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.