If you were to sit down to write a medieval fantasy novel that was the ideological and literary opposite of A Song of Ice and Fire, it might come out something like The Mapmaker’s War. While Martin’s scope covers multiple continents and more characters than I could ever truly care about (I’m down to Arya and Tyrion, and godhelpme Jaime), Domingue’s world exists only through the eyes of a single woman. Where Martin glories in the grunge of sex and violence, Domingue contemplates the damaging social constructions that surround both practices. While readers are dragged through every grimy inn, every grueling mile, and every unfortunate wedding in Westeros, The Mapmaker’s War moves at a dreamy, almost fable-like pace that contains a woman’s entire life. The fantasy reader that would love both of these works is rare, so take this comparison either as a warning or recommendation.
The plot follows the life of Aoife, a woman who becomes the mapmaker to an ancient kingdom. I wish we’d spent more time here in Aoife’s youth, because the semi-magical, semi-mathematical process of creating maps was beautiful to read. But we don’t linger. Soon Aoife discovers a neighboring culture on one of her mapmaking journeys — peaceful, non-hierarchical, quite Utopian — and the new knowledge of their location and rumors of their wealth lead to war.
Her mapmaking career abruptly ends when she marries the prince and gives birth to twins. As happens to strong women reined in by social expectations everywhere, she becomes slightly unhinged. Eventually she’s exiled and escapes to make a new life in the Utopian community she almost destroyed, abandoning her home, husband, and children. The rest of the book is the process of letting go of her old cultural baggage and guilt, finding a place among her new people, and dealing with the spiraling fallout of her war.
Reading The Mapmaker’s War did not feel like reading a fantasy novel. It felt like a surreal memoir, or a literary fable, a work of mythic nonfiction, or some other genre that doesn’t quite exist. In part, that’s because of the rare narrative decision to write the whole thing in second person, Like so:
You made a point of observing the land. You watched the movement of stars, the peel of the moon. You who had lived by maps were without direction in an unknown location. No one knew where you were, if you were alive or dead. Although you thought you should be afraid, you weren’t. You felt no concern beyond what you would eat or where you could sleep. There was a peace to the unmooring.
The style is less difficult to adjust to than I thought it would be, but the question isn’t did-it-annoy-me, but was-it-necessary-to-the-telling-of-the-story. My tentative response is yes. Domingue’s writing is exceptionally emotional, personal, and immediate, and the second-person style allowed a more direct transmission of that emotion. Most novels are trying in some way to put you behind the eyes of main character, feeling their pains and celebrating their victories; in this book, you might literally be Aoife.
And being Aoife isn’t easy. One of the more successful aspects of the book is the application of feminist theory and literature onto an ancient world. Unlike the bulk of fantasy, this does not mean handing a sword to a female main character and watching her thrash menfolk for the next several hundred pages, until she finds the One Dude she loves. Here, it means confronting the terrifyingly solid social limitations of a feudal kingdom. Aoife gets to travel as a mapmaker and evade her gendered destiny, but:
You were not so different from other women. Your life depended on the favor of men. Your freedom was an illusion that you dared to dream.
When the men retract their favor, Aoife is expected to fall gracefully into her role as a mother and wife. But she can’t love her children, no matter how hard she tries, and guilt for her own indifference consumes her. When she abandons them and flees, she feels nothing but relief.
Now, the idea that women are all mothers deep in their chromosomal destinies, regardless of time or circumstance, is a difficult one to shake. It’s one of our most fundamental gender constructions. It is therefore difficult to write a sympathetic character who is, in any way, a bad mother. We want to read about mothers who would do anything for their children, who love their children more than themselves. Not mothers who are trapped, who dream of escape, who ultimately choose their own sanities and identities over the act of motherhood. But these mothers are surely just as real as their more dedicated counterparts, and deserve narrative space.
The less successful piece of the book was the Utopian community she flees to (the “Guardians”). My little socialist heart adores non-hierarchical Utopias, but my little socialist heart also fails to believe they just spring out of the ground without struggle or history, like magical fairy kingdoms. The Guardians were all so nice, and talked about their feelings, and eschewed antagonistic gender relations, and generated wealth through collectivist labor practices. They were an alluring Utopia, but not an especially grounded or believable one (how did their culture develop so differently? Why didn’t a rigid class system emerge, if everybody nearby had one? How have these people stayed isolated so long? Are they the only ones with magic? Are they aliens from planet Awesome, come to teach us their ways?).
I also struggled with the pace of the novel, which swung from an action-oriented first half to a much more static ending. All of the tension in the second half of the book is internal — it’s about Aoife’s slow evolution into a more centered, peaceful person, who builds a new family and learns to love them. I don’t believe that every climax requires five-way wars for the Iron Throne and the deaths of several main characters, but I wanted a little more than peaceful old age and reconciliation from Aoife.
The sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, comes out at the end of May. It’s set a thousand years after the first book, which makes The Mapmaker’s War mythic, distant, apocryphal. For her very fine prose, and intuitive emotional style, I believe I’ll continue the series and see what Aoife’s world became.