The Joy of Maps

Earlier this year at the SFX Weekender sci fi and fantasy convention in Prestatyn, Wales, a panel discussion was led by Juliet E McKenna called ‘It’s not a story, it’s a map!’, with China Miéville, Gaie Sebold, Sam Sykes, David Tallerman and Ian Whates discussing the merits, or lack of merit, of using maps as part of fantasy fiction.

To my surprise the absolute consensus was that maps are an unnecessary and pointless addition to books, and as writers the panel saw no use for them. McKenna, who has maps at the beginning of her Tales of Einarrin series of books, and who I therefore expected to mount a spirited defence, seemed to concede to the prevailing opinion, which centred on maps and drawing maps being a constraint on the development of a story, or merely useless. Possibly she was as taken aback as I was at the amount of dislike displayed, but as far as I can remember there wasn’t one argument for the humble map and I was sadly disappointed at this. Therefore, it is time for the flag to be raised for the greatness of maps, the majesty of a beautifully drawn mountain range, the wide sweeping pen stroke of a river, the giant forbidden forest, and the potential that this contains.

As I imagine you have gathered by now, I am a keen fan of maps. When I bought Skyrim and found there was a map inside showing me the as yet unchartered realm that lay within the disc next to it, I thought it was a fantastic addition. The map of Middle Earth is iconic, and recently the Game of Thrones HBO series won an Emmy for its title sequence, which pans down the map of Westeros and Essos.

I think there’s a strong case for the use of maps in fantasy fiction because a map doesn’t constrain a story; how the story has been written and where an author decides to place various points of interest is what the story has to sit in. Maps are the promise of an adventure, a piece of artwork inspired by the story, a scene-setter that, like the opening title of Game of Thrones, lets you initially skim across a world that you have yet to be introduced to, see the places that you may go, or you may never go, and orientate yourself to a starting point which, if you so wish, you can then follow as the story develops.

How you use a map, or whether you even look at it at all, is completely up to the reader, that’s the beauty of them.  They require imagination in order to bring them alive, so therefore a perfect accompaniment to a fantasy novel where usually a whole new world has been created. There is also an antique beauty to maps, a sense of romance, which brings to mind a world of exploration where electronic positioning devices were a mere figment of a far off future, suiting the pre-industrial period in which a lot of fantasy is set.

A map obviously defines boundaries and where places have to be, and I can understand that some people don’t like that, but it also provides a world of opportunities to what could be and where the story could go. What’s beyond the boundaries? What is the history behind the name of this bit over here? Has anybody ever been to this bit here? The map of Middle Earth is a fantastic example – we know about the Western Lands of the continent of Arda, but there’s a whole world outside of this that we are never taken to. The story which we read is just one little bit in a very big whole, both in timescale and location, which I think maps encapsulate because they’re timeless – they lift above the story because they show the ground the story is taking place on; the forests, the mountain ranges, the seas, lakes and rivers. These features are often integral to how the story develops. Going back to LOTR, the Misty Mountains cut across the path to the east, forcing the characters underground and causing the initial splintering of the Fellowship. In Game of Thrones, set in a similar time to Civil War England, where towns and cities are positioned and how battles are fought are determined by the topography. How various peoples develop is determined by their surroundings, and this is true for many fantasy series.

A map is the board on which the game is played – a representation of the foundations on which a story is built – and I think a lot of people would agree with me that maps can be a beautiful and useful addition to the world of fantasy literature.

Nostalgia Lane #1: Ladyhawke by Joan D Vinge

In the late 1980s I came across a book that really enchanted me. It made a strong and lasting impression on my adolescent mind and I’m sure it played no small part in forging an everlasting love for the fantasy genre. The book was Ladyhawke and its author was Joan D Vinge. So, more than twenty years on, I thought I would revisit it and see if the magic was still there.

Back then, should anybody mention the film Ladyhawke, I would be compelled to say “Ah, but you should read the book, it is much better” or “The film just doesn’t do the book justice”. On re-read I find that these comments are at best ill-judged (at worst idiotic) as I found the book to be an expansion on the screenplay. The difference then was my imagination created vivid settings and characters that no film would ever match, hence the reasons I thought the two so different.

I’m sure that you can already tell that the experience second time around was not quite as fulfilling, but such is the curse of nostalgia. But I still found Ladyhawke to be a fun read and the core elements of the story are just as excellent as ever. For those unfamiliar with the story, here is  brief synopsis:

No one ever escapes the dungeons of Aquila… But Philippe Gaston did. The thief known as the Mouse escaped through the cracks where the rats couldn’t run. Running for his life and pursued by the Bishop’s guards, he was saved by the sword-arm of the dark rider on a great black horse… Who was this fearsome warrior, silhouetted against the darkening skyline with the strange and beautiful hunting hawk on his fist… And why did he so fear the black fall of night? Together they must journey towards a day of destiny… A day without light and a night without darkness, when the Bishop of Aquila must face the lovers he has cursed and the Evil One can claim his own…

And it is the curse laid upon the two lovers that made the book so special for me. The curse meant that he, Navarre, was by day a man, by night a wolf. It also meant that she, Isobelle, was by day a hawk, by night a woman. Never could they be together in human form, other than for a split second at dawn and dusk. I’m sure you will all agree that it is a great basis for a story, classic fantasy, and the pain, suffering and hopelessness of Navarre and Isobelle is brought clearly to the page by Vinge’s clever writing.


Picture: In 1982 Richard Donner produced a directed the film Ladyhawke, starring Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick.

Vinge, best known for her Hugo Award-winning novel The Snow Queen and its sequels, already had a fine pedigree in movie serialisations with Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – The Storybook (1983), The Dune Storybook (1984), Return to Oz (1985), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Santa Claus: The Movie (1985) and Lost in Space (1998) to her name. And she did a sound a thoroughly professional job with Ladyhawke. It is a poignant and moving novel, with a simplicity of narrative that is refreshing.

Did it read as well second time around? Not quite. Although still a very enjoyable story with a great plot it does read more like a screenplay than a story. I would still recommend it though, particularly to young adults and those who like a large slice of romance in their fantasy. As for me, Ladyhawke will always have a fond place on my bookshelf and in my heart.

On March 2, 2002, Vinge was severely injured in a car accident that left her with “minor but debilitating” brain damage that, along with her fibromyalgia, left her unable to write. She recovered to the point of being able to resume writing around the beginning of 2007. At the time of her accident in 2002, she had been working on a new, independent novel called Ladysmith, set in Bronze Age Europe; she resumed writing Ladysmith once she was able to begin writing again in 2007.

I’m pleased to say that Ladysmith will be available in paperback in November 2012.

Audio-book review: The Spook’s Apprentice read by Daniel Weyman

The Spook's Apprentice Audio-book image Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son and has been apprenticed to the local Spook. The job is hard, the Spook is distant, and many apprentices have failed before Thomas. Somehow, Thomas must learn how to exorcise ghosts, contain witches and bind boggarts. But when he is tricked into freeing Mother Malkin, the most evil witch in the county, the horror begins.

This abridged reading of the first book in Joseph Delaney’s delightfully dark Wardstone Chronicles is professionally told by Daniel Weyman. He gives all the characters life; in particular The Spook himself that Weyman gives the gruff and no-nonsense demeanour that fans will recognise from the book. And Thomas Ward, the young lad whose tale this is, is given the innocence, naivety and wide-eyed wonder that perfectly matches his character in the book.

There are moments in the book that were brilliantly creepy and fraught with tension and the narrator has managed to retain these emotions in his tellling. This is a brilliant book, well told, and definitely recommended.

We Rate It 8 stars

Running Time: 2 hours and 56 minutes. First published in July 2007 by Random House AudioBooks.

Daniel Weyman has appeared in Sam West’s Sheffield Crucible production of As You Like It and the Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of David Edgar’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. He has also narrated Avenger, Meltdown and Payback, all titles by Andy McNab.

Joseph Delaney is a retired English teacher living in Lancashire. His home is in the middle of Boggart territory and his village has a boggart called the Hall Knocker, which was laid to rest under the step of a house near the church. The Spook’s Apprentice spent 7 weeks in the Best-seller charts and sold over 35,000 copies in the first few months.

Audio-book review: Winnie the Pooh read by Alan Bennett

Winnie-the-Pooh read by Alan Bennett CD image Alan Bennett reads AA Milne’s much loved stories about a small bear and his friends

What is the connection between a Bear of Very Little Brain and a honey pot? Usually it’s the very sticky paw of Winnie-the-Pooh, as he takes a break between adventures for ‘a little something’.

In these five stories, taken from the book Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh goes visiting and gets into a tight place, Eeyore loses a tail, Piglet meets a Heffalump, Eeyore has a birthday and gets two presents, and an expotition is mounted to the North Pole!

As usual they are accompanied by Kanga, Roo, Rabbit and Owl – to say nothing of Pooh’s very clever young human friend, Christopher Robin.

Alan Bennett remains faithful to AA Milne’s creations and gives the lovable characters the voices the author meant them to have. The five stories are told in a charming and unhurried way that will enchant children and adults alike.

We Rate It 8 stars

The recording was previously released on cassette in 1984, 1993 and 1998. Running Time: 1 hour 5 minutes.

Alan Bennett has been a household name in British theatre ever since he starred and co-authored the satirical review Beyond the Fringe with Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Jonathan Miller in 1960 at the Edinburgh Festival.

AA Milne biography