I made the mistake of mentioning on Twitter that some day I would vent about why I hate fantasy maps, and that got enough people asking that apparently today will be that day.
DISCLAIMER THE FIRST: These are my personal opinions as a reader. If you, as a reader who is not me, happen to love fantasy maps and can’t get enough of them, that’s totally fine. This is not a judgment on you. We are allowed to like different things when we’re talking pretendy funtimes and not, say, fascism.
DISCLAIMER THE SECOND: Some of my fellow writers may read this. I want you to please understand that this is not a personal attack on you for having decided to make one of those fantasy maps. Readers have different preferences, and I’m sure you have readers who will like maps as much as I don’t like them. And in fact, despite my preferences as a reader, as a geologist, I would be more than happy to help make sure your fantasy map doesn’t contain horrendous geography for a reasonable fee. Because if they’re gonna be out there, I’d like for your maps to be good ones. And I actually do enjoy maps as objects of art, weirdly enough.
We all on the same page now? Good.
Why I Don’t Like Fantasy Maps: A Short List by Alex Acks
- Most of them are terrible. Like geographically, geologically terrible. You’ve already probably seen me complain about the map of Middle Earth. From my experience as a reader, and I’ll readily admit that I have neither had the patience nor time to read every fantasy book ever written, the majority of fantasy maps make me want to tear my hair out as a geologist. Many of them are worse than the Tolkien map, and without his fig leaf of mythology to justify it. (And sorry, it’s not a fig leaf that works for me.)
- Corollary: If your fantasy map is terrible, you have probably already lost my willing suspension of disbelief before I even dive into the book. Sorry, but this is what an MS in Geology will do to an otherwise easygoing person.
- Corollary: Looking at these maps will often make major worldbuilding issues lunge out at me that otherwise might have slid by. Like, for example, the question of where the hell your massive population center is getting its water when it is located nowhere near a river. Or the question of where they’re getting their food from. And so on.
- A lot of fantasy maps stand out very glaringly as lands that have been artificially created around a story that was already written, rather than organic geographies that shape the stories and peoples. This will often point back at the previous three points, because features and geography that are located to suit a story aren’t necessarily going to make any goddamn geographical sense. I find this artificiality annoying.
- There’s a tendency in certain fantasy maps to make most country borders follow things like mountain ranges or rivers. This, frankly, looks extremely weird.
- The number of people who don’t bother to put a fucking scale on their fucking map astounds me. A map without a scale is functionally useless.
- We failed student projects in field lab for not doing this, because without a scale, a map (or diagram, or picture) is meaningless.
- Putting some kind of scale or other surveying marks to indicate how distance on a map relates to measured distance is not a recent invention. (Even if the measurements weren’t terribly accurate at times.)
- If you don’t put a scale on your map, then it’s basically a relativistic perception exercise for whoever the cartographer was… which could almost be interesting if one of the characters made the map, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen in a book I’ve read.
- I get extremely offended as a reader if understanding a book requires me to check an appendix or look at a map for what’s happening to make any sense. It breaks up the flow of reading, and a lot of times, it’s something that could be taken care of in the text.
- There is literally only one book I can think of as an exception to this: The Killer Angels. Which is not a fantasy novel; it’s a historical novel that closely follows the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s got some very detailed maps of the battlefield over each of the days in it that it does help to consult for understanding of things like troop movements and line of sight. I have never run across a fantasy novel that hits this level of detail, and honestly I doubt I’d be interested in one.
- ETA1: OH WAIT I LIED! There is one other exception, and it is a fantasy map! The map of the Stillness that NK Jemisin has at the beginning of The Stone Sky is A+ and has a scale. I didn’t feel the need to consult it during reading, but it warmed the rockles of my geologist’s heart to see all the plate boundaries laid out for the supercontinent.
- If the map isn’t required for understanding of the text, I’m left wondering why it’s even there. It’s not necessary. It’s more information than I need.
- I’d rather have the space to imagine things for myself.
- I don’t like that the ubiquity of unnecessary maps in fantasy literature puts pressure on me as a writer to follow suit. As someone who has drawn or otherwise generated many a map as a function of my job as a scientist, you can’t make me.