On maps, the magic of travel, and shifting borders with the author of Mapwalkers
Dark fantasy/thriller author J.F. Penn brings the magic of maps and cartography to life in Map of Shadows.
I love urban fantasy adventure novels with a dark twist, and Penn’s novel delivers. The blood magic system has a realistic cost, her sense of place whether you’re Earthside or in the Borderlands is tangible and real, and the character dynamics are realistic and come packed with a fun twist.
I thought it would be fun to learn more about her obsession with cartography, maps and travel.
Here’s our conversation…
Interview with J.F. Penn, author of Map of Shadows
MG: Your stories are strongly rooted in place. How did the ancient city of Bath, England inspire Map of Shadows?
JF: We moved to Bath in the south-west of the UK from London in 2015, and it immediately caught my imagination for a story setting. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage city with 2000-year-old Roman baths built over a pagan spring, which you can still visit today as they are perfectly preserved. Curse tablets and prayers to the goddess Aquae Sulis were found in the spring, and later she was renamed Sulis Minerva by the Romans. There is a medieval Abbey next door, and the hot waters of the spring now heat the church. This confluence of ancient religion, sacrifice, and modern faith sparked lots of ideas.
Then I learned that the layout and architecture of Georgian Bath, which people might recognize from the TV show, Bridgerton, was inspired by the Druidic circle of Stonehenge, ley lines, and Masonic symbolism. I knew I had to write a story set in this evocative place!
You can find out more in my personal article and podcast episode about Bath.
MG: The other key place in the story is the map shop Sienna inherits from her grandfather. Why is the idea of a map shop a source of magic for you?
JF: Every day I walked from our flat to a café for my writing time, I passed an antique map shop. I would always stop to look in the window and gaze into the maps that were on display. The owner would change them out often so I might be gazing into a rare 18th century map of a corner of the UK one day, and then a much wider global perspective from modern times. Some maps had sea monsters and strange creatures in the corners.
I travel a lot, and thought how wonderful it would be if you could just step into the map and emerge somewhere else, without all the hassle of actually getting there. That gave me the idea for the Mapwalkers, some of whom can walk through maps, and I decided I wanted the map shop to be part of the story.
Unfortunately, that particular shop closed down just before the pandemic but Bath has other antique map shops and occasional fairs, so the city still resonates with cartography.
MG: How much research into the history of cartography did you do for Map of Shadows? How has your thinking on the subject evolved since writing the book?
JF: I am a total research junkie so I really went down the rabbit hole of cartography research for this book, and the subsequent stories. It was also a wonderful excuse to buy oversize books filled with beautiful maps, because of course, cartography is an art form as well as a necessary tool for navigation and management of countries.
MG: How do you think about cartography in the context of human history?
JF: While maps have obviously been important for exploration and navigation, they also have a surprising relationship to power. Throughout history, maps have been made to claim land, or to portray a certain reality based on the perspective of those who make the maps. They are not necessarily an objective truth, but a view of the world shaped by cultural background and biases. Many of our modern challenges come from empires deciding where lines on a map should be drawn, regardless of the people who live there.
This is what led me to give the most powerful Mapwalkers blood magic, with the ability to remake the borders of the world. That power can clearly corrupt and be used for evil purposes, as well as for good.
MG: As a modernizing society, how is our relationship to maps and cartography changing? For instance, are we missing out on something when we rely on software or artificial intelligence to guide us?
JF: There are always both advantages and drawbacks with any technology, and at this point, I don’t think any of us would give up the usefulness of GPS, map apps, and the ability to find ourselves in the world through our phones. But we are certainly losing the ability to navigate, and perhaps the serendipity of getting lost sometimes.
Over the last few years, I have reskilled in physical map reading and navigation, and walked three solo multi-day pilgrimages, including the Camino de Santiago, resulting in my travel memoir, Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways. I planned the routes on physical maps and carried them with me, while I also had backups on my phone and the adventure planning app, Komoot. I love looking at a physical map at the end of the day and feeling a sense of being a human walking across the face of the world.
While you can picture what the terrain might be by looking at a map, there are always surprises along the way. So I’d encourage people to use maps and atlases for ideas and planning, and backups, and then to have technology as an aid, rather than a crutch.
MG: The concept of hidden lands and moving borders is a critical component to the premise of Map of Shadows. Have borders shaped your life in important ways? How do borders continue shaping the lives of people around the world?
JF: I have always traveled a lot, and living in the UK (which is an island) means that crossing a border of the North Sea to the east, or the Atlantic to the west is an obvious start to any journey. With the first hour of flying, you will cross over a border. One of my early memories is flying across the sea and then the Sahara desert when we went to live in Malawi, central Africa back in the 1980s.
I am lucky to have been born in the UK and hold a passport that allows me freedom of movement, but many people don’t have the choice to cross borders. In the 90s, I worked out in Israel, both in Galilee and on the West Bank/Palestine. That’s when I really learned the power of borders, and the importance of having identification papers that would enable crossing between checkpoints. Those border points can be closed at any time, and people turned away, or restricted in their movements.
Then in 2016, one freedom I had taken for granted was taken from me. I held a European passport for decades and then a slim majority in the UK voted for Brexit and left the EU. I could no longer live anywhere in the European Union, and many of the rights I once had were gone. The borders that had become invisible suddenly reappeared. UK citizens now join a different queue when we enter European countries. It was a reminder that the borders we take for granted can change, even within a lifetime.
MG: That makes sense. And if we all disappeared tomorrow, it would be as if the borders never existed. How do you think about that?
JF: We already have a world without borders online, or at least one with different borders. You need internet access to unlock it, but once you are on a certain platform, or within a particular game, or social media site, you can connect with people all around the world.
But when you try to connect with people in real life, for example, attending a conference in another country, you discover there are challenges and ramifications to crossing physical borders. During the pandemic, the borders were closed everywhere and yet people met over Zoom and other places online.
I think with the advent of virtual reality, we will find more places to connect without borders, and personally, I think these connections make the world a better place.
MG: In your novel, characters enter another world through maps they unlock with magic. In other words, maps are a kind of portal to another world. What price do Sienna and the others pay for this incredible ability?
JF: The Mapwalkers have different magical abilities, and the strongest — which can remake the world — is blood magic. Sienna Farren learns of her power as the Mapwalker team fight to keep the borders safe between Earthside and the Borderlands, but the price for every use is a drop of shadow into her blood.
Those Mapwalkers who use their powers too much turn into Shadow Cartographers, and eventually disappear into shadow itself. But sometimes a Mapwalker has no choice — and Sienna must decide how much she is willing to pay to save her family and friends.
There are other Mapwalking abilities — Mila can travel through oceans, rivers, and any water courses, as well as wielding rain as a weapon; Perry can channel fire, and whatever Xander illustrates on the edge of a map comes to life. In the Mapwalker trilogy, each must face a choice whether to use their power for good or evil.
MG: If you could use any map as a portal, where would you go and why?
JF: I am pretty obsessed with ancient Egypt, and my travels in the modern country inspired Map of the Impossible, and also Ark of Blood in my ARKANE thriller series. I would love to explore some of the hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings, or explore inside the pyramids, those places that can’t be accessed from the outside, where the art is still pristine.
On a more practical note, my husband is a New Zealander, and we go back to visit his mum every year. It’s a 28-hour journey from the UK, so an instant mapwalk to Auckland would be a vast improvement!
MG: I loved the portal fantasy adventure story in Map of Shadows and hope you write more like it. Where should readers go to find more about you and your books online?
JF: Thanks so much, and the trilogy is completed with Map of Plagues, and Map of the Impossible.
Readers can buy Penn’s books in all formats from CreativePennBooks.com, find them on your favorite online retailer, or order from your local bookstore or library. You can also get a free ebook thriller you can always find pictures of my book research at Instagram or Facebook @jfpennauthor.
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