From the Desk of Alan Smale
I like big canvases. Large canvases. Heee-uge canvases. Giant world-spanning ideas. The biggest of big pictures. In art galleries I’m always drawn to the most epic portrayals of historical (or quasi-historical) battlefields and great landscapes, those stupidly grand paintings that take up an entire wall and must have been painted by an artist who was truly obsessed – or perhaps just someone who was being paid by the yard. I enjoy books that stretch out to the edges of space and time, or books that flip a familiar place or time or way of looking at the world onto its ear, and make me reexamine the familiar with new eyes.
And of all the big canvases, I love big maps the best. As a kid, the book I spent the most time poring over was my parents’ World Atlas. I used to trace out the shapes of the countries, figure out where the mountains and deserts and forests and icecaps were, and imagine what it would be like to be down in the map, inside the landscapes, rather than peering at them from above. (I was really frustrated that the maps didn’t have a third dimension. Once I learned of the existence of relief maps I was pretty much in heaven.) And it was always the fantasy worlds of my youth that came complete with their own handy maps – Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Lewis’s Narnia books, Le Guin’s Earthsea series, and many others – that grabbed me and drew me in the quickest.
In my first book, Clash of Eagles, the award for Best Supporting Character (Inanimate) might well go to the map of Nova Hesperia. When my hero Gaius Marcellinus and his Roman legion land on the continent that we recognize as North America, they know only what a few Norse scouts have gleaned from wandering more or less at random through the forests and prairies. Toward the end of Clash Marcellinus is shown a deerskin and tattoo ink-map map of Nova Hesperia. To Marcellinus’s eyes it appears astonishingly detailed. And terrifying. Through the map, the scale and grandeur of Nova Hesperia open up before his eyes.
In the sequel, Eagle in Exile, which goes on sale from Del Rey on March 22nd, Nova Hesperia opens up for the reader as well. Marcellinus has come to understand the people of Cahokia, whom we know as the Mississippian Culture. But Exile takes him much further abroad on the great continent. He’ll face new enemies and new challenges to the south and west of the great city of Cahokia, with the ever-present threat of another Roman invasion just over the horizon.
In our modern era of transportation we can quickly get blasé about distance. Not so, the people who lived here before. America is vast. Look out of the window and think about how long it would take you to walk to the coast, or the mountains, or even to the nearest big city, if you had to do it on foot or paddling along rivers.
Truth be told, I still spend a lot of time looking at maps. When I leaf through a new book at the store I still sometimes experience that giddy feeling when I come across a map in its front pages. And I love the map of Nova Hesperia that graces the opening pages of Clash of Eagles and Eagle in Exile. It has that wonderful combination of the familiar – the outline of the North America that I memorized in my childhood, the land that I moved to in my twenties and have loved ever since – and the exotic – because this is a completely different version of North America, gigantic and immediate and scary, where the Romans and Norse are beaten back and severely challenged by the peoples who were already living here, the Mississippians and the Iroquois, the Blackfoot, the Algonquian, and so many more.
Sometimes the map is the territory.