Maps. Craps?

Posted on October 2nd, 2007 in opinion

Tolkein, Jordan, and Martin, all have them. Scott Lynch doesn’t, so he put some on his website. Mervyn Peake couldn’t possibly. M. John Harrison would probably murder you for suggesting that he should. David Gemmell didn’t have any, then he bowed to pressure and included one done by a fan which (apparently) everyone thought was crap. I don’t have any printed, but you can bet your ass I’ve got a whole load of ’em in a ring-binder somewhere.

What are we talking about? Why, that universal staple of the hefty fantasy series, of course, the MAP.

What kind do you go for? Do you have a huge one that folds away, except you can never quite fold it up right once you’ve opened it, like the one I accidentally tore in my Dad’s edition of the Fellowship of the Ring then denied all knowledge of? Or do you have one of those tiny, incomprehensible ones that seems to have been badly photocopied like handouts at school, and a significant portion of the dotted line indicating the “journey of the mismatched group of champions” has been destroyed by the gap between two pages of your printed-on-toilet-paper mass-market paperback?

Should you have one that marks every village in the imagined world in painstaking detail, thereby advertising all the sweat you expended on your system of gnomish nomenclature? Or one that has six cities involved in the story and everything else pretty much just a big white splodge with the coastlines barely even squiggled up properly that just screams, “couldn’t be arsed to think up more than twelve names, but my publisher said I had to do this!”

Talking of publishers, I was at the Gollancz Autumn Party the other night, and Editorial Director Simon Spanton was spewing venom (alright, he was being mildly irritated) on the whole subject of maps. He don’t like ’em much. He certainly doesn’t think they’re in any way necessary. He objects to the way they’re sometimes included on a knee-jerk. He feels that books are a piece of written work and should stand on that basis without the need for often inaccurate and ugly bodges on the fly-leaf.

I agree with him, up to a point. My own feelings, often repeated and rubbed soft and thin like the material of a favourite shirt, is that maps aren’t really suitable to the type of book I write, that is one centred tightly around the characters. To use a film metaphor, I feel that epic fantasy is often told too much in wide shots, which is to say we are shown vast events from a great distance, we are shown little people in a huge landscape, we perhaps lack that feeling of closeness with, and understanding of, the characters. And there’s no wider shot than the whole world on a page, right?

I wanted my readers to feel like they were right there with the characters – right inside their heads, if possible – part of the action rather than floating dispassionately above it. I wanted to tell a story as close-up as I could, so you can smell the sweat, and feel the pain, and understand the emotions. I want a reader to be nailed to the text, chewing their fingernails to find out what happens next, not constantly flipping back to the fly-leaf to check just how far north exactly Carleon is from Uffrith, or whatever. The characters often don’t know what’s going on – they don’t have a conveniently accurate map to hand, why should the reader?

I kind of worry that the need for maps is part of a mindset that I’d like – in the gentlest possible way – to be steering readers away from, at least while they’re reading my books. A focus on world, and setting, and getting all the details straight, that maybe gets in the way of submersion in the characters and the story. I’d rather they just let it flow over them, left the details in my (hugely capable) hands, and concentrated on each event as it’s presented.

Call me foolish as well, but I do think having a map there can damage the sense of scale, awe, and wonder that a reader might have for your world. It’s like that moment in the horror film when you finally see the monster. What? That’s it? I was scared of a piece of foam rubber? The unknown can be mysterious, exciting, in a way that a few squiggles on a piece of paper often … aren’t. It’s a bit like the problem I have with literal fantasy artwork of the characters on a cover. Pictures work very powerfully compared to words. Straight away the reader’s imagination is constricted by what they’ve seen there, and I’d like to think of my readers’ imaginations running wild and free, roaming far and wide like a noble mountain goat, or something.

I also reckon that, while the hardcore fantasy fan (and that probably includes 90% of the readers of this blog, but hey, let’s go down in a blaze of glory) would often like to see a map, the more general fantasy reader isn’t that bothered, and in fact might be quite glad when there isn’t one. You see it in the front there, and you kind of feel you have to look, and get some sense of it all before you start, know what I mean? As if the author’s suddenly going to appear at some point and test you.

So I guess you could say I’m in the anti-map camp, if we have camps. But the thing is, there’s a part of me that loves maps. That understands why readers sometimes complain about their absence. That part that long ago sat happily drawing each tiny tree in the forests on a massive sheet of A2 while the first episodes of Star Trek Next Generation burbled happily away in the background. That part that still likes to take the old RPG supplements into the bathroom so I can peruse the layouts of Orthanc while on the toilet.

Had my publisher wanted a map, either in the UK, the US, or anywhere else, I’d happily have given them one. Even a rubbish one. It would have been a very long way from a deal-breaker, I can tell you that. But none of them have asked. Perhaps one day I’ll stick some up on the website, just for the hell of it. But then I hear that little voice whispering, “What if someone notices that Carleon isn’t quite as far North of Uffrith as you said it was, eh? What then? You’ll be a laughing stock…”

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  1. I would love a map for the simple reason is that I love roleplaying and would love to have a game set in this world.


    fully understand that this world is yours and having a bunch of spotty gamers tramping there muddy feet through it would just constrict you.

    Either way your books have made me fall in love with fantasy again and plenty of other settings to play in.

  2. I’d love to see maps related to stories from the world of The First Law, but only if they’re really good. I thought the one that can be seen on some covers of Best Served Cold was rather good. Maps in the style of the maps from that world would probably be best. A lousy map ruins a book.

  3. I really want a map.

  4. I totally agree that maps aren’t necessary. Gemmell’s world didn’t even make sense in terms of how long it took to get from any particular part of say, Drenan, to somewhere else, but did it even matter? Whilst I’m not going against trying to stay accurate, I can’t help but feel that the people who like to check things on maps are the same people who object to the term ‘fired an arrow’ on the basis that ‘firing’ is a term relating to applying a flame to primitive gunpowder weapons. Ultimately, as long as the story is good, it doesn’t really matter. Particularly in worlds where cartography would be at best a wildly inaccurate art.

  5. I love your books but the fact that you have provided no maps bothers me to no end. I’m a human, I can build mental images of your characters based on description because that is what my brain is hard-wired to do. Conceptualizing landscapes, terrain and geography is much, much harder to do.
    I can conceptualize my own world, because I live here. Your characters all have that advantage over me as a reader, I can’t conceptualize the world they live in, because I don’t live there. You know the world. You created it. You have an idea of where everything lies. I trust you to give some visual idea of it, no matter how poorly rendered you think it is. Give me something – even some geographic hikime kagihana – and I can do the rest as a reader. I’m sure folks didn’t mind so much about the errors of the earliest maps when they were made, their existence was enough. The map’s the thing, so to speak.
    This is only my opinion and I’ll keep reading your stories regardless of the addition of a map. But here’s hoping!

  6. I love well-drawn maps, both for books and to ponder our shared world, past, present and future. But Joe makes a powerful case for leaving that to the reader’s imagination. Better no map than a less-than-excellent or uninspired one.

  7. Maps are simply not needed.
    What would be really neat would be to include a map in the next Audio Book release…. yeah, get it?

    Part of the mystique of a great author is his/her ability to paint a picture of what the surroundings are like in his/her own mind. It is the Authors book, let them describe what the place is like, not rely on an artist to try and remake what they have described.

  8. I do not need a Map to enjoy a story.
    I actually find them distracting in exactly the way Joe mentions –
    “Will there be a geography portion to the mid-term covering the First Law Trilogy? Ooh, I hope not – I just wanted to have fun reading about Nine Fingers.”

    Maps are great if you are going to create a role playing game I suppose.

    Very interesting topic and illuminating to see how many folks feel differently than I do –
    “Vive le difference!” or should I say “Où est la carte?”

  9. Agreed!

    Maps are not needed and most of the times are a pain rather than a help.

    My cousin did the same thing to my edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, exept in front of my terrified eyes.I had never even opened the damn thing as i was certain that i wouldnt be able to fold it back together in the right way.That doesnt mean i wanted it torn though.Anyway…

    I enjoy the trilogy greatly and like the fact that doesnt really fall into the category of classic fantasy following every norm that has made this genre predictable.

    so congrats and keep on entertaining us.

  10. I am also from the “Don’t like maps” camp. Most of the ones in books of adventure constrict the adventure, they don’t flesh it out.

    Sadly, I went for a walk late one night, and got lost, without a map I can’t find my way back to camp.


  11. I’m very pro-map. Before starting on a fantasy series, I frequently take a dozen or two minutes just to stare at the map, try to imagine the trees, forests and cities, perhaps memorize a few of the more important-looking locations so as to get a sense of place.

    It gives me a sense of things. While the characters in the world may not have a map on them, they literally live there; what they lack in cartographic knowledge is more than made up by their immersion in the socio-cultural space that is that world; indeed, most of the educated ones will have presumably seen a map of their world anyway.

    Not having a map for The First Law is okay, though, first, because I’m reading it on Kindle and Kindle does maps really badly, and second, I can find fans’ maps from the Internet.

  12. Well, you could always hand over a nearly blank sheet of paper. In the center, a dot, and the words “You are here…”

  13. Hi,
    There are disadvantages like you had cited. I think maps are good for some bad for others. I guess I’m a cartographer in another lifetime. :) I’ve been spending time looking for mapmaking resources but I one thing for sure – I won’t use software. I like to draw and learn. See symbols, places and not just imagine them.

  14. I am a map-fan, but only when having a map is justified. I think one of the major aspects in fantasy stories is consistency, be it in terms of character personality, chronology, geography, etc. I would expect any fantasy author to have a clear picture of the world his story takes place in, but maps are not necessarily to be shared with the reader.

    Because works such as Tolkien’s or George RR Martin’s are so rich, so detail-oriented, one might say they are more about the settings than about the plot. In such cases, a map is truly a must-have. And the same goes for timelines, family trees and all that sort of stuff.

    But in The First Law, Joe is careful to keep all sorts of time and distance measurements very vague. The North is North, the past is the past, and it works very well like this! A map would just raise questions where none are needed.

  15. Maps are cool but the guessing is just as much fun. The meat is the story, not how many paces between the radiating walls of the city.

    Personally I love maps but can sleep without them.

  16. I found a fan made map after looking around on the Internet and this is what came up:
    I also remember yulwie talking of coming from lands that are farther south than the kantic continent that aren’t on any maps are we going to get any farther explanation on that, I’m guessing that might be the umapped frontier setting of a red country.
    One other thing is I’ve heard people starting to refer to all of the books both the trilogy and the standalones as the circle of the world series is that correct?

  17. I know I am late to this discussion, but I recently found the First Law series and love them.

    My take on maps is that they should be included. Here is why:

    If you do not like seeing a map in a fantasy series, do not look at it.

    If you do like referencing a map in a fantasy series, look at it.

    However, if a map is not included, it does not give either group a choice.

    Just some thoughts.

  18. Cake or pie is always better than a map. You have to be realistic.

  19. I’m in both camps :) I love maps, but don’t need detailed ones.

    However, it helped a lot when I finally saw a map of the Circle of the World online, because I really wasn’t able to imagine one myself. I kept feeling frustrated when whatever I had imagined in one chapter was proven wrong in the next one.

  20. I’m with you Argenta. I’m halfway Last Argument of Kings right now and have been totally unable to build up a good picture of the world in my mind.
    Until I started looking online just now I hadn’t even realized that Midderland was an island, and not part of the same continent as the north lands and the old empire.
    Don’t get me wrong, they are great books without a map and I fully enjoy the story, but they would be even better with a map.

  21. Maps are GOOD. Unless corrected by the author the Map posted by Will (june 3rd)looks about right to me!

  22. If I ever write a fantasy novel the map I intend to use is a standard A-Z map of Hull, upside down with the names scribbled over in red pen. And “here be dragons” scrawled hap-hazardly over anywhere that looks like it needs sprucing up.

  23. I like the idea of one overview map to show where everything is roughly. I have to say I had your world all over the place in my head. More how things relate between the books I guess is the way to put it. Within each book I am happy to have your world unfold in my mind :) Putting what maps you do have on the web is brilliant! I have hard and ebook versions of your books. Just getting ebook versions now. Poor ebook maps and illustrations are a pain. They need to fix that, perhaps linking it straight to the web?

  24. pro-maps here. No map in a fantasy book? Crazy! I’m reading through “The Blade Itself” right now and thoroughly enjoying it although I would enjoy it more if there had been a map and I could picture what the world was like rather than simply “this place is in the north, and this place is in the south”.
    I suspect though that good maps cost money to make and judging by the book covers, that is not something the author wanted expend cash on.

  25. You are a genius. Maps suck and feel like homework.

  26. Maps… in and of themselves stories in a medium other than the written word and when the word is crafted with talent and consideration then so should the accompanying map. Maps can be art… as can be fiction and they compliment each other beautifully when used correctly.

  27. I loved all six books and the sparse maps presented. Kept me guessing. A thumbs up to your map maker. They fit nicely. Just wish I could have seen an illustration of the Circle of the World from the floor of the Maker’s House…. Just so I could put all the places in the West together. Shit on that! It is time for the Union to head East, spill some blood, force some culture, spread the Inquisition and the Banking House of V&B. I thought the puppet King had some legitimate and less than legitimate children….

  28. “What if someone notices that Carleon isn’t quite as far North of Uffrith as you said it was, eh? What then? You’ll be a laughing stock…””

    Seems to me that you need at least a schematic/map-in-progress as the author even if you have no intention of publishing it to make sure you avoid this kind problem. I’m not going to go through checking every detail and don’t have much sympathy with complaints from those who inevitably (one always hopes have fans!) will but I’ve had many a bad moment in a novel being pulled up short by a contradiction.

  29. came here looking for a map, leaving with a smile and good reasons not to look again.
    loved your way of looking at it.

  30. Great stories, love the characters. A map might be nice for some but personally I don’t need one. Our imagination creates a unique personal world from the story and it will be different for everyone. Its the story that matters, not the geography.

  31. Map or no map? I for one have read many fantasy books which have all included maps. Some of these were good, and some not so. However, what the maps had in common was that they gave a general reference to where the cities or regions were in relation to each other. I did not reference the map every time I picked up the book, but I knew it was there if the need arose.
    For the many of you that do not think that a map is necessary, don’t use it, leave it unopened. But do not say that a book is better without it. It does make it better for what I think is the largest percentage of the readers, so why exclude them?
    Books are written for people to buy and read them. I have been recommended books to read, and have done so in return, but this is one that will not get a “hey, you got to go get this new book I’m reading”
    Some few may consider a map a crutch, but where would Glokta be without one?
    Maps are like condoms. You don’t have to use them, but it is a good feeling to know that they are available when the need is there.

  32. What Omar said. If you don’t like maps, ignore it. The rest of us can refer to it when needed.

  33. I am reading your books for the first time and rrally enjoying them. However, on topic I miss having a map present. Especially when characters list off tons of cities/countries in succession of far off lands.

    Another thing is that since there is such a long discussion with characters like the guy Longfoot where he brags about each place he visits and their cultural contrasts, it would be nice to have a directional reference other than South, further south, south of xxxx, etc. At this point I am nearly finished the first book, and I can generally wave my hand in the direction of each story line but have no way of seeing distanced traveled or scope. For example coming over the Mountains for Logen seemed so troublesome, yet the named men seemed to be slightly inconvienced and infact ready for an immediate fight.

    Just my two cents and months late to the discussion. Sorry for spelling issues, writing on tablet and it isnt registering all strokes.

  34. Not having a map is truly awful. It completely wrecks my ability to immerse myself in the book, because the chatter in the back of my mind is constantly demanding to know where things are while I’m reading. I didn’t think about it in the first book, but now that I’m in the second now and things are getting a bit more complicated, it’s a constant irritation.


  1. An Aside | A fan-made map of Joe Abercrombie’s THE FIRST LAW series — A Dribble of Ink
  2. Worldbuilding: Cartography « Gods and Men
  3. A Gordian Knot « J. Michael Melican
  4. Look, mom! A map! | Myke Cole
  5. On Cover Art and the Judging of Books Thereby… « J. Michael Melican
  6. Kartor « enligt Arina
  7. Premier sang, de Joe Abercrombie | Lorhkan et les mauvais genres
  8. On Maps in Fantasy Novels
  9. On Maps in Fantasy Novels | BOOK RIOT

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