Review: The Last Mapmaker

The Last Mapmaker, Christina Soontornvat. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2022.

Summary: Sai, a girl from the Fens, daughter of a conman, manages to find a place with the last mapmaker of Mangkon just as he is enlisted on a voyage of discovery with great possible rewards, risks, and Slakes!

Sai was a twelve year old growing up in the Fens, a slumlike area of Mangkon. Her father, Mud, is a no-account conman in and out of prison. She longs for better things than working in a market. Yet she has no hope of receiving lineals on her thirteenth birthday, the mark of status. One day, she happens by the shop of Paiyoon, the foremost and last mapmaker in the land, just as he is lamenting his need of an assistant. She volunteers and he accepts and she does whatever he says, coming in earlier than he does.

Sai is talented at copying and her father wants her to forge an official letter. She is caught copying one of Paiyoon’s letters and he marvels at her skill. He discovers she can do this with maps as well. Soon after, Paiyoon learns he will be the mapmaker and navigator on an expedition ordered by the Queen to discover the Sunderlands, a continent that exists in myths, surrounded by the stormy and perilous Harbinger Sea, and guarded by the mythical Slake, a kind of sea dragon. He invites Sai along, and she jumps at the chance, giving up her hard-earned savings to be free of Mud.

But the rewards for the crew that discover the continent are good, along with lineals. And Sai gets to work with Paiyoon, further learning his craft, critical because his hands have begun to shake. The ship, the Prosperity, is the flagship of the Navy, captained by an illustrious war hero, Anchalee Sangra. There are two problems on board. One is Grebe, a sailor who had followed her one early morning in the Fens, until she eluded him. She fears she will be recognized, and her lowly origins in this status-conscious society betrayed. The other is Bo, a young orphan boy who had tried to pick her pocket on a port visit but was caught by her, but escaped arrest. He has stowed away and she discovers him and ends up trying to shield him. The two will ultimately team up. She also makes a friend with a striking young woman, Rian, popular among the sailors and ambitious to make the discover. She turns out to be half-sister to the captain.

It turns out the crew is divided, the Captain and Paiyoon and a few others on one side and Rian and most of the crew who want to take the risks to find the Sunderlands. The difference is not fear, as it turns out, but a recognition of the harms of Mangkon’s imperial ambitions. Sai and Bo will be caught up in this division, resulting in a conspiracy and a tumultuous finish. Sai and Paiyoon will be parted with Sai becoming mapmaker and navigator. Along the way are storms, shipwrecks, and the Slake!

This is a great adventure story that also raises thought-provoking questions about loyalties as well as the imperial ambitions of great nations. Is “discovery” really such a good thing for the “discovered”? It is written for an 8 to 12 year old audience, but this adult loved it. Christina Soontornvat first caught my attention when I had the chance to review her All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. That was non-fiction but introduced me to her story-telling capabilities. She published two Newbery Honor Books in 2021. Her characters are “real,” her plotting makes this a page-turner, and there is an evident “moral compass” in these works in the real choices characters make amid pressures of personal and imperial ambition. I loved it.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: All Thirteen

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, Christina Soontornvat. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2020.

Summary: An account of the rescue of the Wild Boars boys soccer team describing the engineering and diving efforts, and how the boys endured this experience.

It was a story the whole world followed, fearing for a time that the twelve boys and their coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand were dead. Then we learned they were alive. But could a rescue be mounted during a break in the monsoon rains, and would the boys survive?

Christina Soontornvat was in northern Thailand at the time this all happened, and in this “you are there” account she renders the story of how all this unfolded day by day. The account is accompanied lavishly with color photographs and diagrams.

The story begins with the boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and an assistant coach, “Coach Ek,” who has built a close bond with the boys, strengthened off the field with rigorous outings. On this day they decide to go to Tham Luang Nang Non–the Cave of the Sleeping Lady. They planned to go for an hour, but decided to go further–a fateful decision because while they went deeper in the cave, the Sleeping Lady woke up as heavy rains hit. When they turned around, they found the way out flooded.

They found a dry area, and figured soon that people in their town of Mae Sai would notify the authorities and rescuers would come. And soon they did–Navy Seals, an elite group, but one who lacked both equipment and experience in cave diving. Vern Unsworth, a world renowned cave diver happened to be in Mae Sai. He was aware of the dangers, rushing, silted waters that could disorient a diver, clog gear, and potentially take lives with the slightest mistake. Eventually the call goes out to the best cave divers in the world, who come from half way around the world to be part of the rescue effort.

Another part of the story is the incredible confluence of people to help with this effort from an American Air Force Special Tactics squadron to hydraulics engineers who worked on solutions both to pump out and divert water from the caves, critically lowering the levels to reduce the flow for the divers. Perhaps most inspiring is the “Get-It-Done Crew,” an army of local people who do everything from organize food to find critical supplies–fast.

Meanwhile, as days pass on, the boys are growing hungrier. They are wet and cold but still healthy. Coach Ek’s challenge is to keep up their spirits, their hopes, their will to survive. They meditate, they dig, they huddle. Their team bonds and conditioning serve them well. When divers finally make it to them, they find them alive, though losing weight from lack of food. They can’t get them out but they can supply food, and they leave a doctor and three Navy Seals to look after their health. But the extra people are depleting the oxygen in the cave and the continued wet and cold are starting to affect the boys.

The most significant factor are the coming monsoons, which will make the caves inaccessible for six months. The boys can’t survive that long, even if their sheltering place doesn’t flood. The mountain is too thick to drill. The only choice left is to diving in and bring the boys out. Even then, they estimate three to five will die. As the title suggests, there are no casualties (other than a Navy Seal who died earlier, showing the dangers of the caves). But I will leave the story of the rescue to you.

The publication information for the book indicates it to be written at a grade 8 to 12 level. The account has an up close and personal feel, coming from interviews with all the key people. One comes away with profound respect for the boys and their coach who endured sixteen days in the caves, and the combination of Thai people and experts from around the world who overcome logistical and cultural obstacles to mount the rescue. Soontornvat not only describes the challenges, but helps us become part of the scene, feeling the alternating fears and hopes of the parents, the determination of the rescuers, and the gritty loyalty to one another of the boys and their coach. She helps us understand the culture of the Thai people and the strong values that brought them together in this effort.

This is a story one can connect with on so many levels–a story of team spirit, of cultural values, of faith (Coach Ek is closely associated with a Buddhist temple), and of courage, and on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense. There are so many elements of a great read, which this was for me.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.