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.