Cartography and its Discontents

Sometimes I think I wrote three quarters of a million words of epic fantasy just so I could have my own damn map. In this, I am badly, deeply misunderstood by both my wife and my agent, neither of whom, I am certain, has so much as glanced at Isaac Stewart’s gorgeous map, despite the fact that it’s inside the cover of every damn book I’ve ever published. And I fear that they are not alone. I’ve come to realize that their ranks are legion, that there are literally millions of readers out there with no interest in maps, who will blithely skip past the most beautiful, crucial pages of a novel just to get to the actual words.

Cartographical philistines and longitudinal troglodytes, this post is for you.

A map is more than a two-dimensional catalogue of locations. First, and most importantly, it is a promise. By mapping a world, or a continent, or even a city, a writer assures his/her readers that their imagination has ranged well beyond the boundaries of their particular story, that they have imagined, not just the room in which the scene takes place, but the street beyond that room, the political structure responsible for building those streets and maintaining them, the agricultural system on which that political structure rests, the natural resources that undergird that system, and all the rest.

Every so often, I come across fantasy scenes that feel like a movie set. Everything looks good on the surface, but I can’t shake the nagging sense that it’s all just painted plywood over 2x4s, that if I looked behind those drapes or that door, I’d find, not an expansive land rich in history and mythology, but just a barren back lot and a bored gaffer on his smoke break. A map, a good map, at least, obviates that concern to some degree. It is a declaration of seriousness.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

A map, like a sonnet, is also a challenge that a writer poses to themself. In part, the nature of this challenge comes from the strange pacing of the publishing industry itself. I was asked months ago, for instance, for the cover notes for my next book. What scenes, my editor wondered, might work well in the art? This was a tricky question, given that I hadn’t written any of the actual scenes. The exigencies of publishing, however, require this imagery early, and it’s the same with maps. Which means that a writer might well hand in a map for their story before that story is even finished.

While this might seem like an ass-backward way to do things, I love it. After all, stories—real and imagined—play out in a preexisting world. The world does not exist to serve the stories. I like working within the formal constraints of my own map when I write my books. I like looking at the terrain, the opportunities and dangers it presents, and then imagining my characters looking at that same map, trying to imagine what they would do, how they would move through that world.

Finally, maps provide a lens through which to view the events of the story. Every map, after all, contains the biases of the mapmaker, and while cartography might like to lay a claim to objectivity, there can be no objectivity in an artifact that excludes a thousand-fold the amount of information that it contains. Does a map contain political boundaries or landforms? What demographic information does it convey? Religion? Age? Ethnicity? What does it elide? What landforms are depicted? Which are excluded? Do those confident dotted lines obscure ongoing conflicts? No map can escape these deliberations, and even the most thoughtful cartography can’t offer the absolute truth, only a perspective on that truth. One reason I spend so much time studying a map before I read the book that follows is that I’m curious about that perspective. I get a glimpse before I even begin, into what the writer thinks is important about their own story.

Not that I expect any of this to sway my wife, who once drew a map of southern Vermont that was comprised entirely of a straight line joining three points: Putney, Brattleboro, Boston. Maybe, however, she’ll stop thinking I’m so deranged for spending so much time staring at the road atlas and ignoring Siri’s soothing voice.


This article was originally published March 24, 2016 on the Tor UK blog.
Map images by Isaac Stewart.

Brian Staveley‘s first book, The Emperor’s Blades—the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne—won the David Gemmell Morningstar Award, the Reddit Stabby for best debut, and scored semi-finalist spots in the Goodreads Choice Awards in two categories: epic fantasy and debut. The second book in the trilogy, The Providence of Fire, was also a Goodreads Choice semi-finalist. The concluding volume of the trilogy, The Last Mortal Bond, is available now from Tor Books. Brian lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on Twitter at @brianstaveley, Facebook as brianstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley or at his blog, On the Writing of Epic Fantasy.


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