A Secret Atlas
by Michael A. Stackpole
New York, N.Y. : Bantam Books, 2005
by Colleen R. Cahill
I work in a map library, so when a book called A Secret Atlas lands on my doorstep, I cannot help but sit up and take notice. Many fantasy books have maps in them, but very few use map makers as their heroes. But this is just what Michael Stackpole has done in his newest work, which is book one of The Age of Discovery. The series title tells you that this is a story of adventure, but it also has intrigue, grandeur, alien cultures and lots of action.
The story centers around the Anturasi family, whose patriarch, Qiro, runs the business and the household with an iron fist. His two grandsons are his eyes to the world, as the title of Royal Cartographer keeps him so protected, he might as well be in prison. The only one Qiro seems to love is his granddaughter Nirati, who tries to maintain peace in the family. Although Keles and Jorim have strained relations with their grandfather, both are willing to do his bidding: to explore the uncharted realms of their world, even though there is great danger. The lands outside the nine Principalities are largely known only by legend and rumor. Seeking new trade routes will send Jorim over the seas, while Keles will trek into the wastes left by the great Cataclysm.
Centuries before, a titanic battle between the Empire and a barbarian horde triggered a magical catastrophe, one that covered the land in black ice and warped it with wild magic. Only the order that the bureaucrats maintained allowed any human civilization to survive. Magic is now a double-edged sword: those who excel at a skill, such as sword fighting, healing or even farming or making love, can develop a magical power in that area and also extend their life spans. While a worthy goal, magic is also feared because unless tightly controlled, it can become destructive, as it did in the Cataclysm. All humans have a skill, though most do not reach a level of perfection to become magical. The one exception to this rule is Nirati, who seems to have no skill, which might be why Qiro is fond of her: she is no threat to his rule of the Anturasi family.
There are many other players in this story, from a master swordsman to a dark prince bent on conquest to a creature that can reshape itself as needed. The plot is tangled but fascinating, with politics, technology, love and ambition all threads being warped by past events and possible future disasters. The scenes of magic gone wild are very beguiling, with descriptions of lands where trees are living copper and sway like seaweed in water. New lands also add color, including a continent whose culture is obviously based on the great empires of Mexico and South America. This is not surprising, as the acknowledgments cite 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America as one of the books that helped Stackpole form his work.
For the adventure, the magic, the exploration and the fun, you should try A Secret Atlas, it will be a discovery you won’t regret.