Map blogger. Science fiction and fantasy critic and writer. Snake whisperer.

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The Cartographers

I bet you’ve been wondering what I thought about Peng Shepherd’s novel The Cartographers (William Morrow/Orion, March 2022). After all, it’s a literary fantasy about maps: is it even possible for a book to be more relevant to my interests? Well, wonder no longer, because I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

This piece is a little bit different from the usual review, in that it examines The Cartographers in the context of mysteries and fantasy that deploy similar map tropes, as well as the idées fixes our culture has about maps. As I write in the review, there’s an awful lot for me to unpack:

I have been writing about maps for nearly two decades, and in that time I have encountered many works of fiction that incorporate maps and map tropes into their storytelling, whether as paratexts or as plot elements, and I have never encountered a story, at any length, as thoroughly encompassed by maps as The Cartographers. It’s not just that almost every character in the book works with maps in some fashion, whether as a cartographer, artist, librarian, map dealer, or technician. Nor are maps just a plot point—they are the point. The Cartographers is a Stations of the Map: its pilgrimage follows a path that touches on so many aspects of maps and mapmaking, from academic cartography to fire insurance maps. It spends time on the purpose and meaning of maps: it aspires to an almost Socratic dialogue. It deploys familiar fantasy genre tropes about maps. But it’s structured as a mystery novel, and opens with a murder.

Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books (UK) | Bookshop

Undiscovered Territories

My review of Robert Freeman Wexler’s short story collection, Undiscovered Territories (PS Publishing, 2021), is now online at Strange Horizons. “Wexler’s stories inhabit the same emotional universe. There is a certain similarity to his protagonists and the situations they find themselves in. By and large they are men. More to the point, they are uprooted, unattached, and unhappy men: sensitive, socially and romantically isolated, unhappy in their employment, miserable to varying degrees of desperation, and above all else alone. In many of these stories, it’s into these miasmas of masculine anxieties that the speculative elements intrude, and offer a path out—whether emotionally or literally.” Amazon (UK)

Maps in Science Fiction

My article “Maps in Science Fiction,” which attempts a taxonomy of the maps that appear in science fiction novels, stories and media, has just been published in the February 2022 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction. It took a while for this to see print—I started work on it in the summer of 2014—but I’m glad it finally has: science fiction maps don’t get a fraction of the attention fantasy maps do, and I think I might have come up with some useful frameworks in this piece. The complete text of the article will be posted at some point; in the meantime, I’ve posted a bit of a teaser to The Map Room. But if you really can’t wait, you can buy the NYRSF issue here; it costs just US$2.99 in the usual electronic formats.

Update: Read the article here.

Mermaid Care: Story Notes

My first professionally published story, “Mermaid Care,” a flash piece with a creepy take on anthropomorphism and the exotic animal trade, can be found in the December 2021 issue of Mermaids Monthly—which is now officially available to the general public, both online and in the usual ebook formats.

It’s only 950 words long, so there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t go read it right now. Since I’m going to talk about the story’s origins and inspirations in this post, everything will make more sense if you’ve read the story first.

Burning Girls and Other Stories

My review of Veronica Schanoes’s Burning Girls and Other Stories (Tor.com, 2021) is now online at Strange Horizons. “What Schanoes is doing, in other words, is practicing a realist mode of fairy-tale storytelling, one that knows what the source material is about but grounds it in times and places appropriate to its themes.” Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books | Bookshop

Meanwhile, at the start of every year Strange Horizons asks its reviewers to look back at what they’ve read, watched and played over the past year. Despite having read much less in 2021 than I have in every other year over the past decade, I managed to contribute a few paragraphs, which you can read in “2021 in Review: Part One.”

Rabbit Island

My third review for Strange Horizons, which looks at Elvira Navarro’s short story collection Rabbit Island (Two Lines Press, 2021) is now online. “In eleven relatively short stories—the book is only 164 pages long—Rabbit Island draws on the fantastic to offer a bleak look at contemporary Spain; its arrival in English translation comes at a point where it is unexpectedly pertinent.”

Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books | Bookshop

Driftwood

Book cover: Driftwood

My review of Marie Brennan’s Driftwood (Tachyon, Aug. 2020) is now online at Strange Horizons. “In around two hundred pages of fairly large type it has a great deal to say about memory, loss, and survivorship, and it does so on a stage that is as vast as any in epic fantasy.” Amazon (Canada, UK)

Meanwhile, Strange Horizons starts each year by asking its reviewers to look back at what they’ve read in the previous year; part one of “2020 in Review” has a couple of paragraphs from yours truly.

Instances of Head-Switching

Book cover: Instances of Head-SwitchingMy review of Teresa Milbrodt’s new short-story collection, Instances of Head-Switching (Shade Mountain Press, 2020) is now online at Strange Horizons. This is my first review for Strange Horizons, which incidentally is running its annual fund drive this month. They acknowledge that trying to raise funds at a time like this is a hell of an ask, but it’s donations that keep their lights on and pay their contributors (like me), so if you’re able and inclined, please check out their Kickstarter.

Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books | Bookshop

Star Maps Reviewed

New book review! I review the third edition of Nick Kanas’s Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography (Springer Praxis, 2019) in the March 2020 issue of Calafia, the journal of the California Map Society. The issue is now available for download (PDF), as are earlier issues of Calafia.

Update: The review is now available at The Map Room.

Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple BooksBookshop

Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy

New from me at Tor.com this morning: “Celebrating Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy.” It looks at the collaborative process between J. R. R. Tolkien and his son Christopher as father and son tried to make the narrative agree with the map, and vice versa; takes a deep dive into Christopher’s mapmaking technique; and tries to assess the impact of his maps on fantasy mapmaking.

This piece came from a general sense that Christopher Tolkien’s mapmaking was being overlooked in the obituaries and remembrances posted in the wake of his death last week at the age of 95. I posted briefly about it on The Map Room last Thursday, and then found myself having more to say about it. By the end of day Friday I had nearly 2,000 words’ worth of more to say. Revised it over the weekend, sent it off, and now you can read it.

Featured image: Christopher Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth from The Fellowship of the Ring (Unwin, 1954). The British Library.

Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?

New from me at Tor.com this morning, the latest instalment in my series on the history and design of fantasy maps. “Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?” looks at the influences on and origins of the fantasy map style—the existing traditions, stretching back as far back as the sixteenth century, that the fantasy map drew upon when it came into being in the early to mid-twentieth century. (Tolkien couldn’t have made it up out of whole cloth, after all.)

This is a speculative piece that draws upon a large and diverse number of sources—everything from Renaissance maps to mountain panoramas, from bird’s-eye views of cities to children’s book illustrations—to come up with … well, something interesting, at least. To do proper justice to the subject would require a Ph.D. dissertation. This is a start.

AE’s Relaunch Issue Goes Live, Includes Something by Me

AE, the Canadian online science fiction magazine, is finally, finally back, with a new issue—its first in nearly three years—launching today. Five new stories and three new nonfiction pieces are available to read.

One of those pieces is by me: “An Exercise in Telling: Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files” evaluates whether the narrative structure Neuvel adopts in those books is a success or not. It focuses on the first two books in the trilogy—Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods—because at the time I wrote this piece the third volume, Only Human, hadn’t been published yet. Note that Only Human came out in May 2018: this piece has waited a long time to come out.

That’s because, for various reasons, getting AE back online has taken far longer than anyone involved in the project expected it to take. In September 2016 its database was hacked and the whole site was taken down. Recovering from that hack, and getting the previous six years’ content ported onto another platform, took until August 2018. Getting enough of the remaining ducks in a row to get things up and running again—that took until, well, now.

More than a dozen people worked on getting this magazine back up and running, in what little spare time they could find. I think it would have been easier, and quicker, to start from scratch. Refusing to give up on continuity took some tenacity.

Here’s hoping for smooth sailing from here on.

Previously: AE Is Back Online; AE Is Resurrecting Itself.

Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters

My latest piece for Tor.com went live this morning. It’s called “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters” and it deals with the question of in-world fantasy maps: the maps that characters inside a fantasy novel might use. (Hint: They wouldn’t look like the maps found on the endpapers of a fantasy novel.)

Some background on how this article came to be:

The presentation on fantasy maps I gave at Readercon in 2014 had many highlights for me (and apparently for the audience). One of which was the question-and-answer session afterward: because it was Readercon, the questions were, like the attendees, very, very smart.

One question was in response to the point I made that fantasy maps didn’t scale up very well: the 24×30-inch maps of The Lands of Ice and Fire were a bit of a disappointment. I said: “When you blow up a fantasy map to the size of two by three feet [sic], without concomitantly increasing the information density, you end up with too much empty space. There’s a wrongness to it, I think, that is almost uncanny.” The questioner referred to a point George R. R. Martin himself made, that the maps were something that could have existed in-universe: “The idea was to do something representing the lands and seas of which, say, a maester of the Citadel might be aware.”

In response I went on an extended riff on some of the challenges of in-world fantasy maps, and the questions that would have to be addressed—the quality of surveying, the availability of paper, the state of geographical knowledge—before a map could exist. It was a great question (and I told the questioner so the next day), and not just because I could give it a good answer. I realized that I could expand that answer into a pretty good article.

Time, as they say, passed; ideas percolated; procrastination occurred; and then it became one of several fantasy map article ideas I pitched to Tor.com. Le voilà. It only took (checks notes) … er, almost five years.

I hope you like it.

What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?

New from me on Tor.com this morning: “What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?” This is the first of several planned pieces that will take a deep dive into the look and feel of fantasy maps: their design and aesthetic, their origins and inspirations, and where they may be going in the future. In this piece, I start by trying to describe a baseline fantasy map style—which, though it’s well recognized and often imitated, has not often been spelled out.

The Writer’s Map and Other Map Book Reviews

Today my review of The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, a collection of essays and maps edited by the historian of exploration Huw Lewis-Jones, went live on Tor.com.

The Writer’s Map does two things: it collects writing about literary maps and it presents those maps pictorially. We’ve had collections of literary and fantasy maps before—for example, J. B. Post’s Atlas of Fantasy, the second edition of which came out in 1979, so we’re past due for another. We’ve had essays about literary maps, published here and there in periodicals, essay collections and online. This book gathers them both in one place, creating what is nothing less than a writer’s love letter to the map.

This is one of several reviews of new map books that I’ve done lately. On The Map Room proper, I’ve reviewed Tom Harper’s Atlas: A World of Maps at the British Library and Susan Schulten’s History of America in 100 Maps. Still to come: reviews of the latest edition of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World as well as Betsy Mason and Greg Miller’s All Over the Map. [Update: Those reviews have now been written; I’ve updated the links.]

It’s a busy season for reviews: map books tend to come out in the fall, in advance of the Christmas season, because they position themselves as gifts for map geeks. (I do an annual gift guide for that very reason.) Which makes the fall a very busy time for me: so far my accomplishments have been largely to (1) attend sf conventions, (2) rake leaves and (3) write map book reviews.

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