The Secret Atlas by Michael A. Stackpole
|Book Name:||The Secret Atlas|
|Author:||Michael A. Stackpole|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook|
|Release Date:||March 1, 2005|
I have not yet met a fantasy fan who isn’t into maps, at least when it comes to those printed within the newest book they just picked up. Detailed maps permeate our favorite genre far more than dragons, elves, and hero princes. There is something about seeing the land your about to explore fleshed out in a cartographer’s hand that makes this imagined place more substantial. Beautiful descriptions within the pages are all well and good, but being able to see which nation sits beside which mountain range and the river that passes through it all adds a layer of realism to these unreal worlds is icing on the intricately detailed cake.
Seeing as maps and mapmaking have such a rich history in the fantasy genre, where is our cartographer hero to be found? We have so many scoundrels and knights and wizards, where are the mapmakers? Well, look no further than The Secret Atlas, the first book in the Age of Discovery trilogy by Michael A. Stackpole.
The Lay of the Land
Keles and Jorim Anturasi are renowned cartographers who serve under their near-legendary grandfather Qiro who have garnered much favour with the prince, the nation, and, in Jorim’s case, the lovely ladies. Qiro, however, is a harsh man who has been locked in a gilded cage in order to keep the nation of Nalenyr rich and dominant. Prince Cyron does his best to assuage the mapmaking genius’s irritation, but it is difficult to keep a man happy when you will not even allow him leave of his tower for his birthday celebration.
All might have gone well if Jorim had not stoked his grandfather’s ire with his penchant for brawling and if Keles did not ruin Qiro’s entrance by protecting his ex from being shredded into bits by a Viruk. All this chaos leads the old man to send Keles to map the old Silk Road in the Wastes – a swath of land plagued by dangerous, unstable magic – and Jorim off on the Stormwolf to learn all he can while trying to locate a better route to the far off nation of Aefret. One is an adventurer, the other is in over his head, and they both have no idea what waits for them in such mysteries, unknown places. Thank the gods they have help.
As you can see, that is a lot of information to summarize and it is just the beginning of the novel! What I did not mention was the politics between Prince Cyron and Prince Pyrust of Deseiron, Keles and Jorim’s sister Nirati, Moraven Tolo, who is pretty much a magical samurai with amnesia, and a ton of other relevant bits and pieces. The fact is, everything about this story revolves around the dual plots that push Jorim and Keles through the novel. Each of the characters has some tie to either one brother or the other and by the end there are threads revealed that you didn’t even know existed. Suffice it to say, The Secret Atlas is a densely packed story and if you do not want a thick slab of goodness to dig into, this may not be the book for you.
There are a number of MacGuffins in the story, particular artifacts and things that the two brothers are looking for, but I like that their quests are focused on exploration as opposed to anything else. Jorim is searching for unknown lands, Keles is surveying a place that changes drastically by the minute and remains like nowhere else on the entire planet. You learn with them, finding joy in their successes and sadness in their failures. It makes sense that when the main protagonists are practically master level cartographers they would be sent on quests that revolve around the journey as opposed to the destination. It feels fresh to have such characters in a genre dominated by warriors and mages; though this novel doesn’t skimp on those either.
The only real gripe I had with the narrative was that by the very end it devolves into a world saving plot that sets up the next two books. What we learn is interesting and there are a number of elements that make you take a step back and wonder what in the hell is going to happen moving forward, but it all comes down to figuring out how to save the world. I don’t mind that that’s where Stackpole wanted to take the narrative – he isn’t exactly shy about hinting that’s where things are going – I just would have liked to have seen something less predictable. However, given the rich and detailed world he’s created, it would almost be a shame if someone wasn’t trying to save it from being destroyed.
We are introduced to a handful of characters other than the brothers Anturasi in this first book, many of whom come to join Keles later on in his journey. I do not wish to spoil anything, but one such man makes his appearance before either of the cartographers so I think it is appropriate.
Moraven Tolo is an interesting character because his past alludes him and while he is a jaedunto – a swordsman so skilled that he has magic flowing through him and can lives longer than normal men – he is not sagely in his wisdom. He obtains a student, Ciras, early on and though he teaches the righteous young man many important lessons, Moraven himself learns a lot during his time with Keles and the other in the Wastes. It doesn’t hurt that he is an incredible swordsman and ridiculously charming.
Really, all the characters that get any decent amount of page space are enjoyable and they are each fleshed out enough to keep them from feeling flat. In a book that is six hundred pages long you would think some people might get the short end of the stick, but almost every individual gets a decent amount of development. The ones that may lose out the most are Tyressa and Borosan, two of Keles’s traveling companions, but even they get their moments to shine. The stand out character to me though has got to be Keles’s twin, Nirati.
Nirati Anturasi is poised, compassionate, intelligent, and beautiful. She helps Keles early on and continues to showcase her empathy during the (too) brief interludes we get with her throughout the story. The problem, at least to Nirati herself, is that she lacks a talent, even for mapmaking. This has kept Qiro’s ire from falling upon her, but has caused the young woman to doubt herself. Thanks to a Helosundian noble named Junel and her growing intimacy with him, she thinks she may have found the skill she has been seeking so desperately. To say more would spoil things, but all I can say is that there is a twist that I did not see coming and I am still upset about it. Once you read about her and fall in love with her character like I did, you’ll understand why. She’s fantastic and adds a large amount of heart to the story and almost every time I read one of her chapters I ended it with a smile. Almost!
A Whole New(ish) World
The Secret Atlas is a dense book, not because of the multiple characters and plots one has to follow, but because of the massive amount of information you are being fed about the world. Stackpole has created an incredibly rich history that spans centuries and involves a number of different races and legendary figures within the world’s mythology. Every chapter teaches you something new about the world, magic, the landscape, and anything else the author feels is relevant. I have no doubt that it could feel overwhelming if you are not used to reading fantasy or cracking open a Dungeons and Dragons setting, but everything you learn is entertaining and interesting enough that even the most apprehensive reader should be able to enjoy the info dumps.
If, for whatever reason, the history doesn’t make you curious, the world itself should pull you in. There’s definitely a mixture of cultures that have inspired this setting, mainly Japanese and Italian or Spanish. From Prince Cyron’s clothing to the political protocols, you get the sense of Asian influence, but then with names like Anturasi and Nalenyr’s penchant for exploration, things start to feel more Southern European. It creates a unique atmosphere that quickly becomes outshined by the weirdness of the Wastes and the majesty of the lands Jorim finds himself sailing to. Throughout the novel you are never wanting for an interesting locale. It is not an entirely unique fantasy setting, but there is enough tweaked and melded together about it that it feels special, which is no small feat.
Everyone compares every novel nowadays to A Game of Thrones and that annoys me. There have been many books before Martin’s series, and after, that have contained multiple characters dealing with multiple plot threads. Today The Secret Atlas would get the “It’s like A Game of Thrones” treatment on its cover and that would be doing it a disservice. Though it contains a large cast, dueling princes, and a vast landscape, Stackpole’s first in a trilogy focuses on forging its heroes through knowledge about the world around them as opposed to the spilling of blood and bucking story tropes. It is a fun novel filled with interesting, rounded characters and enough fabricated history to make a college professor blush. It’s a book overflowing with love for the genre and while it might be too much for some, fantasy fans should be happy that there’s another book out there that isn’t afraid to have you sink your teeth into it. Give it a read and enjoy a world that continues to get filled in as you turn the pages. Who knows, maybe this story will even inspire you to finish that map you have been working on for your next RPG session. If not, you at least got to read another great book.