Mapping An Ember in the Ashes

Jonathan Roberts's map for An Ember in the Ashes

The fantasy cartographer Jonathan Roberts has a blog post, reprinted at, that shows some of the steps involved in creating the map for Sabaa Tahir’s novel An Ember in the Ashes.

I sometimes get asked how to do a fantasy map. I’m the wrong person to ask, because I’m basically a fantasy map critic, not a working illustrator. What the people asking me this question want is an instruction manual for the standard fantasy map, and for that, Roberts is their man, because he’s an actual illustrator. He does operate within the dominant fantasy map paradigm I often critique (though with a good deal more colour and texture than the standard line drawing), but he does it very well, and more importantly shares his methods. Roberts’s blog is full of interesting material on how he goes about creating fantasy maps: see for example this tutorial.

Readercon 25

Jonathan Crowe on the Readercon panel I had a very good Readercon. I was a nervous wreck leading up to it, because I had to rewrite the fantasy maps presentation from the ground up. (The first draft was too long and too unfocused. Thanks ever so much to my beta testers who pointed out its flaws the Sunday before the convention.)

Fortunately the presentation on Friday night went off without a hitch—the computer connected properly to the projector, I forgot to stammer—and was very well received: one person called it “probably my favorite event of the con,” which is astonishing when you consider that the con in question is freaking Readercon.

(My presentation also seems to have resulted in Wesleyan University Press selling out its on-hand copies of Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons, which was referenced heavily.)

The Thursday night panel on maps in fiction also seems to have gone over well, based on what I’ve been hearing. It’s not always easy to tell if a panel goes well when you’re leading it: even if it doesn’t turn out the way you expected it to, as was the case here, it may still be a success if the audience enjoys it. Which appears to have been the case. If nothing else, I managed to emit something quotable:

As for the context of that remark, if you weren’t there, I’ll leave that for you to figure out. (I’m working on something along those lines, let me just say.)
For my final panel on Sunday morning, I joined my fellow panellists in a discussion of spoilers. I found myself jumping in and throwing little idea bombs into the discussion, hopefully not too annoyingly or in too derailing a fashion. I saw Scott Edelman recording it on video (the photo above is his) so you may well see the whole thing online at some point.

Meanwhile, I took photos sporadically: here’s the photo album. (Goes without saying that I didn’t bring a camera to my own panels.)

I’d say more, and in more fulsome detail, but I’m off to Detcon 1 in the morning, so this is all you get for now. (This is entirely too little time between conventions.)

Four More Map Stories

Four more fantasy stories about maps to tell you about.

To begin with, two short stories by Beth Cato, both published in Daily Science Fiction, both available to read online. In the first, Cartographer’s Ink (August 24, 2012), cartographers “peddle in ink, earth and war”: boundaries drawn on maps with magic ink have real-world effects. The second, simply titled Maps (February 14, 2013), is a brief, quietly horrific tale of a young girl, Christina, whose left hand, against her will, draws maps that predict the future. Both belong to that group of map stories that deal in the tension between map and territory, between representation and reality.

Next, Caligo Lane by Ellen Klages (Subterranean, Winter 2014), which uses the map-as-portal trope: a San Francisco cartographer-witch in a hard-to-find home uses a map to conjure a literal passageway to the place being mapped.

The secret of ori-kami is that a single sheet of paper can be folded in a nearly infinite variety of patterns, each resulting in a different transformation of the available space. Given any two points, it is possible to fold a line that connects them. A map is a menu of possible paths. When Franny folds one of her own making, instead of plain paper, she creates a new alignment of the world, opening improbable passages from one place to another.

Once, when she was young and in a temper, she crumpled one into a ball and threw it across the room, muttering curses. A man in Norway found himself in an unnamed desert, confused and over-dressed. His journey did not end well.

The Japanese army might call this art ori-chizu, “map folding,” but fortunately they are unaware of its power.

Finally, we have “The Inner Inner City” by Robert Charles Wilson, which first appeared in Northern Frights 4, an anthology edited by Don Hutchison (Mosaic Press, 1997); it’s since been reprinted in Wilson’s collection, The Perseids and Other Stories (Tor, 2000). In response to a challenge to invent a religion, Jeremy Singer decides to create “a city religion. An urban occultism. Divination by cartography. Call it paracartography.” There is a tradition of using secret maps to find hidden places; this iteration is quite surreal.

So my religion of the city would have to unite the two domains, the gnostic and the urban. Paracartography implied the making of maps, city maps, a map of this city, but not an ordinary map; a map of the city’s secret terrains, the city as perceived by a divine madman, streets rendered as ecstasies or purgatories; a map legible only at night, in the dark.

Singer loses himself in overnight walks, in more ways than one.

What I rediscovered that autumn was my ability to get lost. Toronto is a forgiving city, essentially a gridwork of streets as formal and uninspiring as its banks. Walk in any direction long enough, you’ll find a landmark or a familiar bus route. As a rule. But the invention of paracartography exercised such trancelike power that I was liable to walk without any sense of time or direction and find myself, hours later, in a wholly new neighborhood, as if my feet had followed a map of their own.

Which was precisely what I wanted. Automatic pathfinding, like automatic writing. How better to begin a paracartographic survey?

Previously: Four Map Stories.

Game of Thrones Map Marker Set

Game of Thrones Map Markers (Dark Horse) Dark Horse has released a Game of Thrones map marker set, based on a map and markers briefly seen in the first season of the HBO TV series. What surprises me is how much more the map resembles a real-world medieval map, in its use of symbols and text, than do the usual fantasy maps, including those for Westeros (though, as I’ve argued before, real-world medieval maps were much more information-dense, and covered in text). At $200, it’s not cheap, but the markers are up to six inches in height, and the map is made of fabric and roughly four by three feet in size. It’s available for purchase at Amazon and ThinkGeek, among others.

The Geology of ‘Game of Thrones’

The Geology of Game of Thrones
In The Geology of Game of Thrones, a group of geologists has created a geologic map of Westeros and Essos, as well as an invented geologic history of the planet on which George R. R. Martin’s epic takes place. Via io9.
This isn’t the first time a fantasy world has been looked at through a geologic lens. Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle-earth took a reasonably rigorous look at the landforms of Middle-earth. And Antony Swithin—a geologist in real life under his real name, William Sarjeant—created a geologic map of his invented island of Rockall (see previous entry).

Previously: Review: The Lands of Ice and Fire.

The New Yorker on Maps and Literature

Go read Casey N. Cep’s essay, “The Allure of the Map,” on the New Yorker‘s website: she explores the relationship between maps and literature on several fronts, including the role of maps in the creative process and the relationship between mapmaking and reality. Also quite a bit on the recurrent meme of the 1:1 map—the map as large as the thing being mapped—from Carroll to Borges to (I did not know) Gaiman (Swanwick and Eco too, if I’m not mistaken: more could indeed be said). Anyway: relevant to our interests. Go read.

The Journal of Unlikely Cartography

When it comes to maps and fantasy, I’m particularly interested in the ways that maps are used in the course of a story, as opposed to appearing at the front of the book for reference purposes. I’ve posted many examples over the past few years and have a bunch more in my to-read pile.
It looks like next year will add considerably to that list: Unlikely Story is publishing a single-issue Journal of Unlikely Cartography. The call for submissions:

From pirate maps leading to buried treasure to painstakingly-drawn maps of continents that never were, there are endless unlikely possibilities in the world of cartography. Send us your story of a rogue GPS taking a driver down non-existent roads, show us what lies in those unexplored territories labeled “here there be monsters,” give us haunted globes, star charts written in disappearing ink, and spiraling lines on crumbling parchment leading to the center of the labyrinth. As always, we want gorgeously-told tales, gripping characters, and unique worlds to explore. Genre doesn’t matter to us, along as your tale involves maps or cartography in some integral way.

Pays 5¢/word on publication, deadline February 1. I have had considerable difficulty in submitting to anthologies in the past (I write fiction very slowly; the story never quite gels in time for the deadline), but I really, really, really need to submit something to this.

How to Make a Fantasy Map

Map from The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley; map by Isaac Stewart

So today posted something very much relevant to my interests: a piece by illustrator Isaac Stewart that describes his process for creating a map for a fantasy novel. In this case, The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley, who very helpfully provided a sketch from which Stewart could work.

This is utterly fascinating for me, because a significant gap in my research into fantasy maps has been the process of creating them. It’s sort of left me feeling like a wine taster that has no idea how wine is made. Stewart (who has also done work for Brandon Sanderson’s novels: his maps for The Alloy of Law have already caught my attention) takes us through every step, from inspiration through Photoshop.

Earlier this year I published an article pointing out that the main difference between historical and fantasy maps was information density: a real medieval map is full of detail, because cartographers don’t dare waste vellum; fantasy maps are relatively sparse—largely, I suspected, because only so much detail can legibly fit on a map printed for a mass-market paperback. That was an educated guess on my part; it’s interesting to see it confirmed:

A map meant to fit in a hardcover book (and subsequently a paperback) can’t be as detailed as a real-world map and still be legible. Even though I treat the map as a product of its fantasy world, it has to be understandable to modern audiences. Usually this means I can’t copy the exact style of my reference, but I can use it for inspiration.

I’ll be referring to Stewart’s post often, I think.

My New Article on Fantasy Maps: ‘Here Be Blank Spaces’

NYRSF logo My short essay on fantasy maps, “Here Be Blank Spaces: Vaguely Medieval Fantasy Maps” appears in issue #300 of The New York Review of Science Fiction, out today. I wrote it in response to several books I read rather closely together earlier this year: Reinhart’s Art of the Map, Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, and especially Ekman’s Here Be Dragons (links to my reviews). Taken together, these books highlighted a key difference between fantasy maps and their real-world counterparts from medieval and early modern Europe: fantasy maps are full of blank spaces; real-world maps were not.

Issue #300 of the NYRSF should be available to subscribers now. If you’re not a subscriber, you’re in luck: issue #300 is being made available for free (it’s the NYRSF‘s 25th anniversary, and the publishers are offering it to celebrate and in hopes that you’ll subscribe). Download it from this page. I’ll eventually have it up in the Articles section as well.

Update 8/28: Read the article here.

Review: Here Be Dragons

Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons (Wesleyan University Press, February 2013) is a book-length examination of the use of maps and settings in fantasy literature. Maps and settings. Which is to say that maps are not the sole focus of this work: mark that. There are four main chapters, only one of which deals with maps; the remaining three deal with the issue of borders and territories, the relationship between nature and culture in fantasy cities, and the relationship between ruler and realm. Taken as a whole, this book discusses the role of place in fantasy.

But I won’t be discussing that whole here: I am no literary scholar, and can’t say much of value about the chapters that do not discuss maps—nothing that would rise above the level of a last-minute undergraduate paper, anyway. But maps are something I can say something about, especially fantasy maps, since I myself have been paying attention to them over the past decade, first during my time blogging at The Map Room (see the [old] Imaginary Places category) and since then more sporadically, but with more focus, for my fantasy maps project.

Continue reading “Review: Here Be Dragons”

The Sixteenth-Century Origins of Fantasy Maps

One of the things I’m interested in for my fantasy maps project is the origin of fantasy map design: where does that tell-tale fantasy map look come from?

Look at enough fantasy maps, and it’s hard not to notice certain commonalities in design. As Stefan Ekman demonstrates in Here Be Dragons (yes, I have a review coming—soon!), the maps that accompany fantasy novels tend to be characterized by a number of typical features. “Like much high fantasy,” he writes, “the secondary-world maps follow a pseudomedieval aesthetic according to which dashes of pre-Enlightenment mapping conventions are rather routinely added to a mostly modern creation.”1 Fantasy maps look nothing like medieval maps, and can in many ways be seen as the hybrid descendent of 19th-century amateur mapmaking and early-20th-century children’s book illustrations.

Continue reading “The Sixteenth-Century Origins of Fantasy Maps”

Ankh-Morpork on the iPad

Terry Pratchett once declared the Discworld unmappable (“There are no maps. You can’t map a sense of humour.”); all the same, there is now an interactive map of principal city Ankh-Morpork for the iPad. reports that “the map is dotted with itty-bitty little people walking around Ankh-Morpork, doing their Ankh-Morpork business. Walking around, being themselves. … While many of these figures are indistinct civilians, the city is full of characters from the Discworld novels. Of course Death is there … ” Costs $14; requires iOS 6.