The Mapmaker’s War, Ronlyn Domingue’s second novel, is an unusual book. It’s fantasy, but does not appear to come from the genre tradition. It’s written in the second person, in the form of a memoir, a dialogue with the narrator’s self, with asides written between vertical bars | like this | and not a single quotation mark in site. The effect is fugue-like, a clear narrative line obscured by memory, the regular trappings of epic plot subsumed beneath the strong narrative voice of the narrator. A mapmaking woman named Aoife, who becomes the wife of the king, discovers a peaceful culture across the water in the course of her mapmaking. It comes to pass that her kingdom plans war against these people; she warns them and is exiled to the culture she warned, where she comes to terms with herself. This isn’t an adventure story, in other words, nor a fairy tale, but something subtler, more personal, more revelatory.
The fact that Aoife is a mapmaker should be a hint as to why I picked this book up: it seemed a good fit for the Fantasy Maps project. A question I often ask when dealing with stories about maps (rather than stories that have maps: this one does not) is, what purpose do maps serve in the narrative? It is through mapmaking, to be sure, that Aoife discovers the Guardians; it is an engine that drives the plot. But it also serves as a reference point for Aoife’s identity. At the beginning, she leaps at mapmaking as a chance to be someone different:
This you wanted to do, although you didn’t know why. You banished the thought that you would be denied the training. You wanted to be good at something other than what was expected of you, for life. You threw yourself at chance. (p. 4)
And midway through, after her exile, she reflects on that choice:
What you loved about being a mapmaker was the freedom to be outside, even though you so often stood still for hours on end. You felt the sun air rain. You liked the precision of the work. The relationship of angles and points. The creation of order and meaning. There, too, were the secret subtleties. You had your own maps of oddities and wonders, favorite cake eaten here, favorite story learned there.
You liked the art of mapmaking. You, like your adopted people, believed function and beauty belonged together. However, your craft wasn’t limited to creation of a map necessarily. That was the end result, when in fact the pleasure was deeper, wasn’t it? Go beyond the effort, the job you had to do. Yes, you were untethered from the role of a woman, freed from the restraint. (pp. 108-109)
Mapmaking, for Aoife, is a way to escape, a path to freedom.