May 2005

A Secret Atlas

A novel by Michael A. Stackpole
March 2005, Bantam Dell
ISBN: 0553382373
460 pages

In Nalenyr, the Anturasi family has brought the land wealth and prosperity through their accurate maps by opening trade routes and discovering new resources. Led by Grandfather Qiro, a powerful man who is not to be crossed, the Anturasis are about to enter a time of trial when everything they believe will be tested. Brothers Keles and Jorim are sent to far, unknown corners of the world. Both fight for survival. Both realize that their knowledge of history and the great Cataclysm, an event 700 years in the past when an excess of magic nearly destroyed the world, is just beginning to deepen. While Keles and Jorim explore distant frontiers, forces both known and unknown threaten to destroy their homeland of Nalenyr and the Anturasi family with it. Despite being thousands of miles away, the brothers are Nalenyr's only hope, and both are running out of time.

So begins Book One of The Age of Discovery, a fantasy epic not to be missed. I mean that. This is one the most refreshing fantasies I have read in some time. Let's break it down, shall we?

First, plot: As Stackpole's story unfolds, multiple storylines take shape. This isn't unusual for genre fiction, but what is unique is the tone of importance woven into each story. Every character, every action is vital to the forward movement of the plot, and even though the characters are thousands of miles apart, they can still affect each other. The result is a plot laden novel that feels character driven--that is character driven! Not an easy task for a writer to accomplish (I'm assuming that it's not easy because so few writers bother to do it). One way he accomplishes this is by cutting out the endless descriptions of every meadow, rock, blade of grass, and cloud the characters encounter (a pitfall of many fantasy books). Instead, he dedicates those pages to fleshing out the people and their emotions.

Second, theme: A vital theme to A Secret Atlas is the importance of discovery. Not only do the Anturasis maintain their prestige and influence by venturing into the world and discovering means of wealth for Nalenyr's Prince Cyron, but both Keles and Jorim Anturasi begin quests that lead to new discoveries about their people's history. These discoveries will have a heavy impact on Nalenyr's future and the surrounding nations. But discovery is most important in how it changes the individual. By giving the explorer new knowledge, the act of discovery causes change. What I hate about many fantasy books is that their characters are stagnant. Incredible events take place, revelations are revealed, great battles are fought, and the heroes are usually the same people at the novel's conclusion as they were in the first chapter. I have found myself reading less and less fantasy for this very reason. If people don't change, what's the point? But Stackpole doesn't cheat his readers. The discoveries in this book lead to shocking actions that both surprised me and, at times, left me feeling a bit uneasy.

Third, magic: Magic is a staple of fantasy, but you won't find wizards and dragons in A Secret Atlas. Instead, magic is something that is both feared (thanks to the Cataclysm) and used in small ways by the most common of people. This seems oxymoronic, yet magic, of one sort or another, permeates every storyline. For me, it became a metaphor. Our society uses dangerous materials every day--cars, gasoline, fire, electricity--and if we fail to have respect for those things, or if we abuse them, we run the risk of catastrophe.

Fourth, political intrigue: Politics plays heavily in A Secret Atlas. Every politician is out for him or herself. One great line in the narrative says that "Bureaucrats evidenced odd patriotism because they fought more to protect the structures that kept them in place than they did to defend their nation against predation or outrage." This theme of political treachery leads to a shocking event at the novel's conclusion, an event that will radically affect the remaining two volumes in the series. Also, while the Anturasis give the world shape through mapmaking, the politicians give the world shape through underhanded dealings and manipulation. The means differ, but the wielder of each can gain power and influence. For me, this part of the novel brought back memories of Dune and all the secret workings of the Royal Houses.

I feel like I've barely started to talk about this book. It's bulging with too much good stuff for a short review, but hopefully I've conveyed enough to show how enjoyable I found the book and the reasons why. One parting thought: Stackpole dedicated on of his previous novels, Grand Crusade, to Stephen King, so I know he enjoys King's work. I couldn't help but notice some similarities between A Secret Atlas and King's Dark Tower series. The Cataclysm results in a world similar to Roland of Gilead's in the Dark Tower in that there are mysteries and magic waiting to be discovered because past events have hidden them. Keles Anturasi enters a land called the Wastes, while Roland enters the Wasteland. Jorim discovers an animal capable of mimicking human speech and behavior, similar to Oy in the Dark Tower books. Stackpole uses some gore that has a Stephen King flair. There is the hint both of parallel realities and perhaps time travel in Atlas, which are vital to Dark Tower, though we will have to wait for the next books to see if either truly exists in Stackpole's world. Dream sequences and prophecy also play important roles in both. So, why bring this up? Because I love to see how one great writer is influenced by another. Both of them, in turn, were influenced by the great epics and fantasies written in the past, which also employ some of these devices. Still, A Secret Atlas is entirely Michel A. Stackpole's world, and I can't wait for a return visit.

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