Review: The Lands of Ice and Fire

The Lands of Ice and Fire (cover) The Lands of Ice and Fire, which came out last month, is a collection of maps of the lands of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, executed by the fantasy cartographer Jonathan Roberts.

You should know what you’re getting when you buy this. It’s not an atlas. It’s not even a book. George himself describes it as “a book-shaped box containing a whole bunch of gorgeous, glossy, fold-out maps of Westeros, Essos, and the lands and seas from A Song of Ice and Fire.” There is no text other than on a single-page introduction.

Open the box and you see two sleeves containing six maps apiece. Each map is 24 by 30 inches, single sided, in full colour, and on glossy paper, the kind you can see your fingerprints on. As fantasy maps go, this is a lavish production—a long way from the two-colour atlases we’ve seen for other imaginary worlds. (Some Amazon reviewers have expressed concern about wear and tear from folding and unfolding the maps; bear that in mind.)

I don’t think anything has been done like this before; maps of Middle-earth have been sold at bookstores in cardboard containers, and I’m told that in 1980 there were maps of the Star Trek universe done in a similar fashion, but I don’t think anything approximating this has ever been done for an imagined universe anywhere else. (If it has, please send me a copy immediately.)

Roberts’s maps execute the standard fantasy map design language, but in full colour, with more shades of green (for plains and forests) and white (for ice) than I was anticipating. (I guess I was expecting faded parchment.) I’m fairly certain these were produced (or at least coloured and lettered) digitally, and Roberts has achieved a good overall effect. (Though the cliffs don’t necessarily have the right perspective view compared with other parts of the shoreline.) These maps are competently executed, but not groundbreaking.

The maps are as follows: The Known World; The West; Central Essos; The East; Westeros; Beyond the Wall; The Free Cities; Slaver’s Bay; The Dothraki Sea; King’s Landing (a city map); Braavos (another city map); and Journeys (which shows characters’ travels). There is quite a bit of overlap: many areas (e.g. Westeros) show up in several maps at several scales.

The maps are almost too big. Unwieldy, even. You need a lot of table space to look at a two-foot-by-three-foot map. An atlas would have been easier to use—to browse, to flip through.

A surprising lack of detail exacerbates their size: it’s amazing how empty these maps look (and not just the maps showing the Dothraki Sea, though central Essos is practically blank). But compared with the endpaper maps in A Dance with Dragons, these maps show the exact same amount of detail. Make the maps bigger, and features and lettering are reduced in relative size: the maps look emptier. And endpaper maps are also high-contrast, rendered in black and white, whereas on these maps, hills, plains and forests are painted in the Photoshop equivalent of watercolours, and simply fade into the background.

If the small-scale maps show just as much detail, the middle-scale, regional maps are somewhat redundant. For my money, the Known World and Journeys maps are just the right scale for the size. Conversely, the most interesting maps to look at are the ones that are the most cluttered and the largest in scale: the city maps of King’s Landing and Braavos.

My partner Jennifer, who’s actually read the books (and whose observations about these maps helped me write this review) says she could spend a lot of time studying the Journeys map; unfortunately, this map more than any other will be obsoleted by forthcoming books. It would have been nice to have seen more thematic maps like this, but that’s the sort of thing you’d get from an atlas.

These maps are noteworthy for their unusual presentation, large size, and high production values, but on balance they’re a bit of a disappointment, largely because their unusual presentation and large size aren’t always a good thing.

Buy at Amazon | publisher’s page

Previously: Now Out: The Lands of Ice and Fire; The Lands of Ice and Fire: Westeros Atlas Coming in October.