Review of the Day: The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat
I am often grateful that people have come up with terms and phrases that so perfectly describe literary tropes and ideas that would otherwise be difficult to define. Take the term “world building”. I don’t have a dictionary in front of me right now, but if I were to hazard a guess as to what it means, I’d probably say it was the way in which an author fully immerses their reader in worlds of their own making. Fantasy novels in particular utilize a lot of world building. And worlds, as we all know, are rather large. It would stand to reason that an author would want to use as many words as humanly possible to describe the new ideas, sights, sounds, smells, and rules of their creations. I picture some scrappy author out there pouring their heart and soul into some 1,000 page tome, only to have a mean old editor tell them that their book would be impossible to publish at that size. Children’s authors are not immune to this. Harry Potter has much to answer for, and though it’s slightly less common these days, you still sometimes get 500+ page works of fantasy. This is precisely the kind of thing that makes you grateful for folks like Christina Soontornvat. Now here you find yourself in the presence of a master. How is it that she is capable of completely realistic world building, character development, and descriptive (not to mention beautiful) writing -all within the span of a mere 359 pages? The Last Mapmaker offers readers proof positive that you can write succinctly, sacrificing nothing, while showing your readers absolutely everything.
Escape. It’s the hope that drives Sai. In some ways, she’s a master of it. The daughter of a con-man, already Sai has managed to escape her own upbringing and become the Assistant to Paiyoon Wongyai, the nation’s greatest mapmaker. She’s saving up now, in hopes of gaining passage out of her country and into a future where she can make something of herself. Sooner than she expects that plan comes to a kind of fruition when Paiyoon is offered passage on a ship bound for the southern seas. He is to map the lands they find, and Sai is coming along too. Trouble is, this is a voyage filled to the brim with secrets and everyone, including her, seems to have one.
See, the thing about novels for kids is that too few people spend an adequate amount of time peering at the writing of the book itself. I don’t mean the plotting or how well you do or do not fall in love with the characters. I mean the actual choice and order in which the writer lays down words. With Christina Soontornvat, that’s what you’re coming to the table for. Writing sentences that are a joy to read? That’s her bag. Just flip to the beginning of this book and take your pick to find your favorites. Here’s one that I particularly liked. It comes when Sai, who has not eaten breakfast, enters a café. “It took real effort not to stick out my tongue and lick the air.” That’s a rather perfect example of what Soontornvat is particularly good at; wry humor coupled with delicious descriptions.
Yet great writing is more than just how well you can sling an adjective into a sea of nouns. The intricacy of Soontonrvat’s kingdom and the way in which it works is perfect. Here she has created a nation of colonizers. When the book begins, Sai is 100% on board with her kingdom’s methodology and justifications. It’s only as she travels and sees and learns from people like Master Paiyoon that she comes to understand that there are consequences to the “exploring” and mapping she holds so dear. All this is coupled beautifully with the kingdom’s motto, both visual and written: “The Tail is in the Teeth.” This is accompanied by a perfectly circular dragon, clamping its own tail in its jaws. Soontornvat writes, “It meant that the end was connected to the beginning. It meant that where you ended up depended on where you started…” Sai thinks the motto is a trap. As the book progresses, she realizes that it might have even more sinister implications.
As an adult reading this book, I sort of felt like I was reading it on two levels at once. On the one hand I was reading it the same way a kid might. I was hanging on to every word of the text, curious about where the plot might go. And honestly, aside from figuring out who the villain was, Soontornvat had me guessing at every turn. On another level, I was reading this like an adult reviewer. Because the author telegraphs early on the fact that Mud, Sai’s father, is criminal but not at all evil, I was very curious to see in what way Sai would have a change of heart about him. I mean, he’s pretty much missing for the bulk of the book right after the start. Her solution to this was unexpected but utterly believable. I had no problem with that. Heck, I admired her moxy!
I had slightly more of a problem with the last chapter of the book. Now I’ve mentioned before that this book manages to consolidate its plotting and world-building to an admirable degree. Soontornvat should teach a masterclass on cutting out the superfluous. And the action! There’s no time to get bored with this novel. The characters are forever jumping into and out of deadly situations, and you’re right there with them every step of the way. It’s thrilling! Unfortunately, there’s a downside to this succinctness, and that comes at the conclusion. I can’t blame the author. Surely she knew that if she wanted to maintain the book’s energy and end on a high note, that meant sacrifices. In this case, sacrificing a lot of the big moments near the end. They get explained in just a paragraph or two, zip zip zip! All of it off-screen. All of it enormously quickly. And I get it. I get why the author and editor made this decision. Still, in spite of the speed at which this book moves, the last chapter is the only point at which I felt a little rushed. But could I have come up with a better solution? In all honesty, probably not.
Fantasy novels for kids in America have historically been disproportionately built on European flights of fancy. The Last Mapmaker, in contrast, owes its influences to Thai mythology. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Of course, the book itself is monumental for a wide variety of reasons above and beyond its influences. Reading it, it doesn’t feel like any other book out there. It grips you from the first page. You believe in these characters, in their wants and dreams and fears. You never doubt for a second their motivations, even when they surprise you with their choices. This may even be the kind of book that kids that usually eschew fantasy would actually like quite a lot. Though fantastical elements exist, there’s a strange reality to them. Consider this the kind of book that kids and their adult gatekeepers will love equally. In other words? Rare rare treasure.
On shelves now
Source: Final copy sent from publisher
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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