THE MAPMAKER’S WAR
By Ronlyn Domingue
Atria Books, $23; 223 pp.
March is National Women’s History Month. Domingue’s book is an appropriate book to begin things. Women’s issues have driven Domingue’s writing as her fans are well aware. Reproductive rights were the underlying complication in her previous novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, set in New Orleans. This time, a strong female protagonist comes up against an unyielding patriarchy. The setting, however, is far from Domingue’s native Louisiana. It’s in a place where magic and mysticism still inform everyday life, sometime in prehistory before the rise of modern civilizations.
Aoife is a young woman who lives in a kingdom where women have a very set place in society: they are expected to be wives and mothers. The men do the fighting and adventuring and certain jobs are restricted to each sex. Aoife’s father is an advisor to the king, however, so she grows up in the sphere of the royal castle.
When the king’s mapmaker sees a certain aptitude in Aoife, she is allowed to study with him even though mapmaking is not a trade most women are allowed to enter. Aoife responds well to her training. She enjoys the privileged life she leads and is a close friend to the crown prince. In fact, that crown prince, Wyl, is clearly infatuated with Aoife who is not immune to Wyl’s beauty and good nature.
The entire book is written in Aoife’s voice, in second person as if she is addressing herself.
“You liked Wyl. His disposition was sanguine. He seemed more interested in pleasure than power. Grudges didn’t suit him. When you were young, when a girl wasn’t permitted to say aloud she found a boy comely, you thought he was just that. As you grew older, you found him handsome. An exceptional example.”
This odd voice is explained in a one-page preface that recounts how the manuscript of the story was found among ancient writings and is written in language that “scarcely has been heard spoken outside its cultural borders.
“Until the acquisition of this work, the presumption was that no writing system existed for the language.”
That language is not Aoife’s native tongue. How she comes to speak it is part of the plot of the book. After successfully completing her apprenticeship as a mapmaker, the king charges Aoife with the task of mapping new parts of his realm.
As she reaches the northern limits of his domain, Aoife sees a river.
“It was said there was a kingdom on the other shore, but little was known about the people.” The king sends Aoife to map any fortifications, but her curiosity overwhelms her, and after a summer of mapping, she takes a boat and crew and lands on the far shore. She meets some residents of the strange land. Five men in “Blue coats, white belts, flaxen leggins, tanned shoes. Hair long at the crown, swept back, cropped at the skull. Not one seemed to carry a sword, dagger, spear, or club.”
Only Aoife is allowed to accompany the men to their village. When she arrives there, she finds wonder. The streets are paved with honeycomb-shaped cells of gold. Everything is neat and clean and peaceful.
As Aoife is told more about the settlement, she learns that the mysterious residents want only to be left alone. They impart wise and cryptic words to the young mapmaker. One of the people’s translators, a young woman, tell Aoife, “to listen with your heart, not your mind. She said the known and hidden worlds weren’t what they seemed. Like a map, they could fold. The shortest distance between two points was not always a line. Among all that was seen and unseen, there were links, the points, a gaps, the distance between.
“Take care to notice the trunks of trees, said she.”
As she leaves the strange land, Aoife feels a peace she can’t describe. “You felt a protective impulse for the people of the settlement.”
But two others in her group have followed her into the settlement. Although Aoife swears them to secrecy, hoping to protect the peaceful people with their streets of gold, she knows they will not be able to hold their tongues. It’s just a matter of time before tales of riches and treasure filter back to the royal court.
It happens even sooner than she expects. One of the men tells of a child playing on the gold road who relates a story about a red dragon and a treasure trove. But before anything comes of the tale, Wyl comes of age and goes on a traditional quest. The people of the kingdom, who have now heard the rumors of treasure, get to choose his quest. If he is successful, he will be king.
The people pick a quest to the dragon’s treasure trove. Wyl asks Aoife to prepare him maps for the quest. She sends him off on a wild goose chase, but then feels guilty about it, and after a while goes after him. She finds him and romance — of a sort — ensues. Don’t think there’s a happily ever after here. There really isn’t, but there’s still a lot more story left for the reader.
Aoife’s story is set in an unspecified ancient era. Aoife does mention seeing aurochs in the forest and those ancestors of modern cattle were common during the Holocene but eventually went extinct in the 1600s. Not that the exact period is important. Aoife faces many dilemmas that modern women may also face: unexpected pregnancy, a husband she doesn’t really love, a restricted lifestyle dictated by motherhood and marriage.
No longer a mapmaker, Aoife’s protective feeling toward the society she discovered on the far side of the river leads her to a crisis of conscience. She makes a choice that leads her away from her place in the old kingdom toward a new life, one away from her husband and children. It’s that afterward which forms the concluding half of this short book.
The second person voice takes some getting used to, but because the plot advances quickly, it doesn’t hamper the readability of The Mapmaker’s War. It’s a different point of view than most modern writers employ (with a few exceptions like Jay McInterney) yet it works well if the plot drives the story, and that’s the case here. The book is reminiscent of some Edwardian novels in its emphasis on class and women’s issues. Its mysticism and naturalism also recall the classic Green Mansions, published during that period. If you give Domingue’s book a chance, it’ll entrance you.