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As a reader, nothing plunges me into a fantasy world faster than some of the best fantasy maps. Maps can show cohesion or inconsistencies in the structure of the world, including geography, climate, and languages. Sometimes maps point to history or lore, or what real places and eras may have inspired the environment. They also remind us that countries, borders and directions are social constructs that fantasy writers can ignore or reinterpret if they so choose.

AJ O’Connell wrote of Book Riot in 2015, “Maps help me figure out where things are and, as someone with mild dyslexia, are very helpful because I can see where characters are going.” The best fantasy – Cards also help me as a disabled reader. My disability affects my mobility and my sense of direction. Concepts like “walking distance” or how far non-disabled characters can travel in a day are meaningless to me. This is true even before considering magic and technology. Maps help me visualize scaling, landscapes and battles.

Here are some of the best maps in fantasy books, as well as links to online versions:

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Tolkien spent decades creating languages, maps, and mythology for Middle-earth. He drew early versions of the maps himself. His son Christopher and other illustrators created later versions. His Lord of the Rings maps, like this one, still influence the entire genre. The maps and other illustrations depict scripts and architectural styles found in the books and used in the films decades later. For more examples of Tolkien’s style, check out this online exhibition from his estate.

The Earthsea cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin also loved the construction of worlds, especially the geography, sociology and religions of their fantasy worlds. Many editions of her books contain beautiful maps, some of which were drawn by the author. Readers can follow the characters’ journeys across tombs, seas, and archipelagos. Fans can also purchase The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, which includes maps and other illustrations. I also love this map of Gethen, the planet in a permanent ice age in the left hand of darkness. You can see Gethen’s glacier here.

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A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin

Martin’s epic fantasy series inspired the famous HBO show, cookbook, and card collection, The Lands of Ice and Fire. You can find free PDF files of these cards on the publisher’s website, which are also on the front of the books. These maps are detailed and marking ruins gives a sense of history. Like Tolkien before him, Martin was mainly inspired by medieval Europe.

Children of Blood and Bones by Tomi Adeyemi

Tomi Adeyemi’s magical land of Orïsha is based on the language and folklore of the Yoruba. The capital Lagos shares its name with a large Nigerian city. The shape of Orïsha is similar to Africa. The front page and publisher also explain the ten clans of the Maji born with the potential to learn magic and their deities. From the start this is a great build of the world that adds magic and mythical creatures to a world inspired by African cultures.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by NK Jemisin

NK Jemisin blogged that she generally doesn’t like maps in fantasy novels. However, I’m glad she decided that The Fifth Season, the first book in their Broken Earth trilogy, needed one. Geography and geology are essential for the plot and word formation. I love how this map of silence on their website shows the city of Yumenes and the volcanic plates that are so important to history.

A court of thorns and roses by Sarah J. Maas

Sarah J. Maas’ NA fantasy romance features a map that distinguishes the fairy and mortal lands. The border wall that separates the Prythian fairy land from the human land is important to the plot. When starting Feyre’s journey to Prythian, it is helpful to see that the Spring Court is the closest to the wall of all seven fairy courts. I wish we knew the name of Feyre’s country of birth.

Shadows and Bones by Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse YA fantasy series is set to be a Netflix series soon. In interviews, Bardugo has said that their fictional countries were loosely inspired by real ones. For example, Ravka was inspired by Imperial Russia and Kerch by the Netherlands. Given the locations, the climate and the architecture of these fictional countries, this makes perfect sense. Bardugo has published a map of their fantasy land Ravka on their website.

RF Kuang’s Poppy War

Kuang’s debut is an adult fantasy inspired by 20th century Chinese military history and the 19th century Opium Wars, as well as an inventive system of magic. Like some of the other series on this list, the author says they were loosely inspired by real countries and eras – not directly based on them. The author has included a map of her fantasy empire on her website and in the print book.

Circe by Madeline Miller

The cover of this 2018 feminist retelling of The Odyssey features a map of the mythical island of Aiaia. Circe has been exiled to Aiaia for centuries, but it’s an interesting choice to just illustrate Aiaia and no other key settings in the novel. The card, like the cover, fits the aesthetic of ancient Greek art. By including only one map of Aiaia, the book draws our attention to it as Circe’s true home, where she hones her powers.

I understand some why some authors and readers find maps in fantasy books unnecessary, exaggerated, or just not for them. For some, they are even a kind of spoiler. I love them and there is a lot to discover in the links and books in this article. Well done, they are artifacts from a fully realized world.

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