Here’s another lovely Thai-inspired historical fiction/fantasy book from Christina Soontornvat, whose earlier books A Wish in the Dark and All Thirteen won Newbery Honors the same year. (It looks like I never got around to reviewing All Thirteen, but it was impressive and engrossing!
The Last Mapmaker
by Christina Soontornvat.
Read by Sura Siu.
Listened to audiobook on Libby.
Sai first learned calligraphy being forced to help her conman father forge documents, but with luck and hard work, she has found a position for herself as the apprentice to the last mapmaker in the city. This involves a double life – at work, she pretends she is the fully middle class girl about to go through the coming-of-age ceremony where she names her ancestors back generations. But in the slums of home, she has to hide her apprentice uniform and her earnings from her father lest he take them away.
When the Queen announces a prize for the ship able to find and map the possibly mythical Sunderlands, Sai is determined to join. Not only will it take her away from her father, but it will also give her a path to earning a secure place for herself in respectable society. Slowly, she finds her away among a crew that’s resistant to her, and begins to wonder why it is that Master Paiyoon, the mapmaker, was so reluctant to undertake the journey. The ship’s captain, too, is an experienced woman only journeying at the Queen’s command, though her young First Mate is enthusiastic and friendly to Sai. There’s also a young pickpocket/stowaway whom Sai finds more sympathetic than she feels she ought.
This story packs an amazing amount into a relatively short space. Of course there’s the high seas adventure, and life on board a ship filled with colorful characters. But Soontornvat gives Sai’s father a rounded personality instead of making him a simple villain whose only role is is to give Sai the impetus she needs to start her journey. There’s also a strong anti-colonialism and environmental message, as well as themes of forging one’s own destiny and found families. I kind of did see a plot twist coming, but as I’m a much more experienced reader than the target audience, I’m not going to hold that against the book. This is a fantasy world with no magic, with the possible exception of a dragon. (Is it magical, or just nature in the alternate world?)
I was sadly less impressed by the narration – acceptable, but some of the character voices were hard to tell apart and there were a few distracting mispronunciations. These were mostly minor distractions, and the audiobook is still a fine option for those who have a strong preference for that format. All in all, this is another impressive showing for Christina Soontornvat.
Other seafaring middle grade fantasies include The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford, The Voyage to Magical North by Claire Fayers, and The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone by Jaclyn Moriarty. For a great teen book set on the South China Seas, try Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee.