The Age of Discovery continues with a tale of maps and magic. Let’s explore Cartomancy, by Michael A. Stackpole.
New York Times bestselling author Michael A. Stackpole returns with the second book of a groundbreaking trilogy charting exciting new territory in fantasy fiction. Cartomancy follows a group of trailblazing mapmakers with the power to discover new worlds and shape reality itself .
Under the shadow of invasion by a nameless enemy, there seems only one way to save Nalenyr from oblivion. The old heroes who once defended the land must be awakened. And accomplishing that requires a journey across the magical wasteland where they’re rumored to be trapped a wasteland rife with magic and danger.
Grandson of the Royal Cartographer, Keles Anturasi finds himself trapped in an enemy nation where his skill may well be his death sentence. His brother Jorim is an ocean away, captive in an altered realm in which he’s regarded as a god. And their sister Nirati resides in a paradise that exists between life and death with her insane grandfather and an ancient sorcerer bent on the world’s destruction.
Now they and their companions must struggle to survive in a world where war on earth mirrors war in heaven. What the gods themselves fear, men must brave. Heroes and mystics they may be, but can any of them survive in a world where things are seldom what they seem: a place where dreams can become reality and reality can turn into a nightmare….
Cartomancy manages to up the complexity level of The Age of Discovery considerably; no mean feat, when you consider how A Secret Atlas kicked it off. The previous book managed to organize the characters into three main storylines – two exploratory expeditions and the Imperial politics back home – and then tied those storylines together at the end with each group independently learning of the threat posed by Nelesquin. In this book, the groups of characters from those three plotlines have been split up and side characters elevated to point of view characters to keep us informed of what all of them are doing, thus resulting in a profusion of new threads. For the politics in the Nine Principalities, we receive the viewpoints of Prince Cyron, Prince Pyrust, Grand Minister Pelut Vniel, and assassin Junel Aerynnor; the expedition into the north splits into three separate groups with viewpoints provided by Keles, Moraven Tolo, and Ciras; and then, far away from everything else that’s going on, Nirati is in some supernatural realm of undeath and Jorim is doing some mystical bullshit in a jungle on another continent altogether. Nirati’s viewpoint is at least useful, because through her we get to see what Nelesquin is up to, but Jorim’s story did absolutely nothing for me.
Which is not to say I approve of Nirati’s story – not only has she been stripped of all agency, abandoning the plotline she seemed to be building to in the first book about trying to discover her talent in favor of becoming a passive observer to the work that Nelesquin and Qiro are doing, but the death god Grija says that saving the world will require Jorim to horrifically murder her a second time. Because as you all know, the only proper place for a woman is in the kitchen – specifically, chopped to pieces and stuffed into the fridge. Let me tell you right now, there would have to be some really spectacular and unexpected twist in the final book to redeem the Nirati plotline for me, because so far – not digging it.
I also have to question the very strange decision to inexplicably switch from the usual third-person limited narration style to first-person narration in Moraven Tolo’s segments. I mean, either style is a legitimate way to narrate a story, but to suddenly make the switch midway through a trilogy? Usually, you pick a narration style at the beginning of your series, and then you stick with it. The only other example of a series abruptly switching the type of narration this way is The Darksword Trilogy, with the fourth book of the trilogy (…I know, I know) switching from the third-person of the previous books to first person. I guess you could make an argument for the Hyperion Cantos as well, with Endymion becoming first-person narrator for the latter two books; but there’s a clear structural divide between the two halves of the series, rather than the switch-up coming right in the middle of the narrative arc. In any event, it comes off as extremely awkward, and I have to question if it was actually necessary.
But hey, let’s not focus entirely on the negative. Cartomancy has plenty of positive aspects to it as well. Happily, the series has addressed by criticism of the first book by substantially reducing the number of made-up fantasy terms it uses. For instance, jae-whatevers are now commonly referred to as Mystics, which is a much easier word to parse when reading. A couple of new made-up fantasy terms are introduced, vhangxi and kwaijin; but since they are the names of invented fantasy races with no real-world counterparts, I don’t have a problem with them.
On the character side, I really like the portrayal of Prince Pyrust. He’s an antagonist, but one with clear and rational motivations and goals. He’s ruthless, but towards meaningful ends rather than performing moustache-twirling villainy for the mere sake of it; he’s ambitious, but seeks power because he believes his strict rule is necessary to preserve the Nine Principalities from destruction rather than mere avaricious power-hungriness. He serves Grija, God of Death; but because he believes that maintaining the heavenly balance of power is necessary for humanity’s survival, not in a generic “mwa-ha-ha-ha, I am evil and worship death and will make the streets run red with the blood of human sacrifices and erect pyramids of skulls as temples to the glory of my dark master” kind of way. (Ironically, it’s Jorim, a protagonist, who’s been erecting pyramids of skulls. But they’re orc skulls – myozan are basically orcs like viruk are basically elves – which makes it triumphant and glorious rather than morbid and diabolical). It’s for that reason that Pyrust makes for a more interesting character and villain than Nelesquin, who hasn’t really been given any depth or complexity. Evil usurper wants to overthrow the Empress, rule the world, become a god…. bo-ring! Come back when you’ve got some actual depth, you Skeletor wannabe!
Finally, let me close out by noting that the long-missing Empress, the physically mighty and mystically potent figure of legend who united all Nine Principalities under her rule to endure the Cataclysm and has been prophesied, like Arthur the Once and Future King, to be merely sleeping rather than dead and destined to return to save the Principalities in their hour of direst need, has finally been revealed… and she’s spent the last 500 years using her magical eternal youth to work a job as the capital’s most famous prostitute.
The Age of Discovery, I’m not saying you have a problem with your female characters; I’m just saying that I’m ending the review here because spending any longer thinking about this might make me lower my score.
Final Rating: 3/5