Friday, April 11, 2008

Michael A. Stackpole

A Secret Atlas
by Michael A. Stackpole
Recommended Age: 16+

This very adult fantasy is Part One of a trilogy called The Age of Discovery. The other two books are Cartomancy and The New World, and all are by the author of numerous Star Wars novels and other books with such titles as Lethal Heritage, Prince of Havoc, A Gathering Evil, and When Dragons Rage. This suggests that Mr. Stackpole specializes in war and combat fantasies.

I chose this book because I was intrigued by the idea of map-making as a magical art. Maps are already such a significant feature of fantasy novels that it only seemed natural that an entire fantasy trilogy would be devoted to the making of maps! And there is, indeed, a fascinating fantasy concept at the bottom of this book. Qiro Anturasi, royal mapmaker of the principality of Nalenyr, is a master surveyor and cartographer who, with the aid of his two grandsons and numerous nephews, has added significantly to the radius and detail of the known world. As a result, Naleni merchants have re-established a thriving trade for the first time since a magical cataclysm some 700 years ago consigned the seven principalities to a bleak struggle for survival.

Qiro’s secrets of success include a system of sabotaging his competitors, an explosive temper that keeps everyone totally cowed, and the ability to see directly into the minds of his two grandsons. This last gift helps a lot, because Qiro is so valuable to Prince Cyron, and therefore in so much danger from the neighboring princes, that he is not allowed to leave the opulent tower where he lives and works.

To compensate for his imprisonment, Qiro sends his two grandsons to opposite edges of the map. He sends ruggedly independent discoverer Jorim on a nine-masted ship to chart the legendary Mountains of Ice in the southeastern ocean. He sends conscientiously precise surveyor Keles into the dangerous western wastes, to chart lands still polluted by the wild magic unleashed centuries earlier. Each is joined by a party of unusual companions, each faces terrific dangers and makes amazing discoveries, but these are as nothing to the intrigues, political maneuvers, and personal tragedies happening back at home.

Readers who enjoy a many-layered fantasy, in which several storylines weave together, will appreciate this book as it switches between Keles, Jorim, their sister Nirati, Prince Cyron, and their country’s bitter enemy, Prince Pyrust of Deseirion, among others. Though there are a lot of characters and weird terms to keep straight, the story is surprisingly easy to follow – if you don’t mind the surprise at the end of one chapter keeping you hanging through four intervening chapters before you find out how it was resolved!

Personally, however, I wasn’t 100% captivated. There were a number of times when I felt the characters ran off at the mouth, unburdening themselves of exactly what they wanted to say in a melodramatic manner that, in life, nobody really does. (I like to call this the “Pat Conroy Effect,” because Conroy was the first author whose books I stopped reading on these grounds.)

Also, the book’s climax included a particularly gruesome twist that I would rather not have read. I can’t stress strongly enough that this is a book for mature readers only! And, for the very reasons this book reminds me of Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, I am apparently not mature enough because I do not feel a burning desire to continue reading this series. To each his own. If you can stomach a description of extreme sexual sadism, this series may be your cup of tea. If not, read at your own risk!

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