Let me first get the endorsement out of the way, just so everyone knows where we stand: If you consider yourself a big fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, you should get The Lands of Ice and Fire. You should give it to people who consider themselves big fans of A Song of Ice and Fire for the December holiday of their choice. You should breathlessly pull the maps out of the binder and show them to acquaintances you know to be big fans of A Song of Ice and Fire and watch their eyes bug out of their heads. You should wait till everyone goes to bed, grab a beer, pull one of the maps out yourself, and ponder it at your leisure. You should repeat this process and marvel at the lack of diminishing returns. 98% of of you reading this blog who get The Lands of Ice and Fire will enjoy it, I’m confident enough to say. So there’s that.
Quibbles? Sure, sure, the main one being that once you’ve seen the Map of the Known World — the centerpiece, the blockbuster — you’ve pretty much seen ‘em all. The regional maps, even the subregional maps, basically just repeat the information contained in the world map, but with prettier cartographical drawings. The city maps of Braavos and King’s Landing are obvious mold-breaking exceptions, and in the maps of The West/Westeros they have the room to name all the towns and castles represented only by symbols on the world map, but other than that, it ain’t like zooming in on Google Earth. And that’s a bit of a disappointment if you want the regional and subregional maps to be resources in and of themselves, rather than suitable-for-framing representations of your land mass of choice that you can hang on your wall while the world map does the heavy lifting. In some cases the zoom-in makes the absence of information even more glaring — the ruin and the town to the west of Mantarys, for example, are never named even in the maps that show that area up close, and when they’re represented by little drawings of a walled city instead of a symbol it becomes impossible to miss that fact.
Moreover, I had really looked forward to the Journeys map, since Arya’s travels in particular got really hard for me to grasp spatially as she made her way back and forth through the Riverlands. But that area is so well-traveled that its multicolored character pathways come to resemble a bowl of spaghetti or a rat king more than anything of actual utility. A cutaway section overlaid atop a nearby sea with a closer look at that criss-crossed region would have been most welcome, and its absence is kinda tough to justify.
I’m sure there are other problems that folks who have more of a mind for geography could mention, viz how the lands are shown and described here vs. how they’ve been described in the books. Discrepancies crop up all the time within the novels themselves — why should a non-novel product created by George R.R. Martin and mapmaker Jonathan Roberts and divers hands be any different?
But I said “quibbles,” and quibbles is all they are. This thing opened up the world of Westeros and Essos and Sothoryos (and Ulthos!!!) to me like never before. How?
- The shape of things: The lands of the known world are like a flip-flopped L lying on its side, with Westeros aligned from North to South and extending far, far further North than anyplace else, and the far “thicker” Essos sprawling from West to East. This changes the way your mind unconsciously thinks of the two places given the centrality of Westeros to the narrative.
- The North: It’s not just that the Wall and the lands beyond are further north than anything else — with the exception of the surprisingly far-north island of Ib, virtually everything north of Moat Cailin is further north than, literally, everything else in the entire world. The story ramifications here, in terms of the coming of the Others and their nuclear winter, should be obvious.
- The South: Everyone’s respect for the Summer Islanders ought to double once you see how goddamn far they had to sail into the blue to encounter anyone else in the world, let alone to do so in sufficient numbers as to become renowned for their shipbuilding and bowmaking and sex-having and so on. Sothoryos is comparatively close to some of the great civilizational hubs, and thus its status as a no-man’s-land becomes more mysterious and intriguing.
- The Shadow Lands: I know we’ve heard about this before, but this map sure makes it seem official that the reason the Shadow Lands are so shadowy is because they’ve been completely overrun by ghost grass. Apocalyptic flora! Gotta love that.
- The former Valyrian empire: There’s nothing like seeing all the lands once governed by a city-state destroyed by magical volcanoes on a single piece of paper to impress you with how goddamn many lands were once governed by said magic-volcanically destroyed city-state. And it’s not just that — the incongruous and unnatural straight lines of the Valyrian roads, connecting centuries-old ruins as often as they connect functioning cities and towns, is a haunting artifact of a mighty power now fallen. “Ozymandias” in map form.
- King’s Landing: All the Tolkien I read back in the day trained me to have a pretty decent handle on spatial relationships on a continent-wide level. Like, as long as I flip back to the map every so often while reading, I quickly get a good grip on where various cities and landmarks and characters are, relative to one another. Inside a city, however? Forget about it. Unless it’s a Manhattan-style grid, I’m hard pressed to keep track of anything more complex than “The Red Keep and the Great Sept are both on hills, and Flea Bottom isn’t.” The King’s Landing map is therefore the most helpful of the bunch, for me.
- Braavos: Maybe there’s nothing to be read into the decision to make a map out of this city and not, say, Meereen. Maybe that tells us nothing about what places will become more important in the remaining books. Maybe. Mmmmmmaybe.
- The far, far, far East: Holy shit, folks, this made me flip. There’s an area the size of Westeros that we’ve never seen before, including an area the size of the North, and an entire goddamn continent, we’ve never even heard of before. Ulthos! The Five Forts! The Cities of the Bloodless Men! The Cannibal Sands! Bonetown! The Land of the Shrykes!! The Thousand Islands, fabled in story and song for their dressing! The Howling Hills! The Great Sand Sea! The Mountains of the Morn! Kayakayanaya! (I think that one had been mentioned once before but I wanted to type it out, goddammit.) The Bleeding Sea! The City of the Winged Men, for god’s sake! Imagine if there were some way in which you could metaphysically take that bit from the Appendices about the two Blue Wizards who journeyed into the East to fight Sauron’s influence there, never to be seen or heard from again, and make a map out of it. That’s what this whole segment of the world is. That’s what it does. It’s known unknowns and unknown unknowns, designed to get your imagination working overtime. Mission accomplished.
It’s that last bit that makes The Lands of Ice and Fire worth your time and money, in tandem with this: I know many readers disagree, but I’ve long thought about all the material concerning Essos — the Free Cities and Slaver’s Bay and Valyria and so on — as a key element of Martin’s project. Not from a plot perspective per se: I’m confident that Martin will tie things together in a satisfying fashion, but he’s been very clear that Westeros is where the story really is, and when you look at the map and see the geographical reality facing the Others, you understand why. No, I think they’re vital from a thematic perspective: Every land you pass through, every city you visit, every culture you experience, is teeming with people playing their own local franchise version of the game of thrones. The wars in the Disputed Lands, the machinations for control of Pentos, the jockeying among the Great Masters, the rival factions in Volantis and Qarth — what else could we be expected to take away from our exposure to them if not a frame of reference through which to view the similar struggles of the lords and ladies and kings and queens of Westeros? Aren’t all of these conflicts of equally paramount importance to the players, and of equal lethality to the pawns? Don’t they all amount to the same thing in the face of the true enemy?
That’s what these maps brought home to me, in a more immediate way than simple prose. Over in the City of the Winged Men, I bet they’re flying around stabbing each other in a desperate race for the Feathered Throne. I bet the Asshai’i are tossing each other into the ghost grass with a quickness if it will help them cement their claim on the city. I bet that deep inside Sothoryos the brindled men are scheming up a storm. I bet you Fort #3 hates Fort #5. I bet you it’s a great big world filled with all sorts of different people and places, all of whom are exactly alike in all the ways that matter. The Lands of Ice and Fire make the differences and the similarities all the clearer, simultaneously.