The Mapmaker’s War by Ronlyn Domingue
I’d never heard of Ronlyn Domingue before The Mapmaker’s War came across my desk, but I’m always intrigued when authors who write “literary fiction”—or fiction coded as such—make the leap to “genre fiction”. Y’all know I have extremely little patience with that pair of terms, since they’re mostly used to privilege certain books above others, regardless of any objective means to tell one genre from another. And yet, speculative fiction, especially the schools of science fiction and fantasy, does need to be seen in context—it’s got a history to it. We don’t need more Tolkienesque fantasy, for instance, we’ve run that into the ground several times over. So what happens when an author from outside the genre and the community tries to tackle the stuff without that weight in the back of her mind? Obviously, they’re welcome to—genre is just genre at the end of the day. But it does help, as we’ll see in the case of The Mapmaker’s War.
The Mapmaker’s War, written in the second person, tells the story of Aoife. Born in a small but ambitious kingdom as the daughter of an advisor to the king, she rejects traditional femininity and instead becomes a mapmaker, as well as a dear friend to the prince. On one of her surveys, she encounters the Guardians, a small, peaceful, and incredibly wealthy community. She and her crew are sworn to secrecy, but her cook spills the secret. When the prince’s brother plots to invade the Guardians, she risks everything to warn them—and then is exiled among them.
I find second person perspective incredibly intrusive. It probably stems from spending my formative years on Fanfiction.net, where it’s primarily used in wish fulfillment fanfics. Identifying with a protagonist is highly encouraged; being the protagonist? Not so much. It’s just very difficult to do well. Domingue takes some of the sourness out by framing it as the elderly Aoife writing down her autobiography and addressing it to her younger self. This allows her to reprove herself: the phrase “tell the truth” is a constant thread, when Aoife finds herself trying to rationalize or play off some of the darker moments in her life. It almost works. On top of the second person perspective, Domingue has added a translator’s note (from Secret Riven, a character in the book’s sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven), which more or less works, refuses to use quotation marks, and adds a strange conceit of occasionally rendering sentences | in this fashion | instead of as proper sentences. The guys at Down in Front have posited that texts should only get one magic bean, be it in the story itself or in the execution of the story. For instance, Gollum is The Lord of the Rings films’ magic bean; we, the audience, will pretend that this CGI creation is real, since everything else more or less reads as real to us. The magic bean here is the perspective used; if I, the reader, am already off-balance and trying to maintain my balance, don’t give me anything else to destabilize me, like, say, ignoring how we normally render speech or tossing vertical bars at me.
And things deteriorate when we get to the actual fantasy of this legend, as the book is subtitled. I imagine Domingue is trying to invoke what Kate Bernheimer mentions in “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale”: a certain flatness of character and story, a particular abstraction. This is meant to be a fairy tale rendering of a woman’s life without flinching from her complications, maturity, and pain. But that’s hurt by the fact that the worldbuilding feels like Avatar crossed with someone’s first crack at a fantasy novel. As we’re introduced to Aoife’s life, we find ourselves in a very traditional, medieval Europe-inspired setting, filled with good but fallible people, as well as people who are up to no good (even if their motivations feel weak, you can see where Domingue is going). But once we meet the Guardians, such complications melt away—the Guardians are a people so innocent, beautiful, and perfect that they have no classism, no sexism, no homophobia. They have a dim view of paternity and they don’t even have a word for “rape” (even though their ideals led them to often help rape survivors). It’s implied this ideology is somehow blood-related—the Guardians take in those “born away” into their community—but it just left me wondering how these flawless people even happened in a world that’s otherwise medieval Europe. It’s hard to take Aoife’s painful, human story seriously when she finds succor in a people who feel utterly unreal.
Still, I do appreciate that The Mapmaker’s War explores the choice to have children from several angles. I often talk about how the media omits the necessary negotiations inherent in any functional relationship, which is why we think we don’t need to do it (pro-tip: oh yes you do), and The Mapmaker’s War actually shows Aoife and her second husband discussing having a child for a year before they decide to go ahead and do so. Aoife is conflicted over the fact that she has distant relationships with her children by both inclination and forces outside of her control: her exile, her second daughter’s magical gifts. She struggles with it and negotiates with it. I wish her strained relationship with her mother had been fleshed out more, but Domingue really digs into the concept of motherhood and how we’re told to conceive of motherhood here. I just wish it was in a better-executed book.
Bottom line: The Mapmaker’s War explores the concept of motherhood very well—unfortunately, it’s in a book whose stylistic choices make the choice of a second person perspective weaker and whose worldbuilding is so flimsy it hurts the main narrative. Alas.
I received this book from the publisher for review.
The Mapmaker’s War will be released on the 5th—tomorrow!