An Ode to the Map in the Beginning of Every Fantasy Book - Tor/Forge Blog

An Ode to the Map in the Beginning of Every Fantasy Book

Set in a world of goblin wars, stag-sized battle ravens, and assassins who kill with deadly tattoos, Christopher Buehlman’s The Blacktongue Thief begins a ‘dazzling’ (Robin Hobb) fantasy adventure unlike any other. We are thrilled to reveal the official, full color map for this stunning new universe, coming to you on May 25. In the meantime, join Christoper as he talks maps, books, and more!

By Christopher Buehlman


You know them, and, if you’re a fantasy reader, you probably love them.

It’s not so unusual, and it’s nothing new, to love the blues and sepias of a world made small. Our Elizabethan friend Christopher Marlowe, in his chronicle of Tamburlaine The Great (Part II), shows us the conqueror in old age, facing death­––the only enemy who could ever beat him––and asking not for a doctor or a salve, but for the thing he will now use to take the measure of his life’s worth and his sons’ legacy:

Bring me a map, then let me see how much

is left for me to conquer all the world

that these, my boys, may finish all my wants.

There’s something of divinity in holding a map; in converting countless miles of cliffs and oceans, valleys, groves, hills, and fields into inches, pressed flat, under a human hand. How big must we be if we behold a city as a pinprick, if a splash of our coffee can embrown an ocean?

Of course, it was Tolkien who wed maps to fantasy, gifting generations with Middle Earth, with its elf-haunted Mirkwood Forest, the Balrog-harboring Mines of Moria, The Lonely mountain smoking beneath the moon. How I loved the little Smaug drawn in red. Later, he would remind me of the warnings of medieval cartography, the edges from which no explorer, so far as the mapmaker knew, had ever returned; but to my young eye he was not a possibility, but a sort of fictional fact – here there be one very wicked dragon.

I tried my own hand at mapmaking as a teenaged D&D nerd, and I wasn’t half bad at it. I began to develop certain prejudices, some of which I still hold:

A smooth coastline should not be trusted, nor a straight border.

Drawing in little trees and mountains is tedious, but makes a credible land mass out of what might otherwise be mistaken for an amoeba.

Place names in the same region should have similar sounds – one would never find a Carath Athnon near a Zurkoya ‘Nazh, for example.

I’m sorry I missed the Fire and Ice novels when they first appeared, but they were a great pleasure for me when I finally read them in my forty-second year. And the world. The beautiful, terrible world. I got a huge fold-out map of Westeros and Esteros one Christmas, and it’s one of the loveliest things I ever unfolded that didn’t name a month.

It was with great excitement that I first realized that the world of my own fantasy debut, THE BLACKTONGUE THIEF, would enjoy the attentions of a master mapmaker. I am thrilled to say that Tim Paul exceeded my expectations – he took the rough map I had sketched out and turned it into geographical art worthy of a 17th century leather-bound atlas. These places I had imagined – the Snowless Wood, where the Downward Tower of the witch who goes on dead legs stands; the cold, northern port city of Pigdenay with its windows of green glass and its rough, stabby taverns; the kraken-infested archipelagos of the Gunnish Sea; Goltay and Orfay in Gallardia, names as grim in their world as The Somme and Stalingrad in ours, came to life in a way they hadn’t when they were just words on a page. Under Mr. Paul’s gifted brush, the capitals and provinces I dreamed now seem as plausible as Constantinople, or Wessex, or Antioch.

As a bonus, Tim even illustrated the calendar, the ten 36-day months and five seasons that comprise the year in this more mathematically simple world. Here, the full moon is always the first of the month, and the new moon, by the darkness of which one may take a moon wife or moon groom in certain lands, comes every 19th. The extra season, snuck between Fall and Winter, is The Gloaming – 72 days in which, in northern climes, the leaves have mostly fallen and the worst of the snows have not yet come. A time for hunting, for slaughtering livestock, and for telling dark stories.

The tale I propose to tell you is very dark, indeed. Goblins came and tried to eat us all up. Most of the men and all of the horses died. One does not find many children between the ages of 7 and 15 in Manreach because the women were under arms too. But we pushed our adversaries back, for now. And soon the fields and cities and bays Tim Paul has so exquisitely drawn for us will ring with the songs, oaths and poems of the Holters, Gallards, Galts, Ispanthians, and even giants I can’t wait for you to meet.

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