The Farthing Party Map Panel

A Map of Every Fantasy World Ever

The Farthing Party map panel (see previous entry) came off surprisingly well. I was actually shocked to discover that what I thought were my controversial thoughts about maps were actually not that controversial: I knew it was going to be a good panel when both Lila and Emmet said in their opening remarks that they were opposed in principle to fantasy maps.

From there, we talked about why maps in fantasy novels tend to look the same and what they say about the books they illustrate. There is a sameness in map design that is rather discouraging: one fantasy map looks not terribly different from another. While a map can help a reader navigate a book that covers lots of strange geography, a fantasy map is essentially a signifier: it tells the potential reader what kind of fantasy novel this is. That is to say, it’s a fat fantasy with maps — extruded fantasy product. The map signals to the reader that this is more of the same drug for their fix. Derivative maps for derivative books. It’s bad enough that Jo Walton was told not to include a map in one of her fantasy novels, even though one was available — because it would have said the wrong thing about her books.

Not every fantasy novel has a map: unless it deals with a secondary world or a radically changed political geography in our world, it may not even need one.

I mentioned a couple of maps that I thought good: Roland Chambers’s maps for Lev Grossman’s novels, and Keith Thompson’s maps for Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy. (Though I didn’t credit the artists during the panel; I’d forgotten who they were.) I argued that fantasy maps should be in a style contemporary to the period they portray.

In addition, my blind guess that modern fantasy maps were the descendants of children’s book illustrations was confirmed by people who knew their early 20th-century children’s books. Fantasy maps may therefore be seen as the last vestige of in-book illustrations.

And, at the end, when I mentioned that I was interested in the use of maps in the stories themselves, I was given so many titles that it’ll take me a year just to track them down and read them. (I’ve already updated the project page.)

I seem to be remembering only what I said or was thinking during the panel; hopefully somebody else took notes or remembers what else was said, because this report is limited to what I can remember. But boy did that panel go well — and I think it went over well, too. It was everything I’d hoped it would be.

(Illustration: source unknown, but reblogged all over the place. Didn’t come up in the discussion, but could have.)

Edit, 9/27: An argument was made, I think by Marissa, that to diss maps because of how they’re currently used in fantasy literature is akin to dissing characterization or plot: because it’s done badly does not mean that it should not be done at all. If that means better maps, good, says I.

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.