Maps are great. Those little maps in shopping centres, the delightful London Underground map or, of course, maps of a fictional world in a book. As a genre, fantasy novels are full of maps; in fact, half of the 25 best fantasy books have maps!
And I can lose hours looking at them. The relations between places, the names and the history inherent in them, and the human stories behind each pathway, road and town. Time spent poring over a map, even in simple appreciation, is always a pleasure. So I thought I’d compile a little list of the best fantasy maps.
No list of maps could neglect Middle-Earth. It is, if not the first, and if not the greatest, then certainly the foremost of fantasy maps. Tolkien was a premier world-builder, constructing languages and histories and geographies to an extent few others have even attempted. You could spend hours poring over a map of Middle-Earth. People are probably more familiar with the version in Peter Jackson’s films, but this was the copy originally published in The Lord of the Rings and thus the one we all spent hours peering at. There’s a great care and devotion in this map, and it has evoked a great devotion for the world it depicts.
The Six Duchies
What I love most about this map is that it’s not necessary at all. Hobb did a marvellous job in her Farseer Trilogy of drawing a map in the mind of the reader with words. I never referred to this map out of necessity, which made it something to look at purely for the joy of it. And whilst some called it a lazy map, I quite like how sparse it is. A lack of detail is an open door to the imagination, and this is a map that allows the reader to paint huge vistas onto it.
The maps of Westeros are a polar opposite to that of the Six Duchies, detailed with a plethora of names and places, some barely mentioned in the narrative, others never mentioned at all. You could spend hours poring over that map, wondering at the distance between Harrenhal and Banefort (Martin apparently likes to be vague with scale). They’re glorious maps, and you have to love a fantasy series that keeps increasing the number of maps in the front matter.
So why have I used an image of the title sequence to the TV show? I know it’s a bit of a cheat, but it wraps up all of the gooey awesome map stuff and perfectly translates it to the screen. The sense of scale, the relationships of places, the spaces for the imagination, the feel of the world itself. It’s all there. It’s a map come to life.
I love that it centres on the pole, and dozens of place names scattered everywhere, not because they’re all mentioned in the novel, but because that’s just where they are. It offers hours of amusement, and best of all it’s a window into the world: names like “Shield Wall” and “Imperial Basin” tell you about this world before you even start reading, and the naming patterns of the sietches give insight into the rules and practices Dune’s people.
As with so many things in the Harry Potter series, the Marauder’s Map is a delightful twist on a fictional staple. It’s simple too: a map that shows you where everyone is. It’s what many a reader has always hoped for (tell me you’ve never read Lord of the Rings and wished someone could tell you where the hell Frodo is). Never mind that it’s a thing of beauty, nor that the incantation to open and close it never fail to elicit a smile. The Marauder’s Map may not be a true fantasy map as we all think of them, but it’s perhaps the most fun.
I’m conflicted over including this entry, as none of the Discworld books include a map in them. But, over 41 novels, there’s no denying that Terry Pratchett built an incredible world. Aside from the fact that it’s a world resting on the backs of four great elephants, all stood on the shell of a space-surfing turtle, there’s just so much geography, history, and variety on the Discworld! Although most of the Discworld was created as nearly-always clear satire of places on Earth, you can’t deny that when you put them all together, they do result in a pretty gorgeous map.
Four Corners of Civilisation
The map from Patrick Rothfuss’ debut novel, The Name of the Wind gets a slot on this list purely for the illustrative decoration to it. Very often fantasy maps can be functional things, something to tell readers that there’s a city here, a mountain over there, and the Valley of Eternal Doom is to the south. But look at the name of the map, written over a indulgent ribbon, or the illustration of a man in the corner. Maps don’t always have to be functional. They can be artistic too.
The central conceit of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series is that there is another world in which fictional characters all live alongside each other. It’s a fun concept, and although I wasn’t blown away by the first book in the series, it’s impossible not to love this map.
It’s full of details that make me smile every time. The different fonts used for the name of each region (‘Horror’ is my favourite). The Streams of Consciousness. The martini glass beside ‘Bond’. The fact that Blyton is an island. Mervyn Peake Peak. Cliffs of Notes. The way that the coast of Crime seems to form the shape of a hand holding a dagger.
In fact, I see a new detail every time I look at this map, and it becomes a pleasure to pore over it even when you’re not reading; the truest indicator of a great map!
Brian Jacques’ Redwall series are children’s books which is perhaps why the maps are so sparse. They convey the bare minimum of information. All of the locations labelled appear in the book and there is no extraneous information. That said, I was still entranced by this map. Having so little information makes what there is all the more important. What happened at the mountain, where the sword declares the site of Boar’s Battle? What are the flood tunnels for? And, of course, it has a decorative border, and they’re always nice to look at.
Alright, I might be biased, but these are some of my favourite fantasy maps purely because they’re of the world I’ve invented for the Realm Rift Saga. Howard Coates did an incredible job of turning my scrawl into a beautiful fantasy world, and he’s filled it with little details and easter eggs that mean even I enjoy poring over them to see what other secrets they might hold!
★★★★★ – “A must read for fans of epic fantasy”