Review: The Mapmaker’s War, Ronlyn Domingue

The Mapmaker’s War is hokey but not in the way I expected it to be. And it is a lot like Ronlyn Domingue’s first book, The Mercy of Thin Air, except with that book’s good qualities deployed in a much less awesome way. All in all I’m glad I didn’t get it for Mumsy for her birthday, because I think she will like A Tale for the Time Being much better.

The Mapmaker’s War‘s “magic bean” — a term I’ve stolen from Clare! — is that it’s written in the second person. An older version of the protagonist, Aoife, is writing as if to a younger version of herself, recalling the events of her life from some distance. Lucky in her youth to have been trained as a mapmaker, Aoife is out mapping different lands when she comes across a settlement that guards a dragon’s hoard and lives in utter, utter peace. Though Aoife tries to guard the secret of these people, their existence is discovered and her own kingdom decides to go to war with them. Aoife is cast out from her home and her children as a traitor, and she must find a way to live among the people whose existence she kiiiiiinda (but unwillingly) betrayed to her own warlike kingdom.

The virtue of The Mercy of Thin Air, a book I liked quite a bit when I read it a few years ago, was its evocation of everyday magic, the way the space between two regular people can be magical in itself. When Domingue’s writing waxed luminous about relationships, it felt reasonable and earned, because all the readers know about how lucky and amazing it can feel to find someone — romantic or friendly — who makes sense to you and to whom you make sense. In The Mapmaker’s War, Domingue is rhapsodizing about a culture of total peace and joy and cooperation, which not only doesn’t exist but franklycouldn’t exist; and it’s like pinging a tuning fork that resonates at a pitch humans can’t hear. It may have an exceptionally beautiful timbre, but I am not profiting by it.

So much of the book’s energy goes into evoking the magic of the frustratingly implausible utopia Aoife finds herself in, that not much space is left for fleshing out believable, interesting characters. There are some genuinely moving moments toward the end, when Aoife realizes that she gave up her two children without much fight, and that she lost by it something important and valuable. Overall, though, the characters felt cardboardy. None of them ever told another of them a joke. Aoife says she enjoyed certain characters’ company, and that they enjoyed hers, but it’s not clear why.

I was sad not to enjoy this book as much as I expected to, but it did make me want to reread The Mercy of Thin Air! Domingue has a unique and interesting voice as a writer, and The Mercy of Thin Air deserves a better review than I gave it when I read it for the first time a few years ago.

Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher through NetGalley.

16 thoughts on “Review: The Mapmaker’s War, Ronlyn Domingue

  1. Oh what a great idea for a plot, the bit about “like pinging a tuning fork that resonates at a pitch humans can’t hear.” Or using a sort of bat echolocator so we can tune into this alternate universe. Must write that book in my spare time! :–) But I think I must read this series also! I love the idea that it turns quixotic into magic!

    • Oh, sorry, it’s not a series! Ronlyn Domingue’s first book is a sort of ghost story set in Louisiana in modern days and the 1920s. It’s good though, very worth reading.

  2. Ok, now I want to read the first book! The second sounds a little dense, and I don’t like cardboard characters. The idea of utopia is wonderful, but do I want to read an entire book about it? No, probably not. And I am with Charleen. 2nd person is an odd choice. Thanks for giving me the lowdown on this book.

      • I agree with Jenny! I also really liked The Mercy of Thin Air and it seems very Heather to me. It also has horribly sad parts, though, so just be careful if you happen to be doing it via audiobook on a drive somewhere!

        I will skip this book.

  3. You brought up some good points about why you didn’t enjoy this book more. It sounds so interesting that I’ll probably still give this book a try. Since you might give your mom A Tale for the Time Being, does that mean you’ve read it? :-)

    • So, I realize now I made it sound very much like this was the second book in a series. It isn’t! Ronlyn Domingue’s first novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, is an unrelated standalone. And it’s really good!

  4. The plot sounds good and the cover’s fantastic, but it almost sounds as if it was too much of a good thing, if the utopia doesn’t work at all. Because there’s utopias that wouldn’t work but are good to read about and then others. Mercy of Thin Air, sounds one to look for, I like what you’ve said about it a lot.

    • Yep, you are correct. I read Out of the Silent Planet recently, which also has a kind of utopia, and that was much more interesting to read about.

      Read The Mercy of Thin Air! It’s good.

    • Yep. Same here. Oh well. I’ll still try Domingue’s third book, whenever that one shows up. I like her as a writer, just didn’t love this one.

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