Thursday, 20 November 2008

The use of maps in fantasy

Interesting post by Joe Abercrombie over at his blog, where he discusses the inclusion of a map in his upcoming novel Best Served Cold. Joe also wrote a piece about maps in fantasy a year or so ago, which can be found here.

Joe indicates that while he loves maps as much as the next person, he's also wary that sometimes they're unnecessary and, at worst, can spoil a reader's perception of the secondary world in question. This is a view that I share myself.

On the one hand, I love maps. I like looking at them and I like drawing them. When I'm working on my own projects, I often feel that my secondary world doesn't feel real until I've drawn a map of it. I think when done properly, maps can be a valuable tool in lending further depth and weight to the world in question. It's a way of instantly making the place seem real before the reader has even read a single word of the novel. It's also a way of drawing readers in - I readily confess that in the past, an intriguing, well-drawn map has tipped the balance for me in terms of whether I bought a book or not.

For example, I picked up A Game of Thrones and - while I already planned to buy the novel - it certainly helped that one of the first things I saw was the map, more specifically the part that said 'The Haunted Forest' and 'The Wall.' That instantly appealed to me (namely, um, because I like spooky forests) and this sort of instant connection with the world can be invaluable. Maps can therefore serve as a real draw to potential readers - I think if someone picks up a book and the map within really appeals to them, then there's a stronger chance they'll consider purchasing the novel. In some ways it's like a second front cover, another chance to sell the book. Often, I'll look to see if a book has a map before I even sample the writing. From this perspective, maps can be invaluable.

Yet you do have to consider the other side of the issue. While a good map can draw readers in (and serve a more practical purpose during the reading of the novel), a bad map can have the opposite affect. Again, I'm happy to admit that if I'm undecided about whether to pick up a novel, a bad map can by the decisive nail in the coffin. The most recent example of a poor map I can think of is the one for Brent Weeks' debut novel, The Way of Shadows. I've already knocked this novel enough, but I have to say that the map is horrible. It's just a mishmash of names and boundary lines. It didn't instill any sense of awe or interest in me whatsoever, which I think is a fundamental failing. That said, it did serve its ultimate purpose as a reference, as I did refer to it once or twice during my reading of the novel.

As Abercrombie says, sometimes a map can destroy your personal imagining of a world. He cites the classic David Gemmell example, which I agree with wholeheartedly. Gemmell novels, for years, didn't have maps. There wasn't really any need for them, but eventually - for whatever reasons - a map was included with the Drenai novel White Wolf. All well and good, but it was crap. The world looked absolutely nothing like I'd imagined it, and other fans were also up in arms about it. The map had been drawn by a fan of Gemmell, which makes it all the more bewildering - if you're going to include a map, at least make sure the map has been drawn (or is based on a drawing) by the author! This sorry episode does serve as a warning that sometimes maps do more harm than good.

So, while I appreciate the potential drawbacks, I'm still in favour of maps in fantasy books.

What do you all think? Interested to hear other opinions!


Todd Newton said...

I'm definitely with you and Joe on the map thing - if it's done well, as in ASoIaF, it's a value add and I appreciate it. If it's done poorly, however, I want to tear it out of the book. The worst example I've seen lately is in Karen Miller's The Innocent Mage where the map is just dumb (and the story isn't much better). I can't find a link to an image of it because her website seems to be on the fritz. The Warrior and Witch books by Marie Brennan have a map, too, but it's so small and the traveling is so unimportant that it might as well not be there.

I've been struggling with my own novel as to whether to include the map that's been revised so many times that I no longer have a "good" drawing of it... and I'm still not sure whether to put it in or not. I guess if I can make it worthwhile, I will, otherwise I'll just leave it up to imagination.

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

We had a discussion about this at my blog a short while ago.

Here is the link.

James said...

TD: Ah, Karen Miller's name keeps cropping up like a bad penny...and it's always used when someone wants to demonstrate how bad something is! I'll have to check her 'map' out...

John: Ah, I seemed to have missed the boat. Cheers for the heads-up! ;)

Todd Newton said...

It's probably my fault she keeps popping up... I did mention her in your "worst fantasy ever" post. But, believe me, when you see this map you will understand. The image isn't available on her website and I can't find it anywhere, so here's one of the quotes from a member review on
the map looks like one i would have drawen to play D@D in back in the day
Hopefully that paints a picture.

Jebus said...

I tend to think of them as an addendum to the main novel - handy if they are there but not exactly necessary. I've found with the Malazan books, for example, that for the most part they were quite handy just to check out where things are in relation to each other. Same thing for Bakker's Earwa maps - probably the best ones I've seen in a while.

Conversely I found the one of Quon Tali at the start of Crimson Guard to be of almost no help at all.

Anonymous said...

I love Sharon Shinn's writing, and have enjoyed her fantasy series 'The Twelve Houses' - but I'll admit, the map stinks. It's little more than an outline of a continent with boundaries for different 'fiefdoms'. I do sometimes reference it, but truly it's not a good map.

Alex said...

I can't think of an instance where I've actually found a map useful, or even influential on my decision to buy. I try to build a mental picture; if that isn't good enough, it means I'd have to refer to a map too often anyhow. Also, checking in with a map is sooo serious; I'm in it for the escapism!