Monday, February 25, 2008

But Where Are They?

While I was looking over other blogger reviews of Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie in preparation for writing my review I noticed that several that literally plead (if not threaten) for maps. Then this discussion pops up over at Westeros and there is this blog post where Joe Abercrombie discusses his feelings on maps.

There is a long tradition of accompaniment maps in fantasy novels, and as a whole, I have to admit to a love of those maps. Now, I’m a geologist by trade and a very visual-spatial person, so this is no surprise. Before I could even read words, a book of maps could keep me occupied for hours and little has changed in the decades since. So, while I love maps, I feel that no fantasy book needs them – and if one does, that book is fundamentally flawed.

I’ll happily admit to flipping often to maps of continents, countries, and cities when reading the likes of Tolkien, Jordan, Martin and Erikson. I’ll also admit to craving a map when reading someone like Pratchett (whose take on maps I fully support) and to finding maps both useless and pointless (see Scott Lynch’s books). But, I have to say, particularly in the case of Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, readers who are demanding a map, seem to be missing the point.

As Joe indicates in his discussion of maps, they can be distracting and take away from the direction the reader should be looking in. It doesn’t matter where they are – Logen Ninefingers doesn’t have map – the point is who they are and what they are doing. Abercrombie’s efforts are to focus on the characters – not the big picture. Rather than taking the larger, world-view, he is intent on showing a few people caught up in it all. To be worrying about where the characters are physically located in relation to each other and the rest of the world is really missing the point.

I’ll continue to love maps and I’ll continue to love books with and without maps. I’ll loathe the first book I read that depends on its map and I’d happily enjoy an Abercrombie book with a map. But let’s not loose the focus – a map is just an extra that may actually be a hindrance – it’s the words that matter.

Now, what are your thoughts on maps?


Adam Whitehead said...

By 'supporting Pratchett's take on maps', do you mean refusing to put them in the books, taking the mickey out of books with them, but then getting someone else to make then and then publishing them by themselves and charging fans £8 a pop for them?

I love Pratchett, but his attitude to milking the Discworld cow until it screams is sometimes thoroughly reprehensible.

Neth said...

Well, I suppose I support the spirit of no maps being necessary and his subversion of things by not even trying to be consistent.

Joe Sherry said...

I can't say that I really care one way or another. I loved them when I was a teenager, but I can't say not having one really affects me one way or another.

And usually the maps don't really help me figure anything out. I still don't really *know* where the town is and it doesn't matter.

Larry said...

As I said in half-jest in that Westeros discussion, I'd rather have a "map" that is intentionally misleading just to screw with those who think they are sacrosanct. I just think fantasy maps are just a crutch more often than not, but then again, what else would you expect me to say on the issue? ;)

Jen said...

I ignore them. I tried to use the map in Perdido Street Station for a while, but it just made me more confused. Despite my weird urge to know every single detail about books, like which 13th century play is one character quoting, maps have never interested me. I never know where I am even in real life, being spatially confused in a novel is perfectly natural then.

I don't care if they leave from the western coast of Something Sea and get to the east coast. They're sailing and that's what matters.
(I just finished Red Seas Under Red Skies, where I once again ignored the map.)

Tia Nevitt said...

I don't miss maps when they are not included, except when the action takes place in a constricted area, such as a city. Then, I think a general map of the city--showing sections rather than individual city streets--is fun to have.

A map of the entire continent? Not very useful, since such maps must be compressed to such an extent that you can't read them.

That being said, I loved the way they did the map for an older edition of The Princess Bride. Even the map was funny. The version I have now has no map whatsoever.

Carl V. said...

I think I fall squarely in the love maps (at least good ones) but don't need maps category. In some ways I feel that maps represent my love of the LOTR saga and since so many authors over the years have tried to copy those books rather than do their own thing then maybe a map is just another nod to that series and maybe it is a good thing that they stay away from it. I certainly don't think any kind of story *needs* a map and would have to agree with the idea that if someone is really lost in the world then maybe there is a problem with the writing or a problem with what the reader is focusing on. I love the map of Middle-earth and as long as I have that I'm perfectly happy with fantasy books being map free!

waterfowl said...

At best, a map can add a little bit of enjoyment to a book for me. I will flip back and consult them from time to time when they are provided. Bad use of maps drives me bonkers. I hate it when they are provided and don't make sense. If crossing 2 centimeters of prairie land takes a party 2 weeks, how the bloody hell are they crossing 2 centimeters of mountain in a day and a half? (No specific author intended here. I'm just sayin'....)

It seems that maps can constrain an author unnecessarily and distract from the narrative. While maps are pretty and lend a tolkienesque gravitas to a book, I support Abercrombie wholeheartedly for not wanting to distract from his characters by providing one.

TK42ONE said...

I've had the same discussion with Joe and after he explained it, I understand, but I still don't like. I too am very spatial (as in I need to know where things are, not spacey). But after I talked to him and read his post, I then realized I was biased about books based on the maps inside. But I'm also biased about books based on their cover. So I guess I damned both ways.

Roh said...

I think I tend to ignore maps unless they're there. Which is to say, if they're there, I use them, and I find them interesting pieces of trivia.

If they're not there, I don't miss them, and I don't remember that there could be a map.

The only time where I've found a map even mildly necessary was with Elantris - and that for one non-travel, non-geo-political plot point.

So, er. Maps are cool, but I don't need them. (I used to, for I was young once and thought Tolkien's way was the only way.)


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