Wyrd and Wonder Things I Love: Maps in Books

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.


27 thoughts on “Wyrd and Wonder Things I Love: Maps in Books

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  1. I adore maps! And I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read without them where I kept thinking “why isn’t there a damn map? I need to know where the characters are right now!” I’m one of those geeks who will literally keep referring back to the map while I’m reading😁

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    1. Exactly! I don’t necessarily need to be checking every chapter, but if suddenly the enemy army is coming from the Plot Device Mountains and our heroes are in the town of Somewhere, what does that distance look like on scale?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yesssss, I just love maps. While I’m actually a weird juxtaposition, in the sense that I love them (and have a collection of book- and video game-related maps in support of this), at the same time, I also don’t really reference them much while I’m reading, but usually admire before and after. Though the map in the beginning of Kill the Farm Boy was dang hilarious.

    Also, do you follow cartographer Soraya Corcoran on Twitter? Because her maps are STUNNING and I think you’d really like them!

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  3. Maps are the best! I always pore over any map given in a book. Yes, they’re not essential, but I do find them useful for grounding and orienting myself in a new world. Plus, they often look amazing.

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  4. Great post! I must admit that while I don’t have anything against maps, I don’t usually start using them (if at all) until I’ve started reading the book, and that’s when I really get a feel for what the place looks like. I think I prefer maps of cities rather than whole continents, too. I feel a little lost when I see a map for a whole other world, but maps like the map of Ketterdam in Six of Crows I find much more useful until I start reading a book and I can put its different countries in context.

    I think what you said about a map revealing if a book is a historical or more modern fantasy is really interesting, though! I’d never actually considered that, and yet I must have also used maps to help me with this kind of thing, too, and like you said they’re a really helpful and clever way to put writers in the right frame of mind so they don’t go into a book expecting a medieval setting and getting a 20th century inspired setting instead.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love your thoughts! City maps are definitely interesting, especially if you can start gleaning how they decide to segregate classes or different kinds of businesses. Or like in Jade City, the Temple District was marked as neutral territory, so you know that religion is important and respected. There can be all kinds of fun details hiding in maps!

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  5. In real life I am awful at directions and can get my self hopelessly lost if my phone isn’t giving me directions. So, that being the case, I don’t pay attention to maps in books at all. They look cool, and I know they are super helpful to some people, but I just don’t care. I don’t try to remember the layout or picture where cities are, I just go with the story and assume the author kept their geography straight 😂😂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is such an amazing post!!! I honestly LOVE it when fantasy worlds include maps, especially when the region is at war and there are complicated political things going on. It is really useful for me to see where the countries/cities are located in relation to one another, and often times it really enhances my understanding of the book.

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