A Secret Atlas by Michael A. Stackpole
Many, many years ago, I attended a lecture by Michael Stackpole, in which he advanced a theory that any book in a series should form an essentially self-contained novel, so that one could pick it up, read it, and enjoy it without necessarily having to read the whole thing. (His particular example involved being stuck in an airport with nothing but the second book of various trilogies available to him).
The example stuck with me for a long time, but oddly, I never read any of the man's work itself. Partly that was because he wrote a lot of Battletech and Star Wars fiction, and I never liked the former, and burned out on the latter as a callow teenager. At some point, I stumbled across this one, thought it looked interesting, and, after having it occupy space for a little bit, decided to give it a shot.
The book had me concerned even before I started the story. The dedication is to Senator John McCain, and for a brief moment, I worried that the book was some kind of political screed in disguise (something which sci-fi/fantasy authors are occasionally guilty of...see also, brain-eater). But it was to the Senator, not the presidential candidate, and it was focused mostly on McCain's triumph over horrific circumstances. Like McCain or not, he went through some rough stuff, and I think he deserves admiration for that. So, okay. Moving on.
My concerns deepened when I saw that Stackpole was crediting/referencing the team behind Gavin Menzies's "controversial" book 1421: The Year China Discovered America. By "controversial" I mean that it's largely BS, as near as I've ever been able to determine. But,I told myself, this is a fantasy book, and Stackpole says he's using them as reference for ship dimensions. That shouldn't mess anything up, and besides, this is fantasy. I cannot criticize the historical validity of something set in a made-up world.
On to the book itself.
Stackpole builds an interesting setting, which is an odd mixture of Medieval Italy and Imperial China set in a world recovering from a magical apocalypse. There are a lot of odd, made up words here. I don't know if Stackpole went to the same lengths that Professor Tolkien did in his world building, but he definitely has a lot of words here. Sometimes, they get a bit confusing, but for the most part, they're manageable.
The story itself follows a number of different characters, but primarily revolves around Jorim and Keles Anturasi, grandsons of Qiro Anturasi, the chief cartographer of the particular kingdom in which they live. Their family skill at cartography is what has enabled the kingdom they live in to rise to prominence, and they are considered extremely valuable by the Prince of that particular realm. Through a series of intrigues, Jorim and Keles end up being tasked with two different exploratory missions. Jorim sails west to look for a route around the world (sound familiar?), while Keles is sent to explore the post-apocalyptic wasteland to the north. A number of other sundry characters get tangled up along the way. And there are intrigues in the capital city back home.
There's some really interesting stuff in here; the jaedunto, for example, are those who are so skilled as to effectively be doing magic with their craft (this is Kung Fu in it's more literal sense, as opposed to what most of us here in the States think of as Kung Fu). The characters, for the most part, are engaging, particularly the two brothers. I found some of the courtly stuff actually a bit dull, but there you go. There SEEMS to be an evolving plot about the power of people to define their world, and how the role of mapmakers plays into that, but I haven't gotten far enough to know if that's the case.
On the downside, there's some problems. There are a LOT of weird names, and I had trouble keeping track of all of the places, players, and characters. Worse, there were a few characters I just didn't care about, including one whose rather gruesome murder seems completely out of left field, and rather pointless. I suppose I should have felt sympathy for the character, but I just never clicked with her, and then she was dead. It seemed like gruesome violence for gruesome violence's sake, as though the book didn't have enough Hannibal Lector, and was running out of time.
Problems aside, however, I did enjoy this book. So much that I ignored some of my other current readings just to finish it. And I want to read the next one. So that's a good sign.
And, no, it's not one complete story. I mean, I could stop reading here, but I wouldn't feel like things really resolved. So either Stackpole has revised that rule, or he's given it up. It's okay. I like the book anyway.
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