A Secret Atlas: Slow in places, solid start

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review: A Secret Atlas, The Age of Discovery, Michael StackpoleA Secret Atlas by Michael A. Stackpole

A Secret Atlas has its flaws, but overall makes for a solidly enjoyable read, especially as it generally (with some exceptions) improves as one moves through it.

The story begins in Nalenyr, one of the “Nine Principalities”, the divided remnants of an empire that along with much of the known world was brought to near ruin centuries earlier in the Great Cataclysm. The novel focuses most of its attention on the Anturasi family, whose patriarch Qiro has the Talent (capital T intentional) of mapmaking. His charts have for years allowed Nalenyr to amass wealth and now his two grandsons (whose father Qiro may or may not have purposely sent to his death on an exploration mission) are each sent on a long and vital mission of exploration. One takes ship to expand Nalenyr’s knowledge of the world, the oceans, the best shipping routes for trade. The other goes overland, partially to map out new or rediscovered routes, partially to find a particularly talented inventor, partially to find caches of magical weapons that seemingly are being plundered from the wastes where the Wild Magic of the Cataclysm causes strange things (an understatement) to occur. Their sister stays behind and becomes involved in family dynamics and political intrigue. Meanwhile, Cyron, the prince of Nalenyr must deal with politics both internal and external, especially an overly aggressive prince seeking to reunite the Empire by the sword, as opposed to Cyron’s preferred method of trade. Toss in various spies, monsters, magical chaos storms, a bureaucracy more concerned with its existence than the state’s, assassins, echoes of European exploration/Chinese empires/South American civilizations and a few other items and one gets a sense of the book’s complexity.

Not all of this is successful. At times the history comes across as a bit vague or jargony (throw a whole bunch of fantasy-esque vocab at the reader without much specificity or vividness: Grand Cataclysm, Age of Black Ice, etc). One major subplot I would argue is wholly predictable for the reader and should have been so for the characters involved as well, making their obtuseness a bit hard to believe. And another seems a bit contrived towards the end. Another problem is that the book starts off slowly, not in the good “let a complex tale slowly unfold” way but in a “I can see where this is going and why are we taking so long to get there way?” And characters tend to get lost in the mishmash so that none really stand out strongly. Stackpole, however, is not averse to killing off major characters, so perhaps this problem will sort itself out as we are left with fewer to focus on.

On the positive side, the story in general is interesting enough in its basic premise and its several strands that the above plot flaws are tolerable. And the characters are mostly, though not all, interesting enough that we want to know more about them. The several-stranded structure, typical of long fantasy epics, is handled well, even if it does rely a bit too heavily on the shift-to-a-new-setting/perspective-at-a-dramatic-moment structure. Most positively, for the most part the story improves in pace and interest as it goes on.

The meshing of various histories- Chinese, European, South American empires-with the fantasy setting works as well, though at times it’s a bit clumsy, at other times one wishes he did more with it.
Overall, Atlas isn’t a great book, but it has a relatively unique germ of an idea with its focus on exploration and its echoes of past cross-cultural empires and if its success in character and plot is somewhat uneven, it ends up being a solid start to a longer work and one which I’ll continue to follow. Recommended.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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