Sunday Pages: "The Mapmaker's War"

An excerpt from the novel by Ronlyn Domingue

Dear Reader,

I’m not gonna lie, the real world is so bleak right now that what we need is an escape to someplace far, far away: a different time, a different land, a different culture. So for the third installment of Sunday Pages, we’re heading to a place where Donald John Trump does not exist.

The Mapmaker’s War is the first novel from the wonderful trilogy by my friend Ronlyn Domingue, who is every bit as lovely a human being as Trump is the opposite. (I’m grateful she sent me an excerpt from the first book of the series and not the third, because Book Three is called The Plague Diaries). I was blown away when I read this novel, which is, I suppose, in the “fantasy” genre, although it’s so literary that I hate to call it that. The language is like something from a lost book of some ancient Eastern religion. In her blurb, M.J. Rose says that Ronlyn “invented her own legend,” and that is as good a summation as any:

THIS WILL BE the map of your heart, old woman. You are forgetful of the everyday. |misplaced cup, missing clasp| Yet, you recall the long-ago with morning-after clarity. These stories you have told yourself before. Write them now. At last, tell the truth. Be sparse with nostalgia. Be wary of its tangents. Mark the moments of joy but understand that is not now your purpose. Return to the places where your heart was broken. Scars evidence harm done. Some wounds sealed with weak knits. They are open again. The time has come to close them.

Here, choose the point of entry. Any place, any time, right now and you have—

Your small finger in the hearth’s ashes. A line appears. You divide space.

Then there were twigs and broom bristles. Scratches and marks and lines until you had the control to create shape. Circle, triangle, square, said your older brother. Ciaran put the first nib under your thumb and first scrap of parchment beneath that. What you drew is missing in substance and memory. In its place, years apart, you transformed the circle into a tub. The triangle was a churn. The square became a table. You marked your spot with an X.

Aoife, said your brother, who taught you to draw a map?

The kitchen as it was when you were five. You could render space and suspend time.

You lived in a large cold house at the edge of a forest. The shady quiet lured, then hid, you. Wild child, said the nursemaid. Uncivilized, your mother declared when you returned home dirty with treasures. She tried and failed to tame you. Wait until I tell your father, said she. Next to his chair, you held your breath and your guard. He saw no harm in the fresh air and exercise. Good habit to start now because what man wants a fat wife? said your father. Indulgent, she called him. She stormed off on stout legs.

You had few ordinary interests as a girl. You didn’t dress your bronze hair, tend to dolls, or join petty quarrels. This perplexed your mother, who tried her best to create a being in her own image. You soon realized you had to give to take. When you were attentive to your morning girlhood duties, she fought less when you asked for afternoon freedom. You acquiesced to learn how to behave regardless of whether you intended to follow suit. The reward was worth the concession.

With meticulous care, you planned your provisions, though not your expeditions. Adventure wasn’t in the hunger to come but in the quest of what to follow. You packed your pouch |nuts and fruit, soft bread and hard cheese| along with parchment and ink, cloth scraps and straight edges.

You mapped the hidden worlds when you were still young enough to see them.

Spiderwebs and honeycombs taught the wisdom of symmetry. To you, everything before your eyes was built upon invisible lines and angles. The very spot where you stood only a point among many. A girl is not always in her place, you thought. A girl can be many places at once. And so you were. When you settled upon a space in the forest or meadow, you made a grid on the earth with small steps and tiny flags until there were row upon row of even little squares. You took your seat within the grid. You moved from square to square, noting what stood still and what passed by. All day long you observed and measured, sketched and colored. That which was off the edges appeared on the parchment as well. There were mysterious realms of bees and ants and creatures never seen before, with tiny castles and bright gardens.

One day, as you traced the uncovered trails of termites, you heard a rustle in the brush. You remained still with hope that the ancient stag or a sturdy bear would meet your eye. What a lovely beast to draw in that place! Instead, you faced a boy with green eyes and chestnut curls. A boy you knew well. Prince Wyl called your name and held up a dead rabbit by its hind legs. You lifted your hand in a polite wave and turned back to your work.

Did you see what I caught? I shall skin it and give the fur to the tailor to make you a fine collar, said Wyl.

It will be cold if you do that, you said.

It’s dead. It has no need for fur now.

So literal, Wyl. You mistake my japes.

You meant no hardness toward him. As you looked to the ground again, you smiled. You knew his gesture was an act of affection. Such regard you had neither sought nor earned. His attentions you tried not to encourage or reject. That you two knew each other at all was a matter of circumstance. Your father served as the King’s most trusted adviser.

On that day, when you wished Wyl had been the stag or a bear, you realized he didn’t ask to see your map. He had on other occasions. You had no way to know that in years to come he would be privy to every chart you made, to the very last one.

See, you became a mapmaker.


Ronlyn Domingue (pronounced ron-lin doh-mang, equal emphasis on all syllables) is the internationally published author of four novels and several essays and short stories.

Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages, was a fiction finalist for the 2005 Borders Original Voices Award and 2006 SIBA Book Award, and was a long list nominee for the 2005 James Tiptree, Jr. Award.

The Keeper of Tales Trilogy, which can be read in any order, includes The Mapmaker's War, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, and The Plague Diaries.

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