War of the Maps by Paul McAuley

I frankly haven't read Paul McAuley's previous works and so I was in for a pleasant surprise, when the premise and concept of War of the Maps, his latest novel, hooked me in easily. War of the Maps is a science fantasy concept set in a gorgeously realised sprawling artificial world, spinning around artificial suns, birthed in the aftermath of multiple galaxies colliding with each other. [ If that didn't hook you in, then I don't know what will!]


The anonymous hero, referred only as the lucidor, who is an ex-lawkeeper in this nation that calls itself Free States, is on the hunt for an escaped convict. While this is the central tenet to the whole plot. this becomes wrapped up within a much larger 'doomsday' plot, where an alien species has invaded the borders of this 'settled' world and this war is threatening to go out of hand. The lucidor is on the move, tracking this mad genius psychopath known as Remfrey He, whose evil genius and ambition knows no bounds. The lucidor is single-minded in his pursuit, to the point of being doggedly determined to see it through to the end, and all the others are either a means or an obstacle to this end for him. A retired law-enforcer, the lucidor travels across nations, gets entangled up in daring rescue missions, hot-foots and rides through myriad adventures and finally ends up on a ship bound for the very ends of this known world, in his mission. Does he finally catch his wily nemesis Remfrey He and what is the fate of this invasion, becomes the focal point of the narrative that propels it forward.

Paul's world building is terrific, absolutely on point and sometimes just overwhelming. The lucidor's travels takes him to different parts of this settled world, exposing and discovering tantalising new aspects of cultural nuances in this world. For example, while Free States is a socialist economy where all citizens are considered equal, the neighbouring nation of Patua is an extremely capitalist economy. There is free trade and exchange of information across the borders. But the treatment of a lot of factors like social class standings etc are a world apart. The mythology and historical aspects are frequently interspersed into the story arc nicely. Concepts like the Creator Gods, the first men called the Ur Men, the first slaves or perhaps Artificial intelligence/ bots like Shatterlings etc are also fascinating concepts, organically baked into the story, forming crucial plot-elements.

Coming to the characters within, the story is mostly told from the POV of the lucidor. An older gent, who has kept himself in fighting fit conditions, is a stubborn old goat, who cannot be deterred from his single-minded mission. He considers himself responsible for this criminal called Remfrey He, whom he had captured once before. But the news that Remfrey has escaped to the front-ranks of this war on the borders of their world, with the intent of 'helping' the army, sets him off on this new mission, forcing him out of retirement. The lucidor is a well rounded individual, sensible and unbelievably calm under pressure. He is also a capable fighter with his 'staff', his most redeeming quality being unquestionable honour and mindless bravery. Bu these are the same qualities that lead him straight into trouble as well - as he cannot sit on the sidelines when there are crimes being perpetrated. Remfrey He, his nemesis and arch rival is also a fascinatingly written twisted character whose love for experimentation and pushing the boundaries of the unknown is limitless. Matched only by his arrogance and his innate desire of being a 'show-off'. Helping the lucidor in his impossible quest is also map-reader Orjen and her deputy Lysa, both strong, clever women who stand their own against the brilliance of Remfrey or the steel of the lucidor's unbending willpower.

The action scenes, and mind you there are countless adventures that our heroes go through in their quest, are well written. No fuss, But I felt the writing style perhaps took a bit of the drama and tension out of these scenes. This would probably be my biggest grouch as well - that the style of writing is literary. Don't get me wrong - The different worlds that our characters travel through, come tantalisingly alive in Paul's brilliant prose. His descriptions, transporting us effortlessly across these starry far-away landscapes, are towering feats of imagination. Monsters abound in these lands, each of them just as grotesque and sinister as the other. But I felt that in terms of fleshing out the details of this bizarre wonderful and brave new world, Paul sacrifices pacing a bit. And the plot conclusion about the fate of the invasion or even that of the 'hunt' by our lucidor, finally ended a bit tepidly for my tastes.

But in conclusion, Paul's War of the Maps is stunning and powerful imagination at work, sprawling worlds that collide with each other, teeming with strange life. This is a book that will force you to keep aside all your other engagements as the lyrical quality of the writing will spin a trance around you. Tracing a single-man's obsession into the seething maws of blustering madness, be prepared to be dazzled and confused in equal measures as you go for a trip of your lifetime around the stars. Recommended, for sure.

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