The Mapmaker’s War: Did Not Finish

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Mapmaker’s War by Ronlyn DomingueThe Mapmaker’s War by Ronlyn Domingue

I really wanted to like The Mapmaker’s War, by Ronlyn Domingue. For so many reasons. First, it had “mapmaker” in the title. I love maps. I have books upon books of maps — old maps, strange maps, historical maps. And books upon books about maps, or mapmakers. So it had that going for it. And second person. I know lots of folks can’t stand it, but I like second person. I like reading it. And I like writing in it. Granted, I’ve always said it’s a tough POV to employ over the length of a full novel, and I can count on one hand the number of times a novel carries it off well, but I was willing to give it more than a chance.

And while The Mapmaker’s War had at its center what appeared to be your typical upper-class-young-woman-chafing-at-society’s-constrictions-and-hooking-up-with-a-prince character, it was pretty clear from early on that Aoife was not going to be typical character and would have a voice whose honesty is rare in terms of narration. That honesty created a welcome depth and seriousness in its exploration of a woman’s desire to be her own self, her fully realized and fully honest self. And I liked too the way that broadened beyond a narrow feminist theme into a more generally human one involving choice — the ways in which that power or lack thereof informs our world.

Then there’s the mythic element — stories, stories-within-stories, archetypes, dragons. I do love me some dragons. And stories about stories. And, finally, the writing itself is a semi-formal, somewhat lyrical stylized prose that I usually respond well to, though like the narration, it can be tough to pull it off for an entire novel.

So yes, lots of reasons at the start to want to like The Mapmaker’s War. And, at the start, to actually like. The reading of it. For a while. I was with Aoife (who narrates the story as an elder Aoife to her younger self) through her early years, her attraction to the prince of her country, her fierce desire to do her own thing: in this case, make maps. With her in her honest self-examination (“Tell the truth” is a constant refrain as she guards against the memoirist’s temptation to omit the ugly or unflattering or disturbing), as she refuses to cover up her manipulation of the prince’s love to get what she wants. With her as she discovers the utopian country on the far side of the river, one whose streets are (and here’s one of those legends/archetypes) literally paved in gold. With her again in her brutally honest depiction of her total lack of desire to be a mother even as the life quickens within her, and then even as it is born and begins to grow. And finally, with her as she tries to prevent the war that she knows is coming between her country and that beautiful, peaceful one of the Guardians, a war that only one side — hers — wants.

But as I said, that second person is difficult to keep going for an extended time. It works well in short stories, but most attempts at using it in a novel are done through keeping the novels short or using the POV intermittently (Bright Lights Big City or If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler come to mind, two of my favorite reads). Over too long a span of time, it can be wearying, and if not executed extremely well, it can lead to a flattening of style and of readerly response thanks to that monotone prose and the distancing that often comes with the POV. Which was the case here for me. Aoife’s voice began to feel quite monotone starting just a little past the first third of The Mapmaker’s War, and the effect became cumulative.

My sense of restlessness thanks to the voice was exacerbated by the slow pace, the relative lack of action, and the focus at times on small details that didn’t feel like they were serving either plot or characterization. And I say this as someone who loves slow, quiet, character-driven books. By the halfway point, I was struggling mightily with a lack of desire to continue, by 60-65% (according to my trusty Kindle) I was starting to skim, and at the 70% point I asked myself just why I was pushing myself through. Lacking a good answer — I didn’t care about any of the characters, nearly all of whom beyond Aoife were mere sketches (some probably purposeful in that archetype sense, a la the villainous younger prince, and others perhaps not so purposefully flat); didn’t care what would happen in this world (which thanks again to that archetype-style never felt fully alive or inhabited), didn’t much care about anything at all to be honest; so I stopped.

Sometimes great plots will get me through flat prose, or great characters will get me through flat plots; even great style will carry me through some issues. But a lack of caring is a death knell for me with regards to a book, and, as just stated, I didn’t care about anything or anyone by that point. Checking the print copy length, I was shocked to see it came in at 240 pages. It felt at least twice that length to me in the reading of it. Never a good sign.

All that said, I will actually pick up the second book in this trilogy, The Chronicle of Secret Riven. For one, it’s set a thousand years later, so I’m thinking I’m safe in not finishing this one as preparation. Two, it isn’t second person (I checked). And three, and most importantly, there was enough here in The Mapmaker’s War in terms of authorial talent/craft and of depth of theme to make me if not eager, at least not all that hesitant. The Mapmaker’s War was not a book for me, at least not in sum, with its parts perhaps stronger than its whole. But Domingue is clearly a good writer, and I’m more than willing to give her another shot.

Publication Date: March 5, 2013. This will be the map of your heart, old woman. In an ancient time, in a faraway land, a young woman named Aoife is allowed a rare apprenticeship to become her kingdom’s mapmaker, tasked with charting the entire domain. Traveling beyond its borders, she finds a secretive people who live in peace, among great wealth. They claim to protect a mythic treasure, one connected to the creation of the world. When Aoife reports their existence to her kingdom, the community is targeted as a threat. Attempting to warn them of imminent danger, Aoife is exiled for treason and finds refuge among the very people who had been declared her enemy. With them, she begins a new life surrounded by kindness, equality, and cooperation. But within herself, Aoife has no peace. She cannot share the grief she feels for the home and children she left behind. She cannot bear the warrior scars of the man she comes to love. And when she gives birth to their gifted daughter, Aoife cannot avoid what the child forces her to confront about her past and its truth. On this most important of journeys, there is no map to guide her. In this tale—her autobiography— Aoife reveals her pain and joy, and ultimately her transformation. The Mapmaker’s War is a mesmerizing, utterly original adventure about love and loss and the redemptive power of the human spirit. Watch for its epic sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, in 2014.

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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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3 comments

  1. This book always caught my eye at the store. Too bad to hear it wasn’t one that you found sustainable, but I’m glad to know there’s a second and that it’s got promise.

  2. I like that you’re still willing to read the sequel, even after not finishing the first book. You’ll have to let us know if (and how) the second book improves on this one.

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