As a child reading about hobbits and lampposts and luckdragons, I thought I longed to step into other worlds because of the many physical ways in which they differed from ours. But growing older, I think most of us would find that what we really want is simply the ability to feel awestruck by the beauty and novelty and discovery of real things. We want to know more, but mostly we want to believe that there are still things we don’t know. The world seems bigger when we don’t know everything.
The connection between fantasy literature and the desire for discovery is one Ronlyn Domingue, author of The Mapmaker’s War, seems to understand deeply. Fittingly, then, the book’s plot does not turn on the completion of a mystical quest, but instead on an entirely mortal and largely internal struggle: a woman’s desire to first transcend her society’s expectations and then her guilt at what doing so has cost her.
In this fantasy novel, the heroine doesn’t begin by looking for a dragon. Instead, Aoife (ee-fah) wants to be a mapmaker. It is irksome enough to her mother that she seeks any employment at all outside wife- and mother-hood, but to be a mapmaker, Aoife must be able to travel far away from her village, and almost solely in the company of men. Fortunately for Aoife, her father is proud of her talents, and her superior skill is noticed by the king, who permits her to serve as a mapmaker. Her work and her growing attraction to Prince Wyl distract her from the fact that she is only as free as the king sees fit to let her be. Later, as Wyl’s wife, pregnant with children she will not be able to love as she feels she ought, she thinks, “Your place in the world shrank tight as the skin of your belly.”
The war Aoife feels she has started begins when she discovers a hidden village while traveling for her mapmaking. The people live simply but are entirely without want. They wear beautiful jewelry, and no one person seems to possess more wealth than any other. There is no word for “rape.” The women work alongside the men. Children have parents, but are cared for by everyone. These mysterious people guard a dragon and a treasure. Eventually, Aoife will stand against her family and her kingdom to protect what she has found. Her conflicts become recognizable when she is offered peace and struggles to accept that such a thing even exists.
This shifting of focus, from the trappings of a fantasy setting to the personal struggles of a single character, makes for an intimate reading experience. Adding to the intimacy is the second-person tense in which the book is written: Aoife is writing her autobiography, and she is writing to herself. In a book about boundaries drawn and undrawn, Domingue draws a circle around the reader and her narrator by having Aoife constantly address herself, and in doing so address the reader, by using “you.” I would not have believed, before reading this book, that such a voice could be sustained for the duration of a novel without being off-puttingly distracting and pretentious, but the inward-looking plot and narration echo one another elegantly.
The limitation this presents is that other characters appear as mere sketches in Aoife’s consciousness. There is little dialogue, and what conversation there is is not set off by quotation marks or other punctuation, so that it all bleeds into Aoife’s thoughts. The book is subtitled, “A Legend,” and it is true that in most legends and fairytales, we don’t need more than one or two traits to establish a character. They’re not the point: the plot and its attendant moral are. This is not the case with The Mapmaker’s War, which forgoes the flash and fanfare of traditional fantasy in favor of character development, but then neglects to give its main character sufficient supporting personalities to interact with. Aoife’s character is well-developed in itself, but there are few instances of real chemistry between her and any other characters. Her personality, and consequently, the story she tells, is richly shaded, but monochromatic.
In the end, The Mapmaker’s War is too personal to be a proper legend. While Aoife’s story comes to an end within the book, her story is itself a prologue to the larger conflict at hand, one that will likely be explored more fully in the book’s sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, due to be published in 2014. Even so, there are no cliffhangers in The Mapmaker’s War; it’s just not that kind of book. It is small and quiet and hopeful in its belief that we can recognize what we are looking for when we find it.