Setting as a Character: Travel the World with These Atmospheric Books
Whether you like atmospheric horror, fiction set in far-flung places, or stories that bring cities to life, there’s something compelling and irresistible about books that treat the setting as a character. I love books that center place and our relationship to places, so naturally, I seek out books with vivid settings as often as I can.
These 10 books all feature setting as a character. Sometimes these settings come to life through beautiful descriptive language, and sometimes they come to life through the themes the author is exploring — stories that literally couldn’t be told if they were set anywhere else. From an icy archipelago in the Arctic Circle to an oil town in North Dakota, a Penobscot reservation in Maine to a city at the very edge of the Gulf of Mexico — these settings are beautiful and rugged, dangerous and welcoming. Just like characters, they have their own histories and backstories, their own personalities. And just like the best characters, the settings in these books are not simple or easy, but complicated, layered, and sometimes full of contradictions.
If you’re looking for an idyllic escape via reading, these may not be the books for you. But if you’re looking for powerful, beautiful, and atmospheric writing about place, make some room on your TBR.
The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller
When was the last time you read a novel set in Svalbard, an island in the Arctic Circle? This warm and bighearted historical novel follows Sven, a Swedish man who arrives in Svalbard looking for work. After he’s injured in a mining accident, he decides to stay, and makes a life for himself on a remote fjord. He falls in love with the majestic Arctic landscape, and eventually builds a found family of fellow drifters and exiles. This is the definition of a transporting book; Sven and the Arctic he calls home are inextricable.
Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson
I read this book a few years ago, but I can still taste the salt of the ocean, feel the wind, hear the waves crashing on the rocks, and picture the wild berries growing lush in the summer. In other words: this beautiful book is incredibly vivid. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the 1980s in Kitamaat, a small Haisla reserve on the northwestern coast of Canada. Nineteen-year-old Lisa is grieving for her brother, who has gone missing during a fishing trip. As she tries to figure out what happened to him, she recounts her childhood and teenage years, revealing the complex webs of family, landscape, and culture that have shaped her life.
Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi
It’s not just one setting as a character in this novel, but many. The story follows two Nigerian sisters and their mother as the three women go about their lives, slowly finding their way back to each other after years of hurt. Every setting in this novel sings: the family’s house in Lagos, the streets of London, a small French cooking school, the cold winters of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ekwuyasi has a knack for writing scenes that feel almost painfully real, and each one is grounded in the kind of details that make settings come alive.
O Beautiful by Jung Yun
This sparse and haunting novel is not just a story where the setting is a character; it’s a story about a woman trying to write down the truth of that character. Elinor is a biracial writer trying to get her first big break in her 40s, after a major career shift. She takes an assignment to write a story about the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota, not far from where she grew up. Returning to her home state for the first time in years, she soon realizes that the complex intersections of race, gender, and class in the company-built oil town are both messy and dangerous.
When the Whales Leave by Yuri Rytkheu, translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
This wondrous little novel is set on the Chukchi Peninsula in Eastern Siberia, on the Bering Sea, the homeland of the Indigenous Chukchi. It’s a fable about the beginning of the world, and about humanity’s relationship with nature. It begins when a whale transforms himself into a human to be with the woman he loves, and it follows the many generations of their children as the world around them —and their reactions to it — changes. Rytkheu’s descriptions of the Arctic landscape are so loving and precise; the setting permeates every sentence.
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
I don’t know if there’s someting about extreme weather and cold climates that lend themselves to setting as character, or if I am just personally drawn to them, but either way, here’s another fantastic book set in rural northern Canada. A small Anishinaabe community suddenly loses all contact with the outside world — no phone, no power, no internet — and the residents have to figure out how to survive with winter coming on, and no knowledge of what caused the sudden disaster.
Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo
Fans of atmospheric horror and gothic novels with close, ominous settings, this book is for you. Set on the campus of Vanderbilt University and in the surrounding Tennessee hill country, the setting feels like a living, breathing presence. Andrew is grieving his best friend Eddie, who died suddenly just a few days before Andrew arrived at college to join him. He soon gets caught up in the Eddie’s messes, as he tries to make sense of his death, and the strange inheritance he left behind.
The Last Karankawas by Kimberly Garza
For readers who enjoy books where the city is a character, this is a wonderful novel about the interconnected lives of several Mexican and Filipino families in Galveston, Texas. The narrative unfolds through a series of moments, each narrated by a different character. And while the characters all have their own distinct voices, it’s the city as a whole that takes center stage. Garza paints a portrait of Galveston that is many-layered and always changing.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal
There is no denying the island setting as a character in this beautiful, quiet novel about grief, love, death, and nature. It’s about a grandmother and granddaughter and the summer they spend together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. They go on walks, go for swims, explore hidden forests, have long conversations, watch the stars, examine birds, do chores. The island feels alive — both because of Jansson’s vivid descriptions and because of how much it means to the characters.
Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty
Morgan Talty’s debut collection of linked stories is set on the Penobscot Reservation in Maine. The stories mostly concern a young man, David, as he deals with the ups and downs of life in a small Indigenous community. The setting is central to everything that happens. It permeates the lives of David and his family. Months after reading this book, I can still picture so much of it so clearly: the small town, the river and the bridge over it, the dirt roads, the woods behind David’s house. It’s a gorgeous book about heartbreak, friendship, addiction, survival, and finding joy.
Looking for more books with setting as a character? You’ll find some great ones on this list of books set in every U.S. state. If you’re looking for nonfiction, check out these place-based memoirs. And for the nature lovers out there, check out these books that don’t just use any setting as a character, but nature itself.