Michael A. Stackpole is a frustrating writer. At least, that was my first thought upon finishing Cartomancy (Book 2 in The Age of Discovery series). I just think he is sometimes too clever for his own good.
Like The Secret Atlas this is a complex book with many different plotlines. I normally devour this kind of book. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series is a great favorite of mine. I’m a reasonably intelligent person and can keep all the plots and names straight in most books.
But not here and I’ve been trying to decide why. The first reason, I think, are the names. In particular, the two opposing princes here are Cyron and Pyrust. Maybe its just me, but I get them confused constantly, and I think its because they both follow the same pattern. An initital consonant, “yr” then a vowel and soft consonant ending. Now in my mind I pronounced Cyron as “SII-ron” and I’ve heard Stackpole talk about his books and he pronounces the name “KEE-run”. In fact listening to him speak, it took me a long time to figure out who this Kirin he kept mentioning was.
But it isn’t limited to these two. So many of his names just feel like they came out of a random name generator to me: Nimchim and Gachin are military leaders in the same force. There is a god named Wentiko (which always makes me think of Wendigo – a Bigfoot-like mythical creature) and a place called Wentokikun. Perhaps the place is named after the god, but that isn’t at all clear. Rislet Peyt is a person and Tsatol Pelyn is a place. Junel is a bad guy, Jorim is a good guy. It goes on and on.
And then there are the italicized made-up words. kwajiin, jaecaiserr, chadocai, vhangxi, jaedun, xidantzu, vanyesh, vrilcai, vrilri, mai, vrilridin, thanaton, xingna, maicana, centenco, quor. Having read two books in the series, I still can’t tell you what some of these mean. Mai is essentially magic or ‘the force’ and maicana is one who can manipulate it. quor is a unit of measure… like a bushel or a ton…not sure which. Athanaton is a machine. Jaedun is, I think, magic, but how it differs from mai isn’t clear. Jaecaiserr is someone who uses jaedun… or do I have the two confused?
Anyway, the book needs a glossary and a dramatis personae, badly.
As I mentioned there are a lot of plotlines in the book, and you can imagine them as cords that are braided together into a book. Think about that. In a braid, each cord stands alone…and the same is true in Cartomancy. I can’t help but think the book would be an easier read if I could take an electronic version and separate the chapters into piles, one for each plotline, and read them consecutively. Nothing would be lost…there is no overlap between the plotlines to speak of. Once again it felt like I had 5 or 6 books stacked in my reading pile and I picked up each one, read a chapter, then put it on the bottom of the pile. From listening to his podcast, I know Stackpole thinks this is a real strength of his, and that he strives to perfectly balance the chapters. To me it just feels…disparate.
Again from his podcast, I know Stackpole creates an outline for each character plot to help him in the writing. That makes perfect sense but… the reader doesn’t have access to those outlines and for me at least, it got really hard to remember who the minor characters were. The main characters were ok, but each was surrounded by people that didn’t make enough of an impression on me to remember over the 4 or 5 chapter gaps between visits.
There are some real deus ex machina moments towards the end of the book. I’m sure they’ll be elaborated on in Book 3 but they felt very unsatisfying here. And there were some truly huge events that happened … somewhen… in Book 1 or early in Book 2? … that were handled so badly that I don’t remember them, or perhaps they happened off screen for some reasons?
In particular I cannot recall the scenes that had Qiro creating the new continent in the south. He created a whole freaking continent and populated it and somehow awoke a god (?) and I don’t recall a moment of it.
The reason I’m going on and on about Cartomancy instead of just giving it a thumbs down and moving on is… there’s a good story in here and some very interesting ideas. I can’t help but think if Stackpole would just relax and tell a story without worrying about perfectly balanced chapter counts and creating ‘exotic’ words and names, he’d have an amazingly fun series here.
Will I read book 3? I’m still not sure. As with A Secret Atlas I was bored out of my skull for the first 2/3rds of the book but then things finally heated up, and Stackpole is a master of leaving cliffhangers at the end in order to get you to buy the next volume. I am curious as to how things will all come together. Presumably in book 3 all these plot threads will come together? Perhaps it’ll read more like a single book rather than shuffled chapters of 5 different small volumes.
I can’t in all good conscience recommend these books in their current form. Seriously, a glossary and a dramatis personnae would make them much more enjoyable. Perhaps some future edition will include these additions, in which case I’d be much more comfortable giving the books a thumbs up.
[EDIT] There is a glossary on Stackpole’s website. It helps!