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Spoilers for Croggon’s Books of Pellinor, Bardugo’s Grishaverse, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Pierce’s Tortall universe, and Jemisin’s Broken Earth novels.
Note: The Bardugo and Jemisin maps are from the author's websites (grishaverse.com and Jemisin's website), the Tolkien map is from a wallpaper website (wallpaperaccess.com), both Croggon maps are from Pinterest, the Martin map is from the A Song of Ice and Fire wiki, and the Pierce map is from a fansite last updated in the early 2000s. They are accurate maps from the books, but from different sources. No copyright infringement was intended.
What is the purpose of a map? At its most basic level, a map helps you get from one point to another. It shows what’s around you, such as a park or a freeway. Since we’re already familiar with the world we live in, modern maps don’t always give us additional context about our world and what’s important in it. Maps are important, however, for figuring out the world around us; one 16th century globe, for example, bears the inscription ‘here be dragons’ on sections of the world that were unknown at the time.
Fantasy maps, on the other hand, since they are created by authors who know more about the fictional universe than the reader does, are full of useful clues and context into the worldbuilding of the novel they’re from, and even into the characters’ emotional states as the story goes on. Maps of fantasy worlds help the reader understand both the characters and the story as they progress. If they are included, they are a key point in understanding a fantasy world.
While reading a fantasy novel, it’s important for readers to note where characters are on the map during a journey as well as where they are in their character arc; maps help the reader figure out when the two are connected. Maps allow the reader to physically see where a character begins their journey, grows, doubts, fails, and eventually triumphs in their quest. Using physical description from the novel in addition to the maps allows the reader to track the characters’ progress to their destination, as well as imagine what the scenery looks like along the way. Cartographers have different styles, and therefore most fantasy maps look somewhat different from each other; some are sparse, with just the necessary information, while others explode with location names the reader barely even needs to know. The maps in Allison Croggon’s Books of Pellinor, for example, are fairly detailed, including so many locations that some aren’t even visited by the characters during the series. The maps of the Tortall series, written by Tamora Pierce, are sparser, without the detailing frills the Pellinor maps have, but cover many more countries and cultures than Croggon’s world.
Maerad of Pellinor, the main character in the series of the same name, learns early on that she is destined to defeat the Nameless One, also called Sharma. After her future teacher, the Bard Cadvan, rescues her from slavery towards the beginning of the first novel, The Naming (called The Gift in the United Kingdom), they travel all over the known world, at first hoping to find a place where she can safely learn magic as a Bard, and, when that fails, hoping to find information to complete her quest. All the while, the map helps the reader orient themselves in the world, and place Maerad and Cadvan (and their journey) in the world too. For example, the School of Innail, which they visit early on, is close to the School of Pellinor, where Maerad was born. As such, the Schools’ cultures are similar, and the map helps hone in on that point for the reader by visually noting the Schools’ nearness to each other. Using little more than pinpoints on the map and the different cultures of magicians explored in the book, the reader is given greater understanding of the worldbuilding and the cultures Croggon has created for her various characters.
In the second Pellinor novel, The Riddle, Maerad and Cadvan decide to seek help from her Pilanel relatives, who live much farther north than either of them have ever been before. Cadvan and Maerad’s relationship also begins to fracture during this particular stretch of their journey; Maerad’s powers are growing in intensity, leading to a shocking death. Neither is sure how to handle the sudden power surges, leading to a distance between teacher and student. As Cadvan and Maerad’s relationship deteriorates, they travel farther and farther north into bleak, empty surroundings, shown visually by the second map showcasing the northern regions of the world. Eventually, an avalanche causes them to be physically separated, with Maerad believing Cadvan to be dead. Now travelling separately, Maerad continues into the inhospitable north. The second Pellinor map easily communicates just how barren the place is due to its blank sections. The extra flourishes the maps have to fill themselves in are a nice touch, with the first map of the main world being so completely full that the second map’s relative emptiness is jarring in comparison. Ultimately, Maerad finishes the book having returned to her birthplace of Pellinor, and her hopeful yet sorrowful remembrance of what her life should have been leads the book to end on a bittersweet note, fitting for a journey full of pain, hope and separation.
Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse consists of several series set in a fantasy universe that contains magicians called Grisha, who control certain elements. The main character, Alina Starkov, discovers early on in the first novel, Shadow and Bone, that she is the legendary Sun Summoner who supposedly is the only one who can destroy the Unsea, a physical blight that divides her country, Ravka. She is then trained in her power of light to accomplish that goal, with her mentor, the Darkling, watching over her. The Grishaverse map easily places the reader in a specific country of the world along with the characters. The different cultures are clearly delineated in Bardugo’s writing, and the distances between them make for some key differences bolstered by the map. The Unsea, for example, is actually colored in with black ink to represent what a nightmare it is to cross, being pitch dark and full of monsters which will happily tear traveling skiffs to pieces. Ravka is marked on the map with its insignia, a crowned double eagle. The country is clearly based on Russia, as its neighbor Fjerda is based on Scandinavia, and both being located near the north of the world is no coincidence. Certain Ravkan words used in the series also notably match the names of the cities on the map in terms of language. The Grishaverse map therefore bolsters the worldbuilding that Bardugo aptly provides in her descriptions for each country’s culture, and physically marks out just how dangerous the Unsea can be for Alina and the rest of the world.
These visuals enhance the worldbuilding of the Grishaverse for the reader, and tie it to Ravka’s culture. The Unsea has become such a factor of life that though people are afraid to cross, Grisha serve as steady pilots to ferry skiffs full of people across the void, using their weather powers to make the trip as safe as they can. Similarly, the darkness of the Unsea and the relative hopefulness of the Grisha in comparison help hammer home how beloved they are in Ravka. Therefore, Alina’s journey to truly becoming a Grisha is promising until she learns of the Darkling’s true intentions to manipulate the Unsea to encompass and swallow Ravka entirely, thus destroying her country and everything else she loves.
The founder of modern fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien was a master linguist, and therefore came up with names for countries that both fit their people and the places they belong to in the Lord of the Rings. For example, Rohan, land of horse-riding warriors, is a short, almost cutting word, fitting for a people who are sturdy and do the right thing when called upon. The series is centered around quests and long journeys, and so the visual reminder of where the characters are along with where they’re going is helpful. It also hits harder emotionally when characters are separated, such as when duo Merry and Pippin are split up late in the Lord of the Rings so Pippin can be safe. Gandalf and Pippin travel swiftly for the city of Minas Tirith, and the reader is there for the breathless beginning of the long ride. Using the map and narrative descriptions, the reader can see how far apart all the main characters are as they work to accomplish their quests. The character arcs Frodo and Pippin go through, in particular, are also well visualized by the map; Frodo is not the same character at the beginning, in the relatively safe Shire, as he is in the end, after relinquishing the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, in Mordor. Ultimately, he cannot stay in the Shire permanently, and must retire across the sea to Valinor. Similarly, Pippin’s experiences when separated from the rest of the Fellowship in Minas Tirith strengthen him as a character, and he too is not the same carefree Hobbit who left the Shire on a whim. The map therefore serves as an emotional marker to follow each character’s development throughout. Their journeys have both changed them significantly as characters, and being able to see where each character is on the map during each beat of their journey is arresting and powerful.
Tolkien was a strong descriptive writer; the reader can figure out where all the characters are and where they are talking about when they discuss certain locations, such as the river Anduin, using both the narrative and the maps as visual markers. The map shows all the relevant physical locations for the novel, and therefore makes it easy to follow the characters on their travels, or understand the locations they mention in the narrative. The world he created is unparalleled by other early fantasy novels; his maps are fully fleshed out, and his locations each have a special element that marks them as unique. Tolkien is such a traditional fantasy writer that his maps heavily inform his locations and therefore the worldbuilding of his entire series.
The A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin has maps that help the reader extensively when reading the novels due to just how many characters the reader is following and how spread out they are over the course of the known world. Most characters are either in cities or on war campaigns throughout the series, so they are all in fairly large groups as civil war begins to engulf the land. Therefore, the reader gets a chance to understand the different factions of Westeros and Essos through different points of view, and are able to match them to the map. Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, is the moral compass of the first novel, and it’s an obvious sign that Martin is significantly darkening his universe when Ned is unceremoniously murdered. His daughter Arya sees much of the beginning of the civil war afterwards, while traveling through the continent with other stray children, and the terrible toil of war permanently shifts her outlook of the world. Each novel’s prologue is from a point of view that is never seen again, and they too significantly expand the world for the reader.
Martin, like Tolkien, is a very descriptive writer. Unlike Tolkien, Martin is deliberately aiming for a realistic edge to his fantasy, including violence and catastrophically poor decision-making among his cast of characters. Traveling and seeing the rest of the continent changes his more sheltered characters, such as, for example, the young Stark daughters, Arya and Sansa. Early in the first novel, during their time on the road towards the capital, Arya becomes more cynical and begins to see the world she’s in for the dark thing it is, while Sansa is still sheltered under the poisonous arm of the queen, Cersei. Ultimately, Sansa also starts to comprehend the world for what it is, but that process takes seeing her father murdered in front of her to even begin. Sansa is changed more so by the people she meets and interacts with. Ultimately, it is Arya who undergoes the most growth by way of traveling, brought about by her journeys across the world. As she learns new skills in different places and meets different people who either help or hinder her, Arya shapes her view of the world. Since she is alone throughout most of her travels, the map is helpful for following Arya’s journey and her character development, as well as seeing how far she is from her family and the enemies she so desperately wants to destroy. Arya and Sansa both undergo character growth, though it is facilitated in different ways: Sansa by her interactions with others, and Arya by her journeys. Both girls are on their own in a large world, and the map extenuates that disturbing feeling for the reader while following their travels.
The Tortall universe by Pierce follows the stories of several enterprising young women as they fight to get their dreams realized and their voices heard in Tortall’s patriarchal, medieval society. Alanna of Trebond, the first protagonist in the Song of the Lioness quartet, wants to become a knight despite the fact that girls have not been seen as knights in Tortall for a hundred years. It is the start of a years-long journey for Alanna, during which she travels all over the known world and returns a different person than when she started out.
Alanna leaves her birthplace of Trebond at a young age, disguised as a boy, and travels to the capital city of Corus for her training, which is where she stays for much of the course of the first two novels. Corus is the place where Alanna learns: learns how to be a knight, learns how to fight bullies, and learns that she can be both a woman and a warrior. During a short war with the neighboring country of Tusaine, Alanna continues to learn and grow as a knight, now also working to become a healer. She first experiences pain and true loss during this war. As the series goes on, Alanna has increasingly little contact with her birthplace of Trebond, or her twin brother, Thom. For Alanna, leaving the safety of home and riding out on the road are the first steps of her life’s journey.
Alanna’s triumphs come when she strikes out on her own and explores the edges of the map—and works with those forgotten by Tortall’s society. Soon after becoming a knight, she visits the Bazhir people, a nomadic collection of tribes, who were conquered by Tortall decades ago, and live uneasily within its borders. Alanna accidentally becomes the new shaman of one tribe, and must train the next shaman before being allowed to depart. Her work in this area humbles her, but also serves as a reminder of how far she has come as a magician and a warrior. Her final triumph involves a straight-up adventure in attempting to find the Dominion Jewel for the challenge of it. Alanna travels beyond the borders of the Tortall map for this quest, heading for the little-explored Roof of the World, and it is this triumphant success that defines her character in later books, where she is a true legend. Alanna’s successes on the corners of the map showcase what a firebrand she is as a character, and illuminate her trailblazing attitude.
The map for N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy features something most maps don’t: tectonic plates. Since Jemisin’s world is constantly rocked by earthquakes and even more debilitating natural disasters called ‘Fifth Seasons’, the importance of such events is laid out to the reader before they have even started the novel. The novel proper follows three perspectives at different times: Essun as she tracks down her daughter after an apocalyptic-like earthquake event (the aforementioned ‘Fifth Season’), Syenite as she travels with a mentor on an assignment, and Damaya as she travels with a teacher to the capital to learn to control her magic, otherwise known as orogeny. Though the map is light on details, few are really needed to get Jemisin’s points across. She is an immensely skilled writer, and the journeys her characters take are more notable for who they encounter along the way than for the journey itself; her characters also tend to find extraordinary objects and circumstances during their travels.
Early on, Essun leaves her town of Tirimo and meets up with Hoa, who seems to be a young child but is clearly not human. The Fifth Season has caused a worldwide panic and refugee crisis, which leads to many people moving along the same roads Essun and Hoa are traveling. With the very world (and, therefore, the map) breaking around them, Essun and Hoa must make their way through an uncertain environment, searching for some kind of stable shelter. Syenite and her mentor, Alabaster, encounter strange obelisks along their travels, and Syenite learns the horrifying nature of mandatory node stations set up to quell earthquakes. The obelisks and stations are often noted in the narration as parts of the scenery the two are passing through. Though the reader eventually learns that all three perspectives are from one woman at different points in her life, Syenite’s character development is the strongest, as her experiences and observations cause her to fully alter her worldview. Overall, the tectonic plates initially showcase how different this world is. The Fifth Season itself, which is caused by the forceful break of the singular continent, is foreshadowed by noting the two plates on the map, as well as the drawn scuff marks at the sections where they line up. Jemisin has written a very different type of fantasy, one where the map mainly provides foreshadowing for impressive worldbuilding.
Each of these different fantasy novels showcases how maps either visualize the world, the characters, or illustrate how the reader will follow the story and characters throughout. The worldbuilding is bolstered by both the maps and the description in the novel, leading to a richer experience for the reader when analyzing the universe. Though each character is changed by their experiences, the map serves as a guide for where they’ve been in the past and where they’re going next. Fantasy maps can be full of ink and crowded with place names, all the way up to the margins. On the other hand, they can also be sparse, with carefully drawn ink lines that easily tell a story despite not revealing very much; both are valid types of maps. Maps help take characters and the reader on a journey; maybe it’s a quest, maybe just a journey of a few days, onto the last stop where the characters land where they need to be. Maps will always, however, show the character and the reader the road towards growing and learning from their experiences, and emerging as stronger travelers who can take on whatever comes their way.
Bardugo, Leigh. Shadow and Bone. Macmillan Publishers, 2012.
Croggon, Alison. The Naming. Candlewick Press, 2002.
Croggon, Alison. The Riddle. Candlewick Press, 2004.
Jemisin, N. K. The Fifth Season. Orbit Books, 2015.
Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. Bantam Spectra, 1996.
Martin, George R. R. A Clash of Kings. Bantam Spectra, 1999.
Pierce, Tamora. Song of the Lioness. Science Fiction Book Club, 2002.
Tolkien, J. R. R. Lord of the Rings Deluxe Edition. Mariner Books, 2013.