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An Asian Age of Discovery – and a Lost Hand

december 26, 2010

The Age of Discovery series:

A Secret Atlas
The New World
by Michael A. Stackpole

For someone as interested in fantasy maps as myself, a book titled Cartomancy was almost irresistable; enough so that I bought it despite the fact that it was the second book in a series of three[1]. Some 1,500 pages later, I have to say that the book that caught my eye was the weakest of the three, suffering from ”the middle book syndrome”[2], but that I have never read a fantasy work which celebrated cartography and map-making to such an extent.

The story contains numerous traditional (and recogniseable) elements: two ancient enemies come together to fight it out after a prolonged absence of a few centuries. Gods combat older (and evil) gods, while also interfering with humans. Ancient, magical races sit on the side-line, but help the hero. Strange, vicious creatures attack the human lands. Our heroes learn how to use magic. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Of course I’ve read it before. I seldom open a fantasy book nowadays without finding something I haven’t. The question is: how well have the old elements been handled, and what new stuff is in there. Stackpole handles much of the well-worn material quite nicely; I do not groan at his elves because they (”the Viruk”) are in fact huge fighting machines, with bone plates and talons and poisonous barbs, who kept humans as slaves in the distant past. Nor are is orcs uncivilised monsters but fierce warriors who know how to duel with honour. And the Dark Lord is not necessarily evil – he might even be the rightful heir.

In fact, Stackpole takes a step or two away from the traditional pseudomedieval fantasy setting. His Age of Discovery takes place in a world dominated by the nine kingdoms that are the remnants of a once-great human empire. The society is distinctly Chinese in its flavour, with dashes of Japanese and Korean (or so it seems to this reviewer), with xidantzu or wandering warriors fighting for others but never for money, a powerful bureaucracy spanning the nine kingdoms, a focus on elaborate dress and self-effacing behaviour – the elements (or stereotypes) go on and on. As the series name proclaims, the time period is one of Discovery rather than any Dark Ages: their technology is admittedly powered by magic but to me, that makes sense, as you would pick the most readily available power source in any technical development. Trade as well as the exploration and mapping of the world (and thus also cartography) are of central importance. The magic of wizards (or vanyesh) is shunned as unnatural and responsible for the Cataclysm that broke the world and destroyed the Empire ages ago. Mystics, people whose skills in a particular field are so great that they have a magical control through their skills, are revered, however.

I really like that idea, in fact. There is something pleasing in the notion that if you are good enough at something, you can change the world through that something. For a large part of the story, the only Mystics refered to are warriors who are preternaturally good. The obvious question is raised, however: what does it mean to be superbly skilled as a farmer, prostitute, cartographer …? Unsurprisingly, the outcome of the series hinges partly on Mystic cartographers battling over the shape of the land (and there is a brief scene where we see a Mystic courtesan in action). Mystics differ from vanyesh, we are repeatedly told, understand the world they change through magic. In fact, that is one of the series central messages: work hard at your skills and you can change the world. Cut corners and you will become inhuman and end up in the Eighth Hell.

Basically, the main story-lines run like this: several centuries ago, the Empress fought against the barbarians but was betrayed by Prince Nelesquin. The battle discharged enough magic to cause a catastrophic change of the world and (almost) bring down civilisation. Today, Prince Pyrust and Prince Cyron both attempt to re-unite the nine kingdoms into a new empire, one by the sword, the other by the coin. Their fight is suddenly dwarfed by the re-awakening of the old conflict between the Empress and Nelesquin, and behind the scenes, the gods strive to keep the First God from destroying the world. In the middle of this, we find members of the Anturasi family: the master cartographer Qiro and his grandchildren Keles, Nirati, and Jorim. The three siblings journey beyond the boundaries of the known world and into the worlds beyond in order to try to solve these conflicts.

Stackpole’s language flows easily and when he describes fast-paced battle scenes, the prose is mostly equally fast. His characters are nicely human, and good- and bad-guys alike see themselves as heroes of their own stories, sometimes to the point that I was uncertain about who was the real villain. Revenge, love, and the greater good muddles most intentions; death is not the final frontier; and the main characters are mostly complicated enough to harbour any number of hidden motives. In short, I was kept on my toes for much of the story.

But I can’t understand why there always has to be someone who has his lost hand replaced by an artificial one. Here, Luke Skywalker, Wormtail and their handless friends are joined by yet another unhanded character …


[1] Of three books; that does not make it a trilogy, which is a series of three books which can all be read separatly even if they are related. I refuse to see The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy, for instance – it is a book in three volumes. The Narnia books, on the other hand, would qualify as a septology. Tillbaka

[2] Middle volumes seem to have a tendency to transport the reader (and the characters) from the exciting beginning to the intense ending through a fairly flat pice of story. I, at least, often get the feeling that much of it could have been cut and was in fact mainly written because the publisher insisted on three volumes, whereas the story would have been fine with only two. Tillbaka

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