the actual plot. Readers naturally gravitate to the conflict that has the most important stakes, and by introducing the rebellion, Maas drags attention away from where she wants it.

If you aren’t interested in telling a story about rebellion, good news: you don’t have to put it in your story! Maas could easily have kept the humans’ marginalized status but saved their rebellion for a later book. Then this book could be about the romance and murder mystery without a giant conflict going on in the background and constantly demanding attention.


I read lots of bad books, but I can’t recall the last time I read a book that was so good in one area and so bad everywhere else. Crescent City’s audiobook is 28 hours long, feels like it’s 50 hours long, and only has about 12 hours’ worth of plot. This is why I think it’s so important for writers to learn how to take stories apart. It would be tempting to dismiss Crescent City after the third contrived reveal, but then I’d have missed all this great worldbuilding.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I’m really curious what you’d think of the series ‘The Case Files of Henri Davenforth’ by Honor Raconteur. The first one is titled “Magic and the Shinigami Detective”, but there are four more by now. The stories are not set on earth, but on another world which happens to have a technology level close to pre-WWI 20th century. There’s cars, there’s electricity, there’s gas lights, but there’s also magic and a slew of non-human species. The nice thing for me is while sexism is a topic (challenged not only by unwilling dimension-traveller Jamie Edwards, but also by women on the world, including the ruling queen), there is no racism, not among humans (two of the recurring supporting human characters are dark-skinned and not treated any differently – you wouldn’t know, if not for the description), not between other beings and humans. Were-creatures (a slew of different ones in mentioned), elves, dwarves, brownies, dryads, and others just live together with humans and have for quite a while, that’s why it’s normal.

    The stories are mysteries, but since both main characters (Henri and Jamie) and a lot of the supporting characters work for the police, that’s not strange at all – they’re professionals, of course they’d be called in to solve crimes. Through Jamie, it’s easy to introduce new things by having her ask about them or by having her comment on how they’re different from earth … and there’s not that much of a difference in general, it’s more in the details.

  2. A Perspiring Writer

    I just realized, you guys haven’t done ‘Building Discworld’ yet. When’s that going to happen?*

    *I mean, I assume that it IS going to happen at some point, right?

    • Dave L

      Can I second this?

      I second this

    • Danita

      Yes this. Give me this.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Ooof, this would be hard to do, and not just because I love Discworld. The Disc is revealed so gradually and over so many books that just keeping tack of it all is major undertaking. Maybe I should make it a patreon goal or something.

      • A Perspiring Writer

        Another one you might be able to do in the future is either a critique or worldbuilding analysis of the Gormenghast series.

        Possibly a writing critique; those take much less time.

        Gormenghast is only three books, and the world’s much smaller, so it wouldn’t be as much of an undertaking.

  3. Kieran

    Are you just going to ignore all the horrible implications of Maas’s racism allegory? Because while she avoided the oppressed mages pitfall, she also fell into almost EVERY OTHER PITFALL when regarding racism allegories.
    1) she makes Bryce an apologist for the racist system which ENSLAVES HUMANS- and expects the reader to agree with this viewpoint
    2) all of the cop apologism with Danika’s character. She’s a corrupt cop who thinks attempts to hold her accountable are a conspiracy by her mom, and we’re supposed to sympathize with her.
    3) turning the human rebels- who have zero legal channels to fight for their rights in, or any non-lethal methods of fighting the Vanir-into the bad guys for using the only methods they have to fight the Vanir
    4) villainizing all pro-human characters and actions even though the Vanir LITERALLY ENSLAVE HUMANS AND HUNT THEM FOR SPORT
    5) she contributes to anti-Black stereotypes by making Juniper-a black woman- part goat. (implications about “animalistic” sexuality and all that jazz)
    6) all the queer-baiting with Bryce/Danika, which is so blatant, even HUNT, the alpha male love interest, acknowledges its existence by questioning Bryce’s straightness

    Seriously. The fact that she doesn’t fall into the oppressed mages fallacy is chump change compared to every other horrible thing Ccity encourages.

    So yeah. this book does not deserve ANY praise whatsoever.

  4. Kieran

    You’re right; Bryce/Danika isn’t worldbuilding-relevant, but it’s still Not Good.
    Also, don’t get me started on the angel rebellion. The angel rebellion is bad worldbuilding, period. It’s incredibly poorly explained, and leaves tons of questions like: Why did the angels rebel? What is wrong with the angel hierarchy? How does the angel hierarchy work? Is it wing-color based? Power-based? Lineage-based? Skin-color based?
    We don’t know, because Maas never tells us. And rather than characterizing Hunt properly by giving us insight into his principles, it functions more like the mutant country in X-men: he could easily be read as a White Power analogue OR a true-blue revolutionary-that’s how little information we have about the rebellion.
    So yeah. I’m just not one to praise her worldbuilding, partially because I don’t think worldbuilding so racist and so boot-licking- and which flat-out encourages people to be MORE racist-is deserving of praise at all. Not to mention, the bad worldbuilding, in my view, far outweighs the good or interesting stuff.
    I did see you critique the human rebellion and both-sidesism a bit, and I’m sorry I failed to acknowledge that. It’s good that you tackled that.
    But Bryce’s bootlicking attitude probably deserves its own article.

  5. Innocent Bystander

    I think the worst part about naming a group after the Norse pantheon is the tone-deafness.

    A group that looks down on another and treats them like crap. Using a term from Norse mythology. A mythology and culture which has been appropriated by present-day neo-Nazis and white supremecists.

    How much time did Maas spend thinking about the implications?

    It also doesn’t surprise me that she’s written more romantic abuse; that’s been present in pretty much all her works.

    • Kieran

      Oh yeah. Definitely. Rhysand, anyone?

      Maas spent ZERO time thinking about the implications of ANYTHING in Ccity.

  6. Gwen

    Maybe a Dresden worldbuilding would be fun? That series is one of the most problematic series I ever read, but the world building was so great. Every book was like an internal war, and an analysis of his writing that is socially conscious but also a urban fantasy fan would be an interesting read.

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