Scott Marlowe

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How important are maps to fantasy books?

I love maps.

Maps in fantasy novels are as much of what attracted me to the genre as the fantastic elements and artwork did. I can still remember reading the Lord of the Rings, the Shannara books, and others and following along with the characters as they went about their quest. It was fun and even motivated me to keep reading late at night since I would often stick with the story until they reached the next outpost, tavern, city, or whatever it was the map indicated would be their next stop.

The vibe over on Goodreads is that maps in fantasy novels are a good thing. The same goes for some people over on the Terry Brooks forum. Some won't even buy a fantasy book if it doesn't have a map.

While it's not a deal-breaker for me when it comes to buying a fantasy novel, it certainly doesn't hurt the decision. If a map is professional as well as detailed, it's probably going to help, in fact.

Tegan Beechy over on Fantasy Faction has this to say:

But just as a good map can bring a novel to life, a bad map can highlight an author’s shortsightedness, reinforce weak conceptual links between the stages of a plot, and direct reader attention to lazy writing and worldbuilding.

Similar to a good quality book cover, a professionally done map is really the only way to go. I used to use Paint to work up gaming maps. They were fine for what I was using them for, but I'd never put such a thing in a novel for which I'm expecting people to pay money. If one considers a book cover the first thing a reader sees, then the map isn't far behind. A poorly done map can really turn off a reader and is perhaps an unfair sign of the quality of the writing. But a sign nonetheless.

A good fantasy map lends authenticity to the world it depicts. It makes the story—and the characters—more real because one can more readily believe the fictitious world is real. Also, it signifies a higher level of professionalism on the part of the author. It shows that he or she cares about the product being delivered to readers.

A map, however, can also mislead a reader:

…creating a map and then letting most of the story take place in one location was seen as a deceit, as if the map was a broken promise

I have to watch out for this one as the next book in the Alchemancer series takes place all in one location even though I've got a map coming from my illustrator which will detail the surrounding area as well. On the plus side, I'm also having a map done of the city in which everything happens. Hopefully that will balance things out for anyone who shares the 'broken promise' opinion.

While it would seem a lot of people consider maps important, I can't help but wonder how relevant they remain considering that quest novels and books that have a lot of "characters going places", where maps really shine, have fallen out of favor. I know GRRM's novels have maps, though, and I don't remember too many quests going on in those books.

Another reason I wonder about maps in today's world of eBooks and eReaders is because it isn't easy to navigate back and forth between your current reading place and the map itself. At least not as easy as flipping pages in a paperback. I probably need to test this out on my iPad before I go on about this point too much, but I've not found it to be the greatest experience with my Kindle 2. But this is a problem technology can solve. It may have already.

Which brings me to my next point, which is that with the proliferation of tablets maybe maps in glorious color and detail are more important and relevant then ever before. While black and white does just fine for maps, fantasy maps in particular look so much more vibrant and alive in color.

Of course, with all of this talk of the importance of maps the astute reader will notice that I don't have any maps in my own eBooks. Not yet, anyway. I think they're important enough, though, that I commissioned an illustrator/cartographer to work some up.

I've already revealed the map for The Hall of the Wood. Other maps to follow include a regional map for The Five Elements, a world map of Uhl (the world I set my novels in), and two for the next book in The Alchemancer series—one regional map and one of the city where most of the story takes place.

What are your thoughts on maps? Good, bad, or indifferent?

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