Off the Map: Five Fantasy Stories Of Exploration

Hail and well met, fellow individuals of good taste. The Day Three prompt for this month’s Wyrd & Wonder was #MapMonday so I wanted to do a post about stories where the characters really use that map. That’s enough preamble so here’s that post, only a mere five days late!

1. The King’s Buccaneer by Raymond E. Feist

I coulda done a *lot* of Feist books here. There’s a very limited number of Epic Fantasy authors who’ve put more exploration in their books, what with the whole Midkemia series visiting every continent on that world, along with extended soujourns on four other worlds, a number of heavens, hells, and other places out of reality. Maybe none. The King’s Buccaneer was the one that sprang straight to my mind though. It’s always been a favourite of mine, and does the whole “explore the world/explore yourself” coming of age thing very well. It focuses on Nicholas, the youngest son of the Prince of Krondor, sent to the frontier to help find himself. Instead he finds a conspiracy that forces him to pose as a pirate and sail halfway round the world to lands he’d never thought existed before – did I mention I’m something of a sucker for sailing? – all while dealing with teen drama. It’s not the most groundbreaking fantasy book, but it’s charming and entertaining and now I kinda want to re-read.

2. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

Talking of multiple worlds got me thinking of GGK’s most fantasy series, a trilogy about five students from Toronto who find themselves in a Celtic myth inspired world just in time for the Dark Lord to get his Dark on. The students get to see most of the map in classic fashion, including the parts of it that they really shouldn’t but I really enjoy getting to see, but more than that it’s the sense of exploring the world in the characters’ minds that meant I had to put this series on the list. It could be tough sledding for some due to Kay’s deliberately overwrought language and passionate character choices, but I love it, and see a fantasy series that really captures my love of myth in it. And maps.

3. The Morgaine Cycle by CJ Cherryh

If it doesn’t involve multiple worlds, does it really count as a story with lots of exploration? This is a fantasy classic with more than a hint of Sci-Fi in its conceit of worlds connected by gates created by an advanced civilisation. It falls to Morgaine to try and close those gates, but the story (at least as far as I’ve read) is told mostly through the eyes of her long suffering and faithful servant Nhi Vanye i Chya, bound to her service one night by ancient custom. I’m sure you’ve got the gist of why I’m picking books here – yes, this is a very wide-ranging story where we see lots of places, but it’s just how interesting they are and how they make the characters react that really gets me. In particular, this series has a real sense of decaying, creepy worlds – it’s gothic, it’s macabre, it’s fascinating. When I posted my review of Gate of Ivrel on reddit, RJ Barker talked about how much he liked the books and it’s easy to see the influence there. I love The Wounded Kingdoms, and I’m expecting that once I’m done with The Morgaine Cycle, I’ll love it too.

4. The War Hound and the World’s Pain by Michael Moorcock

My copy of this (a Von Bek compendium) doesn’t contain a map which is part of how I know the characters really see the world; I wish it did. Moorcock’s story is set in the 30 Years’ War in which the jaded mercenary Von Bek is engaged by a man of wealth and taste to do a little light retrieval work for him – namely, the Holy Grail. This takes him across Europe, in and out of our world to the Middlemarches, and generally dragged all over the place like my cat’s favourite toy. There’s a real dark fairy tale vibe, and I feel like this story embodies what weird adventure fiction should be like.

5. Morrowind

Hey, I only said stories, I never said books. So let’s talk about one of the great fantasy stories that involves a lot of exploration. Like, a lot. Morrowind was the first open world computer RPG I fell in love with and to this day, I still think it’s the best. Oh, it’s not got the bells and whistles and graphics of Skyrim or other modern properties, but the world of Morrowind itself is just breathtaking. It’s a triumph of worldbuilding, of art, of madness and inspiration. It’s weird and easily understood all at once and despite how dated it is, if my gaming PC was working I’d be really quite tempted to take it for a spin again and to visit the mushroom towers of the Telvanni wizard lords, the bronze forts of the Dwemer, the lush forests around Scyda Neen, and get really annoyed by cliff racers all over again. And the map?

The map’s pretty cool too

But hey, that’s just my five. There’s a bunch of others I thought of – Le Guin’s Earthsea, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Lord of the Rings… a whole bunch, but seemingly nothing written in the last twenty years or so. So you got any recent great stories of exploration to share, leave them in the comments!

Image credit to Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

5 thoughts on “Off the Map: Five Fantasy Stories Of Exploration

    1. I haven’t. I took a kindle sample of it, and – iirc, may be way off – it fell foul of my then distinctly unreasonable loathing of present tense. So I tried Dreamblood by Jemisin instead and was a little on the fence. I have slowly learned to tolerate present tense so I should probably revisit it and see how I do

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  1. You’ve made me want to read every single one of these books. That Moorcock one in particular sounds great. I have somewhat of a deep-seated fascination with the Thirty Years War so a bit of weird fantasy with that as the backdrop is very exciting.

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