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MIND MELD: Which Fantasy Maps Are Your Favorites?

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Fantasy Maps have been showing up in novels since the days of Tolkien. They are so omnipresent that the late Diana Wynne Jones excoriated the inclusion of maps in her classic deconstruction of fantasy, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. And yet, there is a power that cannot be denied by the presence of a map in a work of fantasy. Just ask Dora the explorer.

So the question for the panelists this week is:

Q: What is the role and place of maps in Fantasy novels? Which are your favorites? Why?

Here’s what they said…

Jaym Gates
Jaym Gates comes be her map-lust honestly: her family is composed of teachers, surveyors and engineers. More than one Christmas has been met by a map under the tree, and AAA contemplated charging for maps due to her grandfather’s collecting habits. When not pouring over maps, Jaym is a freelance publicist for SFWA and other clients, and editor.

I can’t say I have a favorite map. That would be like choosing a favorite pet, or a favorite tea, or a favorite hill. Maps are as indulgent and delicious as the stories themselves, if done right.

Going for a straight-forward map, Michael Stackpole’s map for The DragonCrown Cycle is perfect: it gives me a quick reference for the dozens of warring territories and political alliances. Maps can be ubiquitous in fantasy, but it’s nice to see them actually be useful.

But I have to be honest: the maps for Tolkien’s works are my favorites, ever. Enough detail to follow the characters, enough blanks for a young, bored mind to populate with all sorts of wonders and evils. Their style is also beautiful, and I wish more maps would be made with an eye for mood and aesthetic. The map commissioned by Peter Orullian is absolutely lovely. More, please!

The maps I want to see? Meta-maps. M. John Harrison’s Viriconium lends itself to the idea of maps as artifacts and voices in the story, not just static additions. In Hal Duncan’s Vellum, the map is never shown, but it takes such center stage that he might as well have drawn it. Even in Harry Potter, the Marauder’s Map was a fun, brilliant little thing.

Saladin Ahmed
Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. He has been a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story and the Campbell Award for Best New SF/F Writer. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and podcasts. His novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, is forthcoming from DAW Books.

My genre of choice (as both reader and writer) is secondary world fantasy, so maps hold a very special place in my heart.

Coming before the text of the novel as they often do, fantasy maps help to set a reader’s expectations. Prefacing a novel with a map is saying “An immersive made world is among my highest priorities here.” The map gives readers a panoramic view of the novel’s world – often a wider view than what is available to the characters – before zooming in on the local and personal details that are the building blocks of early chapters.

The quasi-anthropological conventions tied up in the generic fantasy map fascinate me: North are frosty crags of the pseudo-Vikings. South lie the warm climes of the brown and black people, East the deserts and cities of pseudo-Arabs and overcivilized yellow people. And to the west a big ol’ ocean.

My favorite fantasy map of all time, from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, partakes of these conventions. It’s one of the most beautiful maps in existence, to my mind

The map deploys the iconography that’s omnipresent in the book – herons, a spoked wheel, a modified Yin-Yang – and reflects a cartographic sophistication that would have been unavailable to the book’s essentially preindustrial society. The effect is a view of the world that is paradoxically broader than, yet solidly from the POV of, the book’s characters:


When I started sketching the map for Throne of the Crescent Moon, I sort of imagined a map form the POV of the inhabitants of Every Fantasy Map’s unmapped Mysterious East. It was both a tribute to, and a sort of playful payback for, all of the wonderful yet sometimes problematic fantasy maps I grew up with. And from my chicken scratchings, artist Priscilla Spencer made a thing of great beauty:


Getting that bad boy in the mail is easily in my top five author moments!

Philip Athans
Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and ten other fantasy and horror books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction and the recently-released Completely Broken. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans

I love maps in fantasy novels.

That might not even be strong enough. I all-caps LOVE them.

I’m currently meandering my way through Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg and I often find myself constantly flipping back to the front to reference the five pages– yes, five pages–of maps. Somehow, it all seems more real to me with a map.

During my time at Wizards of the Coast, with the exception of a few Dragonlance titles, we wouldn’t run maps in the hardcover editions of books, but were pretty religious about having new maps created for the mass market paperbacks. Though this could have been seen as a cynical ploy to try to get you to buy both editions, we really didn’t think that was likely to happen. But what it did was give the smaller, cheaper mass markets a little added value, just a little something extra for the people who waited as long as a year to read the next book in the Legend of Drizzt, or the Elminster series, etc.

I also tried to push the boundaries of the fantasy novel map as well, at least a little. I love the map that master cartographer Todd Gamble drew for the mass market edition of my own Forgotten Realms novel Annihilation. With senior art director Matt Adelsperger setting the standard we tried to make our maps as much illustrations as references, and I’m exceedingly proud of what we accomplished together.

I just hope that in the new era of austerity that’s descended upon the publishing business that the fantasy novel map will survive. Having a really good one drawn up by an artist who actually knows how to draw maps is not cheap. For decades, and not just since the beginning of the Great Recession, authors who could draw their own maps and not embarrass themselves, their publishers, or the worlds themselves, had a leg up. I’ve been honing my own cartographic skills myself since I first discovered Dungeons & Dragons in 1978. I’m close, I think, to being able to draw maps that are good enough for my own books, and you may be seeing the fruits of all that practice in the months ahead.

I will admit that my pro-map bias may come from my long years of playing Dungeons & Dragons and other pencil-and-paper RPGs. One of the things that drew me to D&D were the maps. I loved to draw maps, and still do. I’m working on an interesting new project with my friend Mel Odom, a series of fantasy e-books, and one of the first things I did was sit down and draw a map of the world. I love maps–I think in maps. I couldn’t imagine building a fantasy world without them.

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and on my blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, I’ve advised aspiring authors of SF and fantasy to carefully set the rules for their imaginary worlds. Especially in fantasy, those rules can be anything, but once you’ve set those rules, you have to strictly abide by them. Readers of fantasy and SF don’t want “realism,” but they absolutely require plausibility, and plausibility comes from a consistent application of your own invented rules. Maps add an instant layer of plausibility, and as long as your story abides by the map–if the castle is eight miles from the village on the map and twenty miles from the village in the story, you’re in trouble– then your world takes on a sense of authority. It’s a real place. I can see it, right there on the map.

Matthew Cheney
Matthew Cheney‘s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons,, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He teaches English and Women’s Studies at Plymouth State University. Read his blog, the Mumpsimus

Maps in books are often more fascinating to me than the books themselves, because maps suggest possibilities. When I first learned to read, I tried hard to get through Treasure Island, but it defeated my skills and bored me. I didn’t care, though, because there was that gloriously undetailed map. That’s all I’d really wanted from the book, because with the map, I could make up whatever stories or characters I wanted.

The first book review I ever wrote was for a fanzine when I was in my mid-teens. It was a review of L.E. Modesitt’s The Magic of Recluce, a book I adored, and the review was all gush, but I felt obligated to include some sort of complaint for fear that nobody would take me seriously, and I realized I did have a complaint: No maps! Later, Tor started putting maps in some of the Recluce books, so apparently I wasn’t the only one who wanted them.

What did I want from maps in those books? Pragmatically, a sense of relative distances, but that’s not really necessary to a reading of a book — no, what I wanted and want from fantasy maps was another way of abstracting the world. The words, of course, are one level away from the imagined reality, one approximation of it, and a map is another shot at that.

There’s no need to pretend maps are accurate. Peter Turchi’s marvelous book Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer shows that even the simplest maps are vastly more complex than we might take them to be on first glance. Maps, like stories, are products of convention and imagination. Looking at maps as stories and stories as maps is one way to break through the clutter of everyday chaos.

Barry Lopez’s short story “The Mappist” is one of the most magical stories I’ve ever encountered (you can find it in his book Light Action in the Caribbean). It doesn’t contain a map, but you’ll learn more about maps and fantasy and life from that story than most. It belongs on the shelf with Borges’s great cartographic tale, “Of Exactitude in Science”, wherein the greatest cartographers in an Empire finally create a map so detailed and perfect that it is the same scale as the Empire itself, and so proves useless to later generations.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a less celebratory view of maps, that of Anne McClintock in her extraordinary book Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, where the map in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines is given a close reading, one in which the map reveals the racial and gender assumptions of the characters and their world. It’s a tour de force of interpretation. Maps were very useful to the story of colonialism, because no map is neutral, and therefore to some extent all maps are propaganda, as the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885 so well proved, accelerating the Scramble for Africa in pursuit of territories the Europeans gave themselves. Talk about fantasy — there, fantasies of power and wealth conspired to impose a map on reality.

Perhaps we should say of all maps: Here there be dragons.

L.B. Gale
L.B. Gale is a teacher and literacy specialist in New York City. She studied comparative mythology and fantasy fiction for her Master’s degree at the University of Chicago. While aspiring to become a fantasy author herself, she writes about fantasy at

Some fantasy readers demand a map to accompany their reading. This should be a map that justifies the book’s fantasy world as a realistic place (though they know it is not a possible place, in reality). I never cared much for that. Grounding the fantasy world in something as dry and two-dimensional as a map seems silly. For that reason, my favorite fantasy maps are the ones that buck the tradition.

Do I need Tolkien’s map to follow Frodo from the Shire to Mordor? I feel like I can picture the Shire, the Misty Mountains, the Dead Marshes, and the mountains of Mordor without a map telling me where they should all be located. My guess is that Tolkien started the trend (even if he wasn’t the first to include a map, he probably made it ‘a trend.’) And it seems like a fairly unnecessary and unimaginative trend to me. I can imagine the Wall of Westeros, the Kingsroad, and the Narrow Sea. I can imagine all the islands of Earthsea without looking over a bunch of bland island shapes in the middle of a page. It seems to me some fantasy authors feel that to be the real deal their books must have a map. Why? What’s the point?

When I open a new fantasy book and find a map of some form of “Fantastica” or “Imaginationland” or “Alagaësia,” it gives me a bad feeling. I think, this is going to be a fairly predictable read. I firmly believe that if the author does their job then we become the mapmaker, and we don’t need to keep flipping back and forth between the page we’re on and the inside cover.

So, having completely trashed this (probably well-liked tradition) let me discuss my favorite fantasy maps. I far prefer the map in The Hobbit to the one in Lord of the Rings. In fact, I think, in terms of inside cover maps, it’s much better than a lot of what’s out there. The Lord of the Rings map is all business. The map I love from The Hobbit was an artifact from the story, Thorin’s map. It had a quaint charm: ‘The Desolation of Smaug,’ ‘Here of old was Thrain King of the Mountain’, the copious amounts of Dwarven runes. That map didn’t concern itself with specific locations or cartographically correct dimensions. It was more of an illustration, and it made me feel like I was looking at something from the story rather than using a tool to try to follow the story. So, I loved the map in The Hobbit because of its lack of proper mapishness.

Next, I’ll say that I love the Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter purely because Rowling never included it–or any map of Hogwarts and its grounds for that matter–in the book. Rather, we had to imagine Hogwarts as a place of infinite possibility and the Marauder’s Map sneakily accomplished that. Open it and it’s blank. Call it into existence and who knows what you’ll find? When you’re done, wipe it clean again. It was a license to continue making it all up as the story progressed, yet I never felt that I couldn’t map out Hogwarts, its grounds, and Hogsmeade on my own. Throwing a map in the inside cover would have ruined a great portion of the fun and would have bound Rowling to imagine less as the books went on.

Another fantasy map I’ll list as a favorite really isn’t a map at all. It’s a description of a map. This would be the map of Neverland described in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan novelization. Barrie compared the map of Neverland to the mind of a child “which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time.” After this comparison he goes on to map out Neverland as follows:

“Neverland is always more or less an island…. It would be an easy map if that were all…. Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it.”

He keeps going like this for some time. This map, to me, is a map that defies mapmakers. Throwing a map of Neverland into the text (which some editors may have done, and Disney surely did in his film) with the location of the Lost Boy hideout or the Pirate Ship or the Crocodile’s Lair fixed in one spot would be antithetical to the point of the fantasy world itself, which is that there are no fixed boundaries. Neverland can’t be Neverland if it is so fixed and defined. I believe the same should be the case for all other “Never Lands.”

Fred Kiesche
Fred Kiesche has been reading science fiction since the early 1960’s. He has a collection of over 8,000 books at home, at least half of which is science fiction and fantasy and the rest are made up of books on science, history and other non-fiction subjects. He is an avid amateur astronomer, devoted husband and father, and is seemingly perpetually underemployed since 9/11/01. He blathers on this and other subjects at The Lensman’s Children.

Beyond the Fields We Know

In 1965, I discovered the Moon.

(Hang on, hang on. This Mind Meld is supposed to be about maps in fantasy? What’s all this about the Moon?)

I’ll get there, don’t worry. After all, we’re discussing maps. Which imply a journey. Not every journey is a straight line, sometimes you take detours or pass through obstacles or make new discoveries.

Anyway: the Moon. We were having a picnic at my grandparent’s house. My grandfather had recently picked up a hand-held 8x telescope with optics not much better than those used by Galileo when he pointed his telescope to the same target. I leaned the telescope against a lamppost to steady it, pointed it towards the waxing first quarter Moon and focused.

Craters. Mountains. Seas. Suddenly…the shining disc in the sky became a real place! I wanted to know more, so made my way to the local library where I discovered a guide by Sir Patrick Moore which lead me to more books which lead me to my first telescope which lead me to a life-long hobby that I am passing on to my daughter.

Roughly concurrent with that was the discovery of science fiction as my main source of reading material. Between a pretty well stocked library and twice-yearly infusions (Christmas and birthday) thanks to multiple “rummage sales” I discovered author’s such as Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Edgar Rice Burroughs and many others.

Thanks to the Barsoom stories, Clarke’s Sands of Mars and Heinlein’s Red Planet (all three somewhat inspired by the Mars of Percival Lowell), Mars became a real place as well, especially thanks to the maps that showed Barsoom. Combine that with the artwork of Frank Frazetta (on the Science Fiction Book Club hardcovers) and Gino D’Achille, especially with the wall-sized map that Ballantine came out with that combined D’Achille’s artwork with the cartography of Burroughs, Mars became a place for me. I can’t recall ever doing what Carl Sagan did as a child, standing out at night, looking at Mars, and willing myself there (as John Carter did in the stories), but the ruined cities, dead sea bottoms and drying canals all were real places for me.

Fast forward a few years and a different town. Between the library, where I found an older edition of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit; and a local used bookstore, where I discovered Ballantine Books fantastic Adult Fantasy Series (a different meaning for “adult”, get you mind out of the gutter!), the love of maps grew even more.

Tolkien’s The Hobbit especially the edition with the runes around the dustjacket and the larger map fascinated me. I translated the writing and imitated the style of the map. When I found that there was a sequel, I fell upon that with glad cries and read the entire trilogy several times over the summer. I looked at the maps within the books and traced the journey that The Nine Walkers took. I looked at the edges of the map and wondered what lands lay beyond.

The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series was an interesting one. Started after Ballantine started publishing the works of Tolkien, it benefited greatly from the popularity of those books in the late 1960’s-early 1970’s and many books that probably would never have been read at that time sold multiple printings. Some of these had maps, some did not. The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison had a map of Zimiamvia (supposedly Mercury), the setting of the story. Katherine Kurtz‘s Deryni trilogy showed the setting of the stories and the surrounding areas. Not included in the book, but found in a fanzine, was a map by Jack Gaughan of H.P. Lovecraft‘s Dreamlands (collected in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by Ballantine). The maps for those tales influenced me greatly and I did pencil and ink recreations of each in a sketchbook and not only expanded upon what was there but came up with my own fantasy worlds, imitating the style of those maps.

During my collecting of the volumes in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, I came across several volumes by Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, more commonly known to us as just Lord Dunsany. Dunsany wrote humorous stories and adventure stories and fantasy stories, but what most interested me was some of the language he used. In short works, and the wondrous short novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Dunsany used phrase such as “the lands we know”, “beyond the fields we know” or “at the edge of the world”, etc. My mind was filled with borderlands, places where our world and Faerie might intersect and mingle. In a way, this was the opposite of those worlds of fantasy (and science fiction) that were mapped: there are no maps for these territories. It was not until I found Stardust by Neil Gaiman, many years later, that I found another writer who thought in such a way.

Jump across more years, a summer of additional reading (and the arrival of Star Wars, but that’s another story) and into college. Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying games were all the rage. While I did participate, I was more interested in various science fiction boardgames and roleplaying games. With one exception: The Empire of the Petal Throne, set on the world of Tekumel. The life-long design of Professor M.A.R. Barker, Tekumel was like a mix of Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance, part fantasy, part science fiction. A world of ruined civilizations, humans fighting aliens, old technology and new magic and more. And maps. Wonderful maps with strange alphabets and cryptic script. I still have those maps from my first boxed set, along with many of my own detailing parts of the world. Not since my first encounter with Barsoom did I find a fantasy world with maps that fascinated me as much.

And now…decades later, I still find myself turning to the opening pages of a new fantasy acquisition to see if it includes any maps and wondering what sort of journey the map will bring me on. I’m happy to see that the tradition is continuing, and, if anything, improving. For example, recently published is The Black God’s War by Moses Siregar III and soon to be published is Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. I’m looking forward to exploring each through the text and the maps found within the books.

Moses Siregar III
Moses Siregar III is the author of the newly released novel, The Black God’s War, and one of the co-hosts of the Adventures in SciFi Publishing podcast. He blogs, tweets, facebooks, and all that good stuff.

The first reason I commissioned a map for my novel is because many fantasy readers REALLY want maps in their books. Although initially motivated by nightmares of zombies demanding maps (oh! the flashbacks!), I later experienced the utility and the magic of having a cool map (because my map artist, Jared Blando, is amazing).

My map helped me be more specific in my writing (e.g. “the lake” became “Lake Parishana”), though I lost some hours from drooling and staring at the map–that is a hazard.

For both the writer and the reader, the map adds another dimension to the fictional dream. A dazzling map hints at quality–at something special, in part because so many fantasy maps seem uninspired. Tolkien’s work isn’t legendary because he told fun stories well. He’s iconic because his works are exquisite. In fantasy, the map gives the reader an incredible chance to connect with the spirit of the world.

When you read fantasy, you want to experience that connection to something grand and timeless. Although words are the staple of our trade, artwork reaches us on another level.

Until I began writing this, I didn’t realize I’m such a map snob. Not many books on my shelves have maps I especially like, and I really don’t like the computer-generated ones. I love maps that show almost transcendent artistic vision. Take, for example, this simple map from Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold. It’s not so gorgeous because of the landmass (though that is very nice), but because of the magic around the edges: the lettering, the ships, the border, the flourishes.

My favorite map, to date, comes from Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera, Book 6. Just wow.

Some of my other favorites include David Anthony Durham’s Acacia, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Kevin J. Anderson’s Terra Incognita series, one from Selina Fenech (site), and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Oh, and, guess what my four-year-old’s favorite part of my book is? The map. That’s now the first reason I want another great one. I’ve overcome my fear of zombies. Now my son and I are just hooked on map-crack.

Stina Leicht
Stina Leicht’s debut novel Of Blood and Honey, a historical Fantasy with an Irish Crime edge set in 1970s Northern Ireland, was released by Night Shade books in February 2011. She also has a flash fiction piece in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s surreal anthology Last Drink Bird Head.

Strangely, it’s more important to ground the reader when writing fantasy than it is when writing general fiction set in normal reality. (It may have something to do with fantasy’s dream-like nature.) The reader tends to feel uncomfortable without an anchor. At the same time, unless the setting is a huge aspect of the story, spending vast amounts of time explaining small details will derail the story. Using the familiar in an unfamiliar setting is a good short cut. If a fantasy novel is heavy on complex international politics or travel, I believe a map is a good thing to have. Otherwise, it’s not really necessary. My favorite maps are those from the Lord of the Rings, of course. The setting (Middle Earth) was so important to the story it might as well have been a character. I own a copy of Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle Earth and love thumbing through it. The world of Middle Earth is so rich that seeing the plot unfold in a visual format is pretty wonderful. (But you should understand I’m an art student.) Sabriel by Garth Nix has a lovely map too, btw. Even though it isn’t what I’d call a geographically correct depiction — which isn’t necessary in a fantasy world map, the style adds a certain cultural feel.

Jon Roberts
Jonathan Roberts is an illustrator and cartographer who’s been amazed by the demand out there for maps of fictional places. He posts his work on and is one of the mods over on the Cartographer’s Guild.

There’s a reason characters in fantasy novels don’t stay in one place. We read fantasy novels to explore, and the great fantasy writers create fleshed out worlds to contain their sagas. We see the world through the eyes of the characters and if they stay in one place then we don’t get to see the world the author has created.

It’s the same reason that many fantasy heroes are characters who’ve never been outside their own town. By making the world new and exciting to them we get a sense of wonder and discovery as the reader, and the author gets a character who can ask the questions that provide the reader with answers. In this way the world itself becomes a character in the story – in some cases the main character.

With such a focus on exploration, travel and discovery the map plays a role right at the heart of the story. It allows the reader a point of reference when they get lost, but more than that, it creates the impression of a larger functioning world. Even if the author hasn’t got any notes on the city and culture on the edge of the map, the reader assumes that it’s a place as detailed as the locations at the heart of the story. And so the suspension of disbelief is buttressed. The best maps go beyond this, with notes from the ‘cartographer’ in the world that gives hints of culture and history of the world. A map is never truly accurate, but reflects the beliefs and prejudices of the person that creates it – the best example of that is Thorin’s map from The Hobbit. You can almost inhale the Dwarven culture from that map, and the world map is the classic fantasy world map.

For non-Middle Earth world maps, I have to go with the Belgariad. In this case all the detail on the map is necessary – as the story is really a journey through every location on the map. It’s the classic exploration quest and the map is absolutely required for the story. I read this at a very impressionable age and it certainly has some responsibility for my current occupation. Another honourable mention has to go to Westeros. With the geopolitical plotlines it’s absolutely necessary to have a map of the seven kingdoms handy when reading GRR Martin’s epic.

Chris Strange
Chris Strange is the author of the noir urban fantasy novel The Man Who Crossed Worlds, due to be released in October. His hobbies include shouting at the protagonists of horror films, discussing the relative merits of fictional superheroes, and referring to himself in the third person. Since he lives in the far-away land of New Zealand, he keeps in contact with the rest of the world via his Twitter account, @ChrisStrangeUF. He also blogs now and then at

Like many people, the first images that pop into my head when I think of fantasy maps are the maps of Middle Earth drawn by J.R.R. Tolkien and his son, Christopher. As he has a habit of doing, Tolkien left his mark on this aspect of modern fantasy literature. Today, you can’t spit at a fantasy novel without hitting a map, and many of them seem to have no reason to be there beside tradition.

But Tolkien’s maps weren’t just for laying out geography and allowing the reader to trace the heroes’ journey. The maps felt like they could have been drawn by Bilbo or Frodo themselves, and gave a sense of believability that went beyond having a few triangles to represent mountains and a dot to show you where to find Hobbiton. It was one of many pieces of world-building that has made Middle-Earth seem so real to millions of readers.

Clearly, readers of other genres get by without a map to show them every detail of a place’s geography. Fantasy readers are no different. They don’t want a map thrown in just because it’s the thing to do. The true role of a map in a fantasy novel is to convey something of the world beyond geography.

My favorite modern example of this principle isn’t from a high fantasy novel at all. Instead, it’s from Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk series, Leviathan. You’ll instantly see that it’s not just a geographical map of Europe. The map perfectly captured the vintage vibe of the early 20th century, threw in a whole lot of conflict, and illustrated the opposing forces of the machine-loving Clankers and the Darwinists’ war-beasts. All in one map.

Plus, it’s freaking awesome. Which, of course, is the most important thing.

Rene Sears
Rene Sears has been reading Science Fiction and Fantasy for as long as she can remember. She is the slush reader/ editorial assistant at Pyr. You can find her on Twitter as @renesears

Part of the appeal of fantasy novels is in the worldbuilding: and at its most basic level, the map helps keep the reader (and the author) oriented. But more than that, the map signifies something apart from the text. It should by no means be necessary to the text, but should add to it, and ideally embiggen the reader’s understanding of some aspect of the book besides geography.

Tolkien’s well-known map for The Lord of the Rings (Thror’s map) shows the author has an interest in worldbuilding beyond which way is North; not only does the map tell you how to get to Mirkwood, Tolkien has worked in history and linguistics. At least two languages exist in this world, and it’s significant enough to the author to come up with an separate alphabet for one. As well, the reader gets a sense of the history of the world: “here of old was Thrain King Under the Mountain” tells you not only that you can expect to find out what happened before the story started, but also gives you a feeling for the tone in which history will be addressed.

By contrast, Sam Sykes’ map for the German edition of Tome of the Undergates (art by Michael Lee Lunsford) tells the reader a lot about what’s important in his series. There’s less focus on history and more on survival. There’s a sense of the area being mapped as it’s explored, rather than following tracks set down long ago. As well, the map conveys the humor of the books, before the reader has read a word of the text.

One of my favorite maps (or pair of maps) is from my much reread 1984 edition of Ursula LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan. Rather than the big map of Earthsea (which I also loved, that was the frontispiece of both A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore, the map at the front of The Tombs of Atuan reflects the closer scope of the book. Arha/Tenar grows up in the claustrophobic confines of the Place of the Tomb of Atuan, and in the darkness of the Labyrinth, and the maps give the scale of the story that’s to come. As Tenar has been raised to believe the Place is the center of the world, the maps don’t show the broader world. I like these maps because of what they tell you about Tenar’s mindset at the beginning of the book.

Lee Moyer
Inspired by the 20th century’s great illustrators and the glories of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, propaganda art and the Pre-Raphaelites, Lee Moyer tailors his work to the specific needs and tastes of his clientele. He excels in art direction, design, collaboration, and illustration – whether classical, vintage, modern, or post-modern. Embracing digital media in 1989, Lee swiftly learned to mix traditional and digital painting seamlessly. He spent a decade as a Docent & Naturalist Illustrator at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The New York Times nominated his work for a Webby in 1999.

Ah, Maps!

I remember loving early school assignments that involved the major exports and other carefully transcribed facts about distant states, in large part because I could make maps of those states as report covers for an inevitable + to my A. And if I used carving or wood-burning tools – all the better. And if I made a complex 2-level game-board of Lord of the Rings (the Mines of Moria clearly demanded a deeper level of map and board design), I might get two As.

I remember maps of Middle Earth on the walls of teenager’s rooms from the time I was a small child. How better to add reality to a writer’s efforts? And unlike illustrating characters the reader might disagree with, few readers would argue with a good map.

Pirate maps too had an undeniable appeal. But the first maps I encountered didn’t do their subjects justice. Sure one could argue that the merry and magical Land of Oz is just absurd enough to be square, but even at 6 I was sophisticated enough to see that the little man behind the curtain didn’t have much grasp of how land masses really work. Topography is destiny, and the maps that got that – that needed to get that – those were the winners! Give me even the original Earthsea map over anything else in the genre. And the prettied up versions are better still!

I’ve made maps for countless games (Eberron, Sanctum, D&D) and a few choice books (one day the lovely fellows at Night Shade will release my city map of New Crobuzon in that fabled edition of Perdido Street Station), but I’m constantly surprised at the naivete presented in current maps. The failure to understand how rivers work, what defines an island, the difficulties of coastline, the ancient collisions and moving plates. And in a genre where various Gods make there presences known in countless ways across myriad worlds, I feel that the maps presented all-too-often fail to match the spark of the stories. If Slartibartfast can win an award for Norway, why can’t modern cartographer’s study his fine work? The brilliant painter and naturalist James Gurney gets it right in his Dinotopia novels, and I can only hope that others follow his fine example. Or call me.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

7 Comments on MIND MELD: Which Fantasy Maps Are Your Favorites?

  1. I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map…

  2. I’m surprised no one mentioned the map of Narnia, lovingly illustrated by Pauline Baynes. I even had it on my wall as a kid.

  3. A lot of these maps are great, but I gotta agree about Westerfeld’s Leviathan. I couldn’t stop looking at it for the longest time. It’s just awesome.

  4. Agreed. The Leviathan map is awesome. 

  5. Hello,

    I like all of the maps that have been mentioned, but I found a curious omission: Russell Kirkpatrick. He is apparently a professional cartographer so, I noticed, his maps carry detail and precision that is rarely seen in fantasy maps.

    His novels are pretty awesome, btw.

    You can see some samples of his map-making here.

    BTW, you can view a map of my world at blog.




  6. When I don’t see a map, I assume the writer is saying, “I’m too hip for a map”.

  7. Loved your response, Fred!



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