Contemporary fantasy is rife with maps, but how do we, as readers, view them? How is a fantasy book with a map regarded, and what impression does the map give before the story has had a chance to tell us what it wants to say? Last year, I did a survey concerning these questions, and while I would think twice before claiming it has scientific value, the few hundred answers I got still give some interesting insights. The participants in the survey were randomly picked from different fantasy forums, and even though their interest in the genre was active enough to make them want to discuss fantasy books or at least get recommendations, they generally represented the average casual fantasy reader—not the fan who lives with the genre as a part of his or her daily life.
A clear majority of readers who answered the questions saw the map as a good complement to the text, adding to the realism of the story and lending authenticity to the fictive world. These readers thought it pointed to professionalism and thoroughness. In many ways, the map was perceived as a natural part of the book, and opening a fantasy book without a map surprised some readers, since they expected it to be there. Some were scared away by its absence; others were made curious. Either way, the map was seen as the key to understanding the travels of the protagonists, and following them without such help often resulted in frustration for those used to being able to look on the map. Many appreciated the map for its own sake; whether it actually added to their reading experience was of less importance, though creating a map and then letting most of the story take place in one location was seen as a deceit, as if the map was a broken promise.
A few of those with their own literary ambitions had drawn or begun working on their own maps, in some cases without getting around to the actual writing. You could guess that the map symbolizes the world they are trying to create and the world building they are involved with, and that putting a place or country on the map is an easier way to nail your creation down than actually getting around to writing about it. It could also be that they were, in fact, more interested in creating a world with mountains, lakes, and forests than stories and individuals to inhabit the world. It could also point back to the supposed professionalism of the fantasy writer who uses maps—if you believe that a good fantasy novel ought to have a map, you might not want to start writing your own without it—or the notion that fantasy books have maps just in the same way as they have pages and main characters, and that you should start with the first thing that normally greets you when you open the covers of a book.
The very idea that maps and fantasy belong together is of course a cliché in itself. Maps of St. Petersburg and Russia would not make much of a difference to a reader of Crime and Punishment even if the person in question had never even heard of Eastern Europe before, and the idea of a map of Britain in a novel by Jane Austen is laughable. A bleak way to look on the phenomenon is that the map is there as a crutch to help our understanding of our beloved heroes' travels on their world-saving quest, or so that we can understand the strategic movements of armies of good or of evil. This would support the idea of the conservative fantasy reader who wants what he or she knows and who is only comfortable with innovation of the genre as long as it is kept within well-defined boundaries.
There are many kinds of fantasy literature where a map would be totally uncalled for: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, or Charles de Lint's books about Newford, just to give a few obvious examples. There are also books that have maps, but where they do not really matter. I am confident that Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy, Liveship Traders trilogy, and Tawny Man trilogy could have worked just fine without their maps, and the same goes for Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War. There are, on the other hand, books where maps would not have raised any eyebrows but where the lack of them does not make any real difference, as with Anne Bishop's Black Jewels trilogy. Modern fantasy novels that don't necessarily have to have a map tend to have one or more. Maybe this is to be on the safe side, or maybe it's because the authors and editors are as much stuck in the traditions of the genre as anyone else.
In order to appeal to the reader, the map should look as if it belongs in the setting of the book. In most cases this means that the map should be hand-drawn, or at least give such an impression. Most readers objected to the feeling they get from obviously computer-drawn maps describing medieval or preindustrial worlds. Pleasing them when it comes to level of detail is an exquisite balancing act, as some found most maps too messy, while others grew irritated when the characters entered communities or areas not marked on the map. It does not speak well of the writer if the map is littered with silly or unimaginative names or contains geographical impossibilities, like landscapes in reality not found on the same latitude or a far too varying topography in far too little space, but those may indicate more fundamental mistakes in the world building than in the map as such.
"Which is the most popular fantasy map?" easily becomes, "Which is the most widely read book?" since it is difficult—and unwise!—to have an opinion on something you have not read. Not very surprisingly, many readers had a passion for the maps in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which they thought very well drawn with a good level of detail. Another popular map was the one in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea cycle, since it is simply so different from many other fantasy maps, rather than being a map which accurately describes the setting of the story. Moreover, the map in Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy held some popularity because of its simplicity and ease of use. That the map in Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time managed to get far more criticism than any other was perhaps to be expected, since the series has often topped the best-selling lists during the last decade.
To be fair, I would argue that there are worse maps than Robert Jordan's out there. The combination of the fact that the names are Celtic-inspired—and thus alien to most readers—and the sheer number of names, with no dots to help you to pinpoint their location, makes the map in Katherine Kerr's Deverry something which you do not just go back to and look up a specific detail without either already knowing the map or being ready to spend some time searching for the information you want, something which with dots and less alien names to a lesser degree could also be said of maps like the one in Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion. I would also be much intrigued if anyone had ever managed to get any help from the map of the underground city of Menzoberranzan in R. A. Salvatore's Homeland, a map with a note which speaks for itself: "Only major stalagmites are shown for clarity."
Those who didn't like the maps claimed that maps in post-Tolkien fantasy often point to lack of originality, by not having enough initiative to let go of the genre convention, by following the big name of the genre (Tolkien) too slavishly, or simply by not being able to create a story where the text is executed well enough for the reader to follow it without visual aid. A few even stated that since Tolkien was first—which he, in fact, was not—his maps are masterpieces, and no other writer ought to use maps, as they will never be able to reach his level anyway and can do nothing but fail if they try.
What modern fantasy would have looked like without Tolkien is always a tricky and often vain subject of speculation. However, it is difficult to imagine the fantasy genre so littered with maps if it had not been for his writings; either because he used maps in The Lord of the Rings, the most influential fantasy work ever, or because the dominant sub-genre that he inspired is of a type that encourages the use of maps—or most probably a combination of the two.
Regardless of what the participants in the survey thought of the raison d'être of the map in fantasy books, most answers contained the rather obvious conclusion that a map implies travels. If no one is to get from point A to point B (and to points C, B, and Q) there is no need of a map to illustrate it. To many readers, the map also seems to point to a certain kind of fantasy and give the impression of an impending epic story.
Personally, I like my fantasy without maps, not so much because of the map itself as because I prefer a book where the text works without such aids as maps or appendices. I also happen to believe that geography makes a pretty boring protagonist, so I would rather see it not so much in the centre. I have encountered books where a map would have been a great help—my first edition of The Silmarillion did not, much to my annoyance, have one, and if I had not already read The Lord of the Rings and therefore had a rough idea of how the changed Middle-Earth would look, I would probably have become irritated enough to put the book down and never open it again—but many books might have been better if the writer had not known that the reader had a map to go back to if confused. I am also a follower of the generalizing and prejudiced opinion that fantasy without maps is simply better, maybe because mapless fantasy tends to be more original, maybe because fantasy with maps is of a kind that appeals less to me. This does not mean that there are not terribly bad fantasy books without maps, because terribly bad books unfortunately come in all shapes and sizes, or that there are not any newly written masterpieces with maps out there, because there really are—but if, one day, I will be in the situation of choosing between two fantasy novels I had an equal desire to read and it was the very last detail, my silly prejudice would make me choose the book without a map.
If I were an editor or publisher of epic fantasy, however, I would make sure to consider the question carefully before leaving the map out. If the target audience consists of readers who like to read books by authors like Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Robert Jordan, Katherine Kerr, Elizabeth Moon, and R. A. Salvatore, who all in their most well-known fantasy works use maps, there is a risk that some of them will see the absence of the map as a statement—and never even give the book a chance.