A few months ago, I ran across a tweet by Sam Sykes asking readers to weigh in – are maps in books just fun bonus content or necessary material that readers refer to constantly as they proceed through a story? The majority of the 2000+ people who voted said it was just fun bonus content. As I considered the question, I came to the conclusion of what maps in books do for me personally. I don’t usually refer to a map constantly, but I do think they deserve more love than just “fun bonus material.”
The reason I love maps in books, particularly at the beginning of a fantasy novel, is that they help get me in the right frame of mind. Is this a sprawling epic across a continent, or a tale confined to one cramped city? Is it full of many big nations, or lots of tiny ones, or one all-consuming empire? These are all questions that can fully be answered (and probably should be answered) in the text of the narrative itself, but it can be helpful to have a frame of reference before diving into the story. With a quick sketch of the setting given through maps, I have a context to place the narrative I’m about to read and can start laying out the pieces in the framework provided.
Take a look, for instance, at the below maps from JADE CITY by Fonda Lee. I knew right away that there were two conflicting powers operating within the city of Janloon, and which places were important enough to be considered neutral. It was also clear by presence of an additional map of the island that the island as a whole was important to consider, and that this nation isn’t alone – there are other powers out there, though perhaps they will not be central to the story. Also, there are subways noted on the map, which was my first real clue that this story was more modern than I anticipated (not to its detriment!).
Maps by Tim Paul Illustration
The other things maps help establish is tone. As noted above, the maps of JADE CITY helped me realize that this was a modern fantasy book, and also a very urban one. It allowed me to eject any notions I had of a more “classical” fantasy setting, so I wasn’t blindsided when I began reading. Compare JADE CITY to the map of THE LIES OF LOCKE LAMORA by Scott Lynch. While it’s also a fantasy book in an urban setting, the calligraphy style on the map says right up front that we are in a more “old-school” setting, that the more classical approach to fantasy (swords and castles and what not) is likely to be on hand. And indeed, the city of Camorr shares a lot with a 16th or 17th century Venice in its ambiance.
Map by Robert Bull
Maps are not essential to an amazing story. Any author worth their salt can paint a picture without you ever needing to look at reference material. And it is true that, after the initial perusal of the map, I may not look at it again for the rest of the read. But those first few minutes when I’m settling down to a new book can be a beautiful way to slowly sink into the narrative, to soak up the flavor of what’s to come. It’s why I adore maps, and why, when a book doesn’t contain them, I sometimes get an itch in the back of my brain. I absolutely LOVED the recent SEVEN BLADES IN BLACK by Sam Sykes, but as there was no map in my advanced copy (and there may not have been one period) there was always a part of my brain going “Are these warring nations based on the same continent? Where is the area known as the Scar in relation to everything?” So on and so forth. That book will likely be one of my top reads of the year, but oh what I would have given for that “fun bonus material” called a map.