Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Maps in fantasy novels

Here’s a longish post about the maps that have become fairly ubiquitous in fantasy novels. I’ll say up front: I love the maps, though I generally don’t feel they’re actually necessary.

There’s something I’ve noticed about the recent round of debates about fantasy maps, something I’ve been noticing about discussions of fantasy maps in general. They don’t talk about fantasy maps in terms of their cartographic merit. That is to say, they don’t judge fantasy maps as maps…They’re not critiquing the map, they’re critiquing the territory.

This leads to an interesting observation: The presence of a map at the front of a fantasy novel signifies that this fantasy novel is the kind that comes with a map, i.e., an epic fantasy series. Whether you like or dislike fantasy maps often comes down to whether you like or dislike those kinds of books.

I guess I read a lot of epic or semi-epic fantasy, because as I said, maps seem pretty ubiquitous to me.

The complaint that the geography makes no sense doesn’t much matter to me. This is, after all, a *fantasy novel*. Normal geological processes are not the only way to get a huge mountain rage across the southern edge of the map and a desert in the north — to take one example where both features exist because of magical disasters. Anyone who glances at the map in this book and says in disgust, “Why is there a mountain range THERE?” is completely missing that there is in fact a reason and that it is not because one continent rammed into another (as happened to create the Himalayas) or because a landmass passed over a volcanic hotspot or whatever.

My suggestion for creating maps that don’t look like everyone else’s and do have workable geographical features, if that happens to concern you: pick up an atlas and steal your geography. It’s not that hard to change elements so your large island doesn’t look *too* much like Borneo, but if you start with Borneo and then change things up a little, it ought to look real enough. Put mountains and rivers kind of where Borneo has them and then if someone tells you that you did it wrong, you can point them to Borneo and suggest they lighten up.

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4 Comments Maps in fantasy novels

  1. Elaine T

    Mostly I ignore the maps, unless I get really confused while reading, or rereading. Or the Teen has also read it and we’re having one of those in depth discussions that eventually turn to the geography.

    I wish CJC had a better map for the FORTRESS set: we’ve tried to work with it, but it isn’t very helpful, really.

    We’ve been digging at the Silmarillion and other HoME stuff, which does necessitate maps, and I’ve been glad to have what there is. Tolkien maps are pretty good.

    Apropos of the previous post, on Milne, yes I remember that song. Its even does the earworm thing to me still, now and again. (like right now. Fortunately, it is inoffensive and melodic.)

  2. Rachel

    Mary, right! It’s just one more detail for fans of epic fantasy to argue about.

    Elaine, I admire the artwork of maps in every novel, but I only go back and look at a map while reading if I’m getting confused about where the characters are or where they’re going.

  3. L. Shelby

    As long as they don’t have really obvious errors, I generally don’t spend enough time analyzing other authors’ geography to notice if its realistic or not.

    But I did notice an uphill-flowing river once, and complained mightily.

    Which is why my daughter is working on a fantasy world where all the rivers on one particular continent flow uphill (for reasonably rigorously worked out magical reasons.)

    Is this me being a good influence or a bad one? ;)

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