War Of The Maps by Paul McAuley (book review).

There’s a real sense of wonder right from the beginning of Paul McAuley’s new novel ‘War Of The Maps’. Set in the far, far future among an ancient, worn-out civilisation on an artificially created world, it seemed first of all medieval, then maybe Wild West or possibly a little bit steampunk. There’s a hint of Robert Silverberg’s ‘Majipoor’, a glimmer of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ‘Darkover’ and a smidgen of Bob Shaw’s ‘Orbitsville’. It’s all of them and more.

The lucidor, who goes by several names but is referred to by none of them in the narrative, is a retired lawman on a mission. On his way to a foreign land to track down a fugitive, he is in turn pursued by other criminals and by his former employers. Armed with a staff and a sense of honour, he is determined to bring Remfrey He to justice regardless of what shady dealings may have gone on among the echelons of power. Thus begins a marvellously inventive and intriguing adventure among a series of peoples and places that constantly entertain and enthral.

There are intriguing glimpses along the way of the ancient beings who created the world that the lucidor dwells on, ancient myths and half-forgotten histories mixed with superstitions and remnants of advanced technology. The history and background is never explained outright but we are gradually drip-fed bits and pieces of information that gradually construct this amazing tapestry of history and knowledge, forming a wonderfully rich setting.

The cultures of the lucidor’s native Free State and the neighbouring country of Patua are gradually revealed through discovery and comparison, with other settlements along the way adding to the variety and history. The concept of maps gradually takes shape, revealing depths of geography and biology that constantly force you to re-evaluate your impression of the societies that the lucidor walks amongst and the world that he walks on.

There’s a believable variation in attitudes to equality, too. In some parts, it seems that the majority of doctors, mayors, soldiers and scientists are women, while later on an entire ship’s crew are men. In some places, everyone is equal while, in other areas, rich and powerful families have control of everything. There are brief explanations given for some of these circumstances so that everything is not just one particular way because the author deemed it to be so, but for reasons that have an air of authenticity. Even the spoilt, prejudiced, unlikeable scion of a powerful family has a history to explain some of his unsavoury traits, rather than just being a stock stereotype.

The lucidor, ostensibly the hero of the story, is a nicely rounded character, too. He’s getting on a bit, suffering aches and pains, chiefly driven by his sense of right and wrong, duty and honour, but which also comes across as stubbornness and pig-headedness. He has setbacks and problems along the way, is the recipient of both kindness and injustice. He depends a lot on his own investigative and intuitive skills, but does not magically have the answer to everything.

He accepts help and depends on others, takes time to recover from illness and wounds and on the whole reads as a realistic and sympathetic character. He is backed up by whole host of secondary characters who populate the world he passes through. Some of them greedy, some mean, some kind, all of them imbued with characterisation and motive that, even when only briefly dwelt on, give them a sense of realism.

Like Paul McAuley’s previous novel ‘Austral’, this is a brilliantly constructed novel, a story that drew me in and took me along for the ride. I love the setting, want to know more about the lucidor’s world and the people who live there. It’s a book I’d definitely recommend.

Gareth D Jones

March 2020

(pub: Gollancz. 414 page enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4732-1734-8)

check out website: www.gollancz.co.uk

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