A Secret Atlas is Michael Stackpole’s latest fantasy effort, the opening novel in The Age of Discovery trilogy. Atlases or maps of the fantastic world, are one item many readers enjoy seeing in their fantasy novels and in this novel, Stackpole uses the map as one of the primary devices to set events in motion. Qiro Anturasi, The Royal Cartographer, and his family, have provided the land of Nalenyr with accurate maps of the known world for many years. By knowing the trade routes to follow and the dangerous routes to avoid, the nation of Nalenyr has grown and prospered greatly into one of the world’s greatest nations. The prince of Nalenyr, Cyron is seeking to unite the Nine Principalities (also the same number of gods in the Nalenyr pantheon) into a single unified nation. In order to do this, Cyron enlists the aid of Qiro’s grandsons, Jorim and Keles, to go on separate paths of discovery to chart untraveled lands. Few have returned from the places Jorim and Keles are sent, including their father. Jorim is sent to the uncharted lands where their father was last seen traveling to. This is what sets the ball rolling, and as the novel progresses, pages turn faster and faster.
Michael A. Stackpole is a name many readers of Fantasy and Science Fiction will recognize. In addition to his well-received and best-selling original fantasy fiction (Talion: Revenant, The DragonCrown War Cycle), he is one of the more popular authors to have written in the Star Wars franchise. The bottom line is this – his name is known, and as such, his work has received a varying amount of praise and criticism. I have read some of his work, Talion: Revenant (which I enjoyed a great deal) and his Star Wars New Jedi Order contributions. With all of that said, I enjoyed A Secret Atlas much more than I expected. Stackpole creates a very interesting world that while fantastic, mirrors our own in many ways. For example, the world is in constant fear of a return to the years of Black Ice, or the Cataclysm, when over-use of magic destroyed portions of the world and changed much of it irrevocably. This fear of magical overuse is very much like the fear people felt during the Cold War, with the threat of nuclear war imminent, and even today, with the looming threats of war and terrorism we face.
As Keles and Jorim travel their separate ways, they encounter cultures that are reminiscent of some Native American cultures and creatures that evoke fright and awe. Their separate journeys take them across both land and sea and each with a unique group of people. Jorim is traveling with the strong-willed female captain of the Stormwolf, Anaeda Gryst. Keles travels into uncharted lands with Moraven Tolo, an expert swordsman with a mysterious past. Moraven is actually the first character we meet on the fist page, and while he is the character who is in the story the longest, he is perhaps the character Stackpole reveals the least about. These characters, for the most part, fit well into their archetypal roles; however, Michael Stackpole does make the characters more than type characters, they are interesting, empathetic, and at times frustrating and cruel. I felt the characters were quite alive, as was the world in which they live in and are discovering.
While I enjoyed the novel a great deal, it was not a perfect novel. The first portion of the novel, which helped to set the plot in motion, was a bit slow with a few large info-dumps. There was a great deal of information conveyed about the interesting world Stackpole created, but it could have perhaps, been woven a bit more fluidly. Once the world and story are set up; however, the plot threads take off quite nicely as Stackpole admirably gives ample page time for each member of his sizeable cast of characters.
How does A Secret Atlas stack up against other, similar novels in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genre? I hope It wouldn’t be an insult to say the novel, while very good and entertaining, is not as great as works of writers like Tad Williams, George R. R. Martin, Greg Keyes and R. Scott Bakker, writers whom I (and a great deal of others) place at the very apex of Epic Fantasy, but Stackpole does deliver an entertaining story and A Secret Atlas sits solidly in the ranks of recent Epic Fantasy . I do have to again, say I really enjoyed the novel, Stackpole has crafted a solidly entertaining story. There were times I was reading it when I didn’t want to put it down, and I just wanted to continue reading. More importantly, the intrigue, mystery and engaging characters introduced in this set-up/opening novel have hooked me, I want to see where Stackpole takes the characters, I want to see how he reveals the unknown secrets of the world. I want to see the proverbial “what happens next,” and as a writer, I think that is one of the ultimate goals, to get readers to ask “what happens next” and have the reader not be satisfied until they find out. In this, Michael A. Stackpole has succeeded, as I am very much looking forward to the next volume, Cartomancy, publishing later this year.
Michael A. Stackpole’s official Web site: http://www.stormwolf.com
© 2005 Rob H. Bedford