The Age of Discovery: Two-Thirds of a Review

Take a quasi-Chinese culture and a quasi-Mayan culture, mix in a few gods and frog people, give them all a couple of ships, have them all utter words which no human mouth were ever meant to pronounce, and finally throw them all in a post-apocalyptic magic-ridden wasteland (you know, just for kicks). Stir the ingredients in the mind of a fantasy author, then let them until they rise to about 450,000 words (or 1800 mass-market-sized pages). This is the recipe for The Age of Discovery series by Michael A. Stackpole, and it serves three books. Since only two of these have been released, this series review will only really be two thirds of a review. Still, given the author’s style (and the manner in which I have approached the subject at had) it should be enough for you to get a taste of mostly delicious, yet at times somewhat bland literary treat.

Before I begin, let me ask you, have you ever thought about how different the world would have been if China had officially discovered America? You probably haven’t — although if you’re reading this blog, I’m probably wrong — but you may be interested in knowing that findings along the west coast of the US combined with archaeological evidence suggest this was indeed the case. Apparently, around 500 A.D. a group of monks came to the Americas, stayed there, and influenced the culture enough for the introduction of such things as dragons. (Ever notice how much Mayan dragons look like Chinese dragons? Think that’s a coincidence?) Nevertheless, this fact tends to be completely ignored whenever discussions on this matter apply. Instead, what makes its way into conversation is the speculation is the book 1421: The Year China Discovered America, which talks about the forces which prevented China from officially and definitively discovering America, and how history would have been different if it had.

With this in mind, I’d like to turn our attention to Michael Stackpole’s series The Age of Discovery. This series is comprised of three books — A Secret Atlas, Cartomancy, and The New World — and tells the tale of a family of cartographers (map makers) whose skill is such that it is magical, making them the central to a number of for world-changing events.

I have to admit that at first, I was skeptical. What magic can come from cartography? What, so they sit down, make maps, and…? Didn’t get it, not at all. Then I started reading.

The books start of with the tale of the Anturasi family, a family of cartographers led by their grandfather, Qiro. Of this family, the two grandsons, Keles and and Jorim, have a gift for the art of cartography, enough that they may succeed Qiro as the next Cartomancers, or those who wield magic through the making of maps, by being able to communicate telepathically with each other in order to create the most accurate maps, and eventually by being able to create and recreate lands as they create the maps. This, of course, makes them very valuable to the city-state in which they live, Nalenyr, valuable enough, in fact, to keep them imprisoned in a tower, showered in opulence. Because of them, Nalenyr is the most prosperous of the nine kingdoms, to the envy of all others. The story then chronicles how the brothers Anturasi, by orders of their grandfather, Qiro, travel to the ends of the world. While many reasons are given for this — Qiro’s desire to ensure that he will be the only cartomancer, for the expansion of the Naleni trade empire, to extend his own cartographic knowledge — those which are immediately apparent are later shown to be rouses for something much deeper.

I’ve got to give it to Stackpole: while it does have all the classic fantasy elements — knights, kingdoms, magic, multiple intelligent species coexisting — this is not your average fantasy. Unlike most fantasies, this world offers a very rich, deep history which explains very thoroughly why things are the way they are: why do people fear magic? Why is so much of the world — even those areas connected by wide expanses of land — not known to them? What’s up with the number “nine”? All of these questions are posed and answered completely, so as to create an environment in which readers can easily immerse themselves. (In contrast, like most fantasies, all prophecies are coming true, exactly as predicted, right now.) You won’t find any dragons here, and neither the mages nor the warriors are run-of-the-mill. Because of this, the world crafted is a very interesting, and being very complete (if somewhat confusing), this is a world in which more tales of wonder would easily be spun. (Stackpole’s background as a game designer is especially evident here.)

The biggest departure from most other fantasy, however is the magic system employed. The series introduces something called “wild magic”, uncontrolled magic which serves as the equivalent to uncontrolled, rampant radiation. (Magic in this world can be seen as the equivalent of the atomic bomb, with the devastating results to show for it.) In addition to this is skill-based magic, or the idea of becoming so good at something that it goes from preternatural to supernatural. This is an idea I haven’t seen anywhere else, and it makes for a very distinctive feature in the story: as opposed to individuals learning magic for the sake of magic (something which we later find out actually happens and is very, very misconstrued by the general populace), people simply work a trade until they’re so good it becomes magical. The great thing about this method is that it allows for magic to rise out of almost anywhere: cartography, sword fighting, sex… the list goes on. Of course, to most magic is just magic, and that very misconception makes people fear those who become too good at their art, an interesting dynamic which I wish would have been explored a bit more deeply.

Something which I don’t often comment on — because it’s usually not worth commenting on — is the book’s cover art. The Age of Discovery features beautiful cover art which makes the series an attractive addition to any library. While a book should not be judged by its cover, it’s always good when the cover art enhances the book ownership experience. What can I say, I like visually attractive books. Can you blame me?

While this series is indeed very entertaining and imaginative, it has its flaws. My biggest complaint involves the level of motivational ambiguity and misdirection from the characters. While this is done very well with some (Qiro Anturasi, and Junel Aerynnor are particularly interesting in this respect), other characters seem to wear their intentions on their sleeves. These are usually bad guys who end up monologuing about their motives. As such, the book lacks a certain sense of complexity, insofar as motives are concerned. All too often nuances which color our reality are abandoned for clarity in the definition of who the bad guys are. (Interestingly enough, this is really only a major problem with the bad guys.) If you’re good, you’re good. If you’re evil, you’re evil, and that’s that. What’s worse, the reader can tell who the bad guys are. Easily. The characters, on the other hand, can’t. Unfortunately it’s this lack of ambiguity from the reader’s side which makes the story a bit stale at times, and frustrating when you see the good guys getting fooled into things by the bad guys (who later on always reveal they knew they were getting fooled and were preparing for it in a less-than-believable manner). This, unfortunately, is endemic of the fantasy genre, especially in fiction which relies heavily on life in royal courts (which this book does).

Here’s an example: a one point in the story, one of the main characters (a cartographer) is kidnapped by an evil prince. The prince then explains, very convincingly, that the cartographer was kidnapped so he could help the prince improve his capital city, not because he wished to make preparations for war, but simply because he wanted a better life for his citizens, and knew that the cartographer would come no other way. The prince then agrees to keep the cartographer for only four months, to which the cartographer agrees. At this point in the story you almost begin to second guess your initial opinions of the Prince. That is, until the end of the chapter he begins to monologue and tell the reader (or himself, although sometimes the book speaks almost directly to the audience) how the cartographer will never leave the walls of his city. (You can add the evil laugh here. Yes, it’s almost that cheesy.)

Again, ambiguity of motives is something almost completely missing from the novel, and while knowing a character’s motives is important, a little deception from the part of the author goes a very long way. The sad part is that the story sets up for this type of play on the audience’s expectations quite well, and by simply shaving off a few paragraphs here and there the story could be transformed and be made more intriguing almost instantly.

In a related note, another thing I found a bit bothersome involved Stackpole’s writing style. Don’t get me wrong, the style is generally very clean, descriptive, and engaging. Unfortunately it often feels as if the author and characters are actually speaking to (or rather, thinking to) the reader, something I found to be particularly annoying. Usually this would come in the form of a big, in depth description, followed by a comment from the character which doesn’t quite make sense as a self-talk or thought, and only makes sense as a message to the audience. Again, this happens often enough to be annoying.

In order to make up for this lack of motivational complexity, the author decides to introduce situational complexity (which is, again, endemic of all fantasies involving royal courts). While the characters are very well developed and interesting, this situational complexity, brought about by the aforementioned less-than-opaque motives, only serves to emphasize the lack of personal ambiguities and nuances. Sadly, this makes what could be a masterful book take a turn towards the average: overt complexity by the addition of characters (almost as if trying to mimic a spy thriller) and a simplification of motives.

The final issue I had with this series involves the the depth of description in fight scenes. Too much information is all I can say. While this type of description is done very well in the beginning of the series, there’s a chapter towards the middle of Cartomancy which all but kills the book’s momentum by getting into way too much detail about how swords move, the names of styles (which we know nothing about), and how entrails can make their way outside a body. This doesn’t happen often, but the books could still shave about 10,000 words if the requirement of brevity was more strictly applied and these scenes, along with scenes which eliminate the sense of ambiguity.

Alright, so I’ve praised the series and I’ve slammed the series. How do I feel about it?

First, remember that this review comprises only the first two books. As of this writing, A New World is yet to be published, so some of the things I say here may well be proven wrong as the series draws to a close.

Fantasy fans, especially those who like Robert Jordan (and have been eternally frustrated by his never ending Wheel of Time series) will love this book, as will those who want to enjoy a good fantasy, but are looking for something less Tolkienesque. The book is a solid book with very strong protagonists, though somewhat formulaic antagonists. For those who enjoy world-building this is a great example. Outside of fantasy fans, those interested in cartography, Chinese naval exploration history, and pre-Colombian history of the Americas may also enjoy this series. While I don’t consider this a non-stop, page turning thriller, it is (up to now) a solid series worthy of your attention.

By the way, if you’re at all interested, you can A Secret Atlas at Stormwolf.com.