Birches or Bastards; The Dilemma of the Fantasy Mapmaker

I have a map problem. To illustrate: when my wife and I were in the process of buying our house, she spent a lot of time looking at and mulling over such petty inessentials as the boiler and the roof. For some reason she seemed concerned about whether or not the windows were double-glazed, and boy was she ever curious about the foundation. What was I doing? I had a map, a forty-year-old surveyor’s map of the property, that used as boundary markers things like “large cherry tree” and “granite outcrop.” While my wife was exploring such trivialities as the whether not the thousand gallon propane tank was rusted through, or how much of the siding was rotted, I was doing the important work way the hell out in the woods, hunting down the gnarled birch that marked the southeast corner of the plot.

“Do you actually need to see the birch tree?” she asked patiently.

“Do you need to see the roof?” I shot back.

It seemed like a reasonable argument in the heat of the moment.

I’ve since mapped a big chunk of the forest, charting out the trails and streams, beaver dams and swamps. Of course, the firewood doesn’t always get stacked, and I’m pretty sure there’s something I was supposed to do with the septic system in July, but that’s the price you pay if you’re determined to find out where the old stone wall finally ends.

Maps purport to be objective. “Here,” they claim, “is the mountain. Here is the lake.” This alleged objectivity is as beguiling as it is false. You’re pretty much hosed just for trying to represent a three-dimensional surface in two dimensions, and then there are all the other choices. What to include? What to leave off? Birches? Beaches? Bird Habitats? Bars? Bingo Halls? Bulldozer Repair Centers? Bastards?

Of course, the details you include depend on the map’s purpose – you need one map to invade Belgium, another if you’re just there to enjoy the beer – and our purposes are dizzyingly varied. There are plenty of maps of Nevada, but they don’t all show the missile silos. For just a taste of the baffling range, check out Frank Jacobs’s blog on strange and wonderful maps. (I’m particularly fond on the post on zombie maps).

But then, even if you know what the hell you want out of your map, the land and the things on it are constantly changing. The road we live on is delightful in summer, but vaguely suicidal in mud season. I have a map of Mongolia that marks the “major highways” in red. They look, from the map, like eight-lane interstates. I have been on them. They are dirt tracks, and they move every year, because today’s dirt track is next year’s stream. Those confident red lines are impressionistic, at best.

So, a) What good are maps, and b) What in the hell does all of this have to do with fantasy?

Well, I just saw the map to my novel, The Emperor’s Blades, a gorgeous piece of work by Isaac Stewart, and I pretty much fell off my chair. This is it, right here.

The Annurian Empire and Beyond

The Annurian Empire and Beyond


Even better, you can read a really cool account of how he made it, an account that reminded me just why I love these creations.

It’s because maps are fantasy.

They are a second world that we invent to lay over our own world, a hope, a fear, a fiction, an approximation, always a distortion, but at their best, a revealing distortion, one that shows us important truths through the deliberate twisting of reality. And, like any fantasy, they are stories, stories of the land they purport to represent, of the people who live on and use that land, and even of the map-maker herself, the one who decides to put in the beavers but leave out the diners. Finally, they are an invitation. The error and bias ineluctably woven into them whispers to us to go out – into the woods or the city, onto the ocean or below it – to check, to see for ourselves.

And by the way – I still haven’t found that fucking birch tree.

Napoleon Versus Fantasy; The Role of the Map

Napleon is rumored to have declared, “Geography is destiny.”

Of course, Napoleon was dumb enough to invade Russia and spent the last six years of his life in prison, so it’s not as though he had everything figured out, but still, if he’s right on this score, then fantasy novelists are wrong.

After all, fantasy novels are supposed to be books about people (or demons, or trolls, or dragons, or whatever). The unspoken premise from Tolkien and Lewis right on down is that what matters is human character and the decisions that unfold from character in conflict. No one advises Aragorn not to worry about Sauron because the trade routes, dominant weather patterns, and resource distribution of Middle Earth won’t support a long-term orcish presence outside of Mordor.

For the past ten years I’ve been teaching history (mostly world, some ancient and medieval European), and there is a school of thought (out of fashion at the moment) that accords with the fantasy mindset: the Great Man approach.

As you might infer, the Great Man approach, championed by Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Carlyle, and other major 19th century figures, suggests that history is more or less the story of the great men (and, despite the shitty name of the theory, women), individuals of genius, daring, charisma, and insight who more or less single-handedly wrench the course of history in a direction of their choosing.

One thinks of Shi Huangdi, the first Qin emperor of China, or Genghis Khan, or Joan of Arc. Jesus springs to mind, and Mohammad. Cleopatra. Queen Elizabeth. Had these folks never been born, the argument goes, or had they died in infancy, the great sweep of human history might have been fundamentally altered.

We don’t need to make much of a jump to see that this is the fundamental assumption behind almost all epic fantasy. It matters what Raistlin and Shea Ohmsford do. Had our fantasy heroes made different choices, different shit would have happened, usually some very bad shit. Want to give Boromir that ring, Frodo?

Interestingly, as I mentioned above, the “Great Man” theory has largely fallen from grace in historical circles. Many historians now see different factors as formative and transformational: climate (Jared Diamond in Collapse), trade patterns (Cunliffe in Europe Between the Oceans), indigenous plants and animals (Diamond again, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, along with plenty of others), and, you guessed it: geography. Unfortunately, these elements don’t lend themselves to story:

In the third age of An’Abar, when the Leper King ruled from his blighted throne, a new strain of wheat was introduced, the cross-pollination of which allowed the formerly sterile maize…

The importance of this boring stuff is, however, hard to dispute. I used to begin every class on a new civilization with a full day or two studying the relevant maps. It was amazing what conclusions my students were able to draw simply from the geography without so much as a glance at political or cultural history. Ancient Egypt, for instance, sheltered from foreign influences and invaders by the Sahara to the west, the cataracts of the Nile to the south, the sprawling Nile delta to the north, and the deserts of Sinai to the east, was predictably insular for thousands of years, its government remarkably stable. Or Greece: just take a glance at those islands, peninsulae, and mountains and you know that it’s going to be a land of city states, autonomous units that will resist all attempts at unification or central control.

But Alexander the Great was so… great! He kept Greece unified! He swept through Persia and brought the Hellenistic culture to the east! Well, yeah. I hear that. On the other hand, you don’t see Macedonians running Iran these days. (Although, to be fair, you don’t see Zoroastrian Achaemenids running it either.)

The point is, there aren’t too many fantasy readers out there who want to read a six-book series about the effects of river-silting on the rise and fall of a civilization (although I’d be curious to see some insane writer take up that gauntlet). We want to read about people doing stuff and we want that stuff, at least in epic fantasy, to matter. So what about geography?

I’d argue there’s still an important role for geography to play, and here we come to the map. I’m not sure how most writers work, but my impression is that sometimes the map evolves hand-in-hand with the story while other times a writer lays out the plot then drafts up a map as a sort of background against which the events can play out. By now it’s probably clear that I prefer the former approach (although I’ve read and loved plenty of books in which I’ll bet the writer employed the latter). It’s not so much that it’s bad to use the map-as-backdrop strategy, but I find that the map can be a priceless source of inspiration. A plausible harbor might suggest a merchant oligarchy; scant forests, a lumber monopoly.

I know, I know. No one wants to read about tariffs or fiat currency, and I’m not suggesting they should be the extent of the novel’s scope, merely that these factors can help enrich a world, can make for plausible and exciting politics, trade, and migration against which the human drama that we’re all excited for can unfold. Most importantly, they all spring from the map.

In some novels, the interplay between map and plot strikes me as plausible. In others… not so much. I’m curious to hear from readers here: does geography matter in fantasy, or have my long years teaching history infected my brain?

Those Lazy Writers of Fantasy

Writers of fantasy have been seriously slacking. Here we were, thinking they’d been inventing whole new worlds, imagining undiscovered lands, conjuring up hitherto undreamed of vistas and cultures and religions and vegetables and hats when, as it turns out, they’ve just been ripping shit off. These so-called writers have been taking places and people from the real world, from real history, tossing this stuff in their books, giving it new names, and hoping we would never notice!

And I’ll tell you, it doesn’t take much digging to find the real referents here, not when you’re clued in to the trick. Anyone else notice that Khal Drogo’s title sounds a lot like Khan, that the Dothraki are essentially Mongols? Or that Robert Jordan’s Caemlyn looks a lot like England? Or that R. Scott Bakker’s plot (in The Prince of Nothing) draws heavily on the Crusades? Or that N. K. Jemisin’s Gujarreh is modeled on Egypt? Or that Daniel Abraham’s entire map (in The Dragon’s Path) is just Europe scrunched up a little bit? What horseshit!

I’m joking, of course. Not about fantasy writers ripping shit off – we do that all the time – but about the idea that these cultural borrowings are either lazy, secret, or deleterious to the works in question. They are not.

In fact, far from diminishing the effect of these novels, I’d argue that such borrowing and modification, skillfully handled, is a boon for author and reader both. After all, when I sit down to read Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, she tells me right up front in the author’s note that the names and geography are essentially Egyptian. This sweeps aside a whole lot of work for both of us. I’m already imagining deserts and the Nile, monumental architecture and loincloths. She describes these things, of course – the world is well and truly fleshed out – but she doesn’t need to start from the ground up. Instead, she can dig more quickly into plot and character, confident that the reader, clued in to the cultural shorthand, will fill in any missing details more or less correctly. I usually enjoy reading fantasy in which the writer modifies a pre-existing culture because I feel I can focus on the important details instead of pausing every few seconds, muttering, “Wait, they live in straw houses and eat what again?”

There are, however, some dangers here. Most obviously, the writer will want to depart from the historical model in places. This is what makes the book fantasy and not historical fiction. However, the momentum of shared cultural assumptions can obscure these points of departure. If the whole book I’m reading draws heavily on the culture of medieval Japan, it’s going to be more difficult for the writer to steer us out of the relevant assumptions when such steering becomes necessary. The familiarity of the known becomes a sort of prison.

Of course, part of the fun has been to establish what seems to be a familiar cultural paradigm only to subvert it. “Look,” the author says. “This place is just like medieval Arabia. Load it up with your assumptions. Keep piling them on! You’re doing great!” And then, because the book is fantasy and not history, she pulls the carpet out, forcing us to realize that a) this place is not medieval Arabia, but something altogether stranger and more wonderful, and that b) maybe our assumptions about medieval Arabia weren’t all that dialed-in to begin with.

I don’t mean to imply that all writers employ these methods. The shelves are piled with fantasy novels that eschew any obvious borrowings, geographic, linguistic, cultural, or religious. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is an obvious example, as is Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. I find both worlds fascinating and disorienting at the same time, refreshing for their refusal to draw on any givens, but daunting for the same reason. These are, in a way, the purest fantasies, and I find myself amazed by the ambition and ability of both writers. Still, it’s useful here to remember that the root of “amazed” is “maze,” as in delusion, bewilderment, perhaps drawn from the Norwegian mas, meaning “exhausting labor.” In other words, writers who build their worlds from the bedrock up require a lot more work from their readers. The payoff from Le Guin and Erikson is so great that I don’t hesitate to put in this work, but it’s important to note the costs nonetheless; a lot more people have read The Wheel of Time than The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

I’m curious to hear from other readers and writers. When does the sort of cultural shorthand I’ve been trying to describe work well, and when does it seem lazy or derivative? Would you rather read books with lands that are vaguely familiar, or plunge into something altogether new?


When my wife and I bought our house she made fun of me for spending more time looking at the survey map of the property than I did at the closets or lighting fixtures. I refused to close until I’d tromped the whole perimeter, hunting out the massive cherry tree and the stand of spruce that marked the important boundaries. Of course, I missed the fact that the washer and dryer were about to shit the bed, that one of the windows didn’t, you know, close, but I know just where to find that steel pipe hidden in the stand of moose maple.

I’ve written before about the role of maps in the generation of fantasy worlds, and I want to return to the subject of maps here on a smaller scale. Nearly every epic novel has that massive map right inside the front cover: continents and duchies, blighted deserts and major rivers, mountain ranges and disputed deltas. Those maps serve an important function, but I think we writers of fantasy sometimes forget that maps can play other roles as well, specifically when it comes to the fantasy battle.

Take a look at the following maps from the American Civil War battles of Gettysburg and Antietam:

Gettysburg Map

Antietam Map

Both were crucial conflicts and, just as importantly for our purposes here, both were complex. Gettysburg lasted three days. Anyone who’s visited the Gettysburg site knows that it takes just about that long to explore the whole battlefield, to try to understand what took place and when and how, to crouch down on Cemetery Hill, to follow the agonizingly long course of Pickett’s Charge (in which one of every two Confederate soldiers died), to walk through the “Valley of Death.” It’s not just my curiosity about maps and geography at work here, it’s a fascination with the human condition, the acts of heroism and cowardice, brilliance and stupidity, that played out on both sides. Those human stories are at the heart of the Battle of Gettysburg and the crucial thing is this: we wouldn’t be able to fully understand them without the map.

Even the most lucid writer narrating for the most attentive reader would run into problems. Describe the terrain first, then people it with troops? Consider the battle from an eagle’s-eye view, or get down in the lines and give a confusing, but more psychologically immediate account from a soldier’s perspective? Take a synchronic approach, running through all the events of, say, 3:00 PM on July 2, or follow one unit through the course of a full day and then rewind to pick up a different storyline?

A battle map doesn’t solve all these problems, but it does give the writer more freedom. A glance at a small-scale battle map gives the reader a better understanding of the terrain and deployment of troops than several pages of tedious description. The writer can then focus on the inner lives of those involved, the instances of heroism and cowardice, of tactical brilliance and strategic blunder, without worrying that the reader might not understand that this hill is a little further to the north than that hill, that the river curves below the stretch of rapids and not above.

Of course, most fantasy battles are not this complex. Even major battles (Helm’s Deep, some of the big fights in the Codex Alera series) tend to be pretty straightforward: guard this castle, attack that hill. There’s nothing wrong with straightforward fights, but any writer (and reader) with even a marginal curiosity regarding military history will sometimes hanker for something a little more involved. In these cases, a battle map (or two! Or three!) prefacing the chapter could play a crucial role. It’s worth noting that Joe Abercrombie’s novel The Heroes revolves around a single three-day battle – and it has a small-scale map of just this sort.

On the other hand, my wife never looks at the maps. “I don’t read for the cartography,” she says. “Atlases are for maps; novels are for stories.” I’m curious whether others feel this way, or if, like me, most readers would prefer more maps than we’re usually given.