Who is braver than the mighty heroes who follows a map that leads him through the dark forest of Mirkwood, over the corpse-strewn Battleplain, through the Black Gate of Mordor, and up the burning slopes of Mt. Doom? The poor cartographer who had to go before them in order to draw the map, that’s who. Now, at long last, we receive a story about those unfortunate men. Let’s chart out A Secret Atlas, by Michael A. Stackpole.
In Nalenyr, the family of the Royal Cartographer stands in a unique position. They not only draw the maps, but also explore uncharted territories, expanding and updating the existing knowledge of the world. Their talent has yielded them enormous power and wealth–and it can also cost them their lives.
Now the Royal Cartographer’s two grandsons, Keles and Jorim, have been sent on a dangerous mission to explore the darkest corner of the unknown. As one charts the seas, looking for new lands, the other braves a region torn apart by ancient magics. Meanwhile, back home, their sister, Nirati, tries to protect her brothers from the intrigues, passions, and jealousies that constantly endanger their family. But what Keles and Jorim discover this time is bigger and more terrifying than any new land or sea. It will threaten the fragile peace maintained since the near-apocalyptic Cataclysm years earlier. And provoke a murderous act against the Cartographers that will set off a chain of events shaking the world–both discovered and undiscovered–to its core.…
Most fantasy worlds simply take the existence of maps as a given. This is the first book I’ve read which actually explores the work that must go into making those maps, and what a premise that is. On top of that, it presents a fascinating setting for an epic fantasy: an empire shattered into warring nations by the disappearance of its monarch. An ancient cataclysm caused by magic run wild, resulting in vast tracks of alien wilderness where mystical energies still run wild and cause random transformations. And the characters! A wandering swordsman with a mysterious past training a talented but arrogant apprentice. A telepathic cartographer trapped in a gilded prison, living vicariously by mapping maps based on the information relayed by his adventurous grandsons. The cartographer’s granddaughter, who lacks the mystical ability of her brothers and is seeking to discover where her talent may lie. This is the grist from which a great story might be made.
So, given the prevalence of elements which I like, why did I have such a hard time getting into this book?
Perhaps it’s because the backstory is so complicated. One gets the sense that the author saw the Seven Kingdoms of A Song of Ice and Fire and thought, I can outdo that! When the story opens, we’re immediately thrown into complex political machinations between no less than nine Principalities, which emerged from a former Empire shattered by magical calamity, which itself arose in the wake of the self-destruction of a yet-older Empire of the ageless and mystically potent Viruk (they’re not exactly elves, but they’re the setting’s “elves”, if you know what I mean). But that doesn’t quite hold up – after all, I love other works with incredibly complex backstories like The First Law and The Second Apocalypse. If I can recite from memory the details of the thousand-year histories of the feud between Bayaz and Khalul or the Cuno-Inchoroi Wars, why should learning this new fantasy world be so much more difficult?
Well, the choice of viewpoint characters may play a role. Usually, in epic fantasy with complicated histories and nations and magic systems, there’s a character who is an outside – a Logen or a Kellhus. Their ignorance allows other characters an excuse to explain things to them and thus the audience. In A Secret Atlas, however, all of the main characters already know everything there is to know about the history of their Empire, and the balance of power between the principalities, and the nature of magic, and so on. They talk to each other without bother to stop and explain anything to the poor, befuddled reader.
The abundance of fantasy terms doesn’t help matters. When you use a made-up term in place of a common English one, like calling a pharmacist a bhotri, it slows down the reader’s comprehension. At least, I think a bhotri is a pharmacist, or some sort of producer of medicinal elixers; I can’t be sure, because the book doesn’t include a glossary. And oh, could it ever use one, with the made-up words coming fast and furious: bhotri, jaecaiboot, gyanridin, vrilcai, xidantzu, thaumston… I mean, I can live with “thaumston”, because it’s clearly rooted in the words “thuam-” (as in thaumaturgy) and “stone” and its meaning is readily apparent; but as to the others, at least give me a hint! Don’t just have characters drop it in casual conversation and continue on without explaining what they’re talking about.
Whatever the reason, the first part of the book was a real struggle for me. By about the halfway point, though, I had started to enjoy it. Three clear plot lines had coalesced, based on the locations of the viewpoint characters: there’s Jorim leading one expedition across the sea and encountering hostile fish-people; there’s Keles and Moraven on a second expedition into the magic-warped wasteland created by the magical cataclysm; and finally, back in the principalities, Cyron and Pyrust are weaving political machinations against one another while Nirati gets into a romance and hopes to discover a magical talent. Even better, it is revealed that these seemingly disparate plotlines are actually tied together by the common thread of hints of the re-emergence of an ancient evil known variously as Mozoloa, Neletzatl, and Nelesquin. My opinion was improving by the page.
Then Jorim reaches a new continent and meets an indigenous people who mistook him for a god. Facepalm x1. And then Nirati, the only female viewpoint character, gets brutally murdered for the explicit purpose of the impact it will have on the male characters – she would have been chopped up and stuffed into a refrigerator, no doubt, if they’d been invented yet. Facepalm x2. You go and give me hope, and then you started pulling out the terrible hackneyed story cliches
Overall, I guess I liked it, or at least enough elements in it to consider it worthwhile to read; though it is straddling a thin line indeed. It remains to be seen whether the sequels will improve my opinion, or damage it.
Final Rating: 3/5