Science fiction and fantasy and maps go together like peanut butter and jelly (or peanut butter and bananas which I much prefer). I fell in love with maps in science fiction and fantasy books from page one and while I can’t remember which was my first, it was probably through C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or Brian Jacques’ Martin the Warrior? I know maps aren’t for everyone, while for others too much is never enough—but I’ve always enjoyed opening a book to the maps page, seeing this new, foreign (to me) world that I was about to explore and then, later, going back and seeing where our intrepid cast had gone.
Immersion in the world is a key component of fantasy, and epic fantasy in particular and maps are just another layer to creating that depth. One of my favorite fantasy maps is Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderings because there’s this vast world that we get to explore and uncover trilogy by trilogy. We see the Six Duchies and come to know Fitzchivalry’s haunts, then we get to explore the Rain Wilds and learn more about this dangerous, haunted land, before returning to the Six Duchies and the frozen northlands and beyond. It’s a map that I take a few minutes to study every time I return to Fitz or the Fool.
As a writer, maps perform another function: they help to anchor geography in my mind so that I’m less likely to do something foolhardy in the text like send a character halfway round the world in a single day or place two cities side by side that are in fact on different continents. Beyond simple geography, they also give me another tool to explore when creating the world my characters inhabit. If worldbuilding is an iceberg, maps can both lay the foundation and hint at what lies beneath the surface.
My book, The Sin in the Steel takes place in a quasi-Mediterranean/Caribbean setting in an Age of Mercantilism and Sail and I wanted the geography to reflect that so we have island city-states that have come together to form empires, disparate cultures and climates, and a previously unexplored coast. Servenza, where our story begins, and is our protagonist Buc’s home, is one of those city states with canals and quartos and palazzos that we get to see laid out on the page. Port au’ Sheen is a former pirate haunt now turned trading town and serves as a port of call for all sorts of ships (including pirates, ahem… privateers).
That’s all surface level worldbuilding, but let me give you an example of how maps can drill down deeper, allowing a careful reader to begin to understand some of what is hinted at in the text. Aptly named, the Shattered Coast was wracked for centuries by enormous hurricanes fueled by the huge expanse of warm waters. These massive storms meant sailing too far west was a veritable death sentence, but as we learn in the book, a century or so ago the volcanoes forming the ‘Ring of Fire’ simultaneously erupted, spewing so much ash into the atmosphere that it caused massive cooling for over a decade. This impact on the climate allowed the ocean temperature to drop enough that new weather patterns emerged, forever diminishing the potential power of storms and ultimately enabling exploration of the Shattered Coast which led to the discovery of new cash crops that kicked off the current age my story is set in.
That sounds cool, right? Hurricanes so large they formed a storm wall until rings of volcanoes swept the world in ash and pivoted the entire climate of half the world. That’s the bit of the iceberg that’s below the water, but the question you should be asking yourself is what about that chunk floating out there in front of us? The question uncovered in the text is were those eruptions natural or were they created? And if created, by whom and to what purpose? A crueler author would say read and find out, haha. I’ll just say this…in the world of The Sin in the Steel as in ours, one could do worse than follow the money. After all, aren’t the best maps ones that lead to treasure?
Ryan Van Loan served six years in the US Army Infantry, on the front lines of Afghanistan. He now works in healthcare innovation. The Sin in the Steel is his debut novel. Van Loan and his wife live in Pennsylvania.