Kelly Jennings on A.M. Tuomala’s new novel
Travel narratives – what we might call ‘on the road’ stories – are both common and popular. They include works like the Odyssey and Around the World in Eighty Days, Huck Finn and Travels with Charley. These are stories about characters travelling to different places, meeting different people, and being changed by the journey. A.M. Tuomala’s The Map and the Territory (Candlemark & Gleam, 2022) is both a travel narrative and a post-apocalyptic novel, with characters that include gay wizards, geologist cartographers, gang leaders, poly families, gods, demons, and ancient gardeners. This is my kind of book.
The title here, The Map and the Territory, refers to a common saying (the map is not the territory). While that concept is one idea being explored in this novel, we also have a map-maker as a main character and a wizard who, as the story progresses, learns to think more deeply about how a person’s concept and understanding of a place influence the reality in that place. That last, in fact, is probably the primary thematic concern of this novel.
In Tuomala’s world, wizards travel between locations via mirrors. However, they can only do this successfully if the mirrors on each side are both intact and properly bespelled. Also, they must have a clear idea of the place to which they want to travel. That is, they must visualise and understand the nature of the place, or they cannot travel to it.
This is how Tuomala’s novel begins – a young wizard, Eshu, has been to a party, where he runs into his abusive ex. He is fleeing home through the Mirrorlands, somewhat impaired by his emotional state, as well as by the intoxicating substances he has imbibed, when he finds that all the mirrors have gone dark. Without a working mirror, Eshu cannot return to the mundane world. Worse, because the Mirrorlands are liminal and magic, what you believe while you are in those lands becomes real. Thus, when Eshu thinks he hears a hungry ghost (a monster invented by the abusive ex-boyfriend) coming after him, well, that hungry ghost obligingly appears and begins to chase him.
Meanwhile, in the outside world, Rukha, the geologist cartographer, has been doing fieldwork. She is travelling over a specific watershed so that she can update the map on its rivers and streams. As she nears the city of Sharis, where she hopes to get an airship which will take her home, to her own far-off city of Matis, Rukha stops to make camp. While she is stringing her hammock high in a tree, a bright fissure appears in the sky. At first she thinks this is fireworks. But then she hears a huge ripping noise, and a powerful earthquake surges through the forest. From her swaying hammock, she watches as the lights of Sharis vanish. Not until the next day, when she reaches Sharis itself, does she find the extent of the catastrophe – the city has fallen into the sea.
In Sharis, Rukha encounters a group of survivors who are searching for the bodies of their families in the sea and amid the rubble of the city. They have made camp in the wizard’s tower, one of the few surviving buildings (though it too is damaged and will collapse soon). The wizards themselves have all gone, and no one knows where. Rukha stays to help the survivors recover bodies for a day or two, and we get a glimpse of this city and these people.
This is one of the pleasures of a travel narrative – seeing new places and learning about new cultures – and even though this city, amid its disaster, is a grim place, we nevertheless experience some of that pleasure. Further, Tuomala continues to explore hir main theme. Here in this city and place, we learn, one does not give one’s true name during a time of trouble. This so that the Crowtaker, goddess of catastrophes, cannot find you and drag you off to die. People in Sharis, thus, will not give their true names, but rather will say, ‘Call me Shell’, or ‘Call me Gull’. Rukha tells them to call her Fern. Later in the novel, Rukha will decide to become Fern, as a way of leaving behind the trauma that has happened to Rukha. Here in Sharis, we also first meet the Crowtaker herself, who will follow Rukha/Fern through the novel.
At the end of her first full day in Sharis, Rukha climbs to the top of the wizards’ tower and finds a mirror there – one of those the wizards use for travelling. While she is looking around the abandoned room, someone comes hurtling through the Mirror and knocks her down: Eshu, who has finally escaped the monster chasing him through the Mirrorlands.
Eshu learns that the disaster he thought was confined to the Mirrorlands has struck at least one other place in the outer world: Sharis. Both he and Rukha (whom he knows as Fern) begin to worry that the disaster may have hit other places as well, that perhaps their own home cities have also been affected. They decide to travel together, heading towards their homes – first by Mirror, and then, when their mirror breaks, by airship; and finally by foot, over a mountain pass.
Along the way, they visit other cities, all of which have suffered different kinds of disasters (one has sprouted massive amounts of crystals, burying, encasing, and impaling its citizens; another is covered by a fog within which reality shifts constantly; a third has become vast plain of volcanic glass). As they travel, both they and the readers get to know more about the different places on this world, and more about Eshu and Rukha/Fern; and more about the ability to change reality by changing what you say about that reality: the ability, that is, of art (songs, stories, religion, magic) to reshape the world.
Rukha’s recreation of herself touches on this theme. By calling herself Fern, she stops being Rukha, and becomes someone new, someone who did not suffer through the events, or suffer the fears of, the person who was Rukha. If she is Fern, then nothing that Rukha may have suffered or lost can matter to her. She is someone new, in a new world.
The god that Eshu worships is called Njo. Njo is the ‘Far-Traveler, who taught her people the Way of Stories.’ At one point in the novel, Rukha/Fern asks Eshu if he believes that Njo is real, and Eshu thinks of the answer he has learned as a wizard – that what is real is created by what we believe: that belief is reality.
Eshu in particular shapes reality by singing what he believes; and his songs make it so. These passages in which Eshu is singing reality are some of the most beautiful in the book, for Eshu, despite his moodiness and self-centred nature, has a strong, sweet goodness at his core; and his songs (and thus his magic) reflect that goodness. Particularly when he does battle with the Crowtaker, this is important. The Crowtaker sings a reality that is death, entropy, everything falling into dust and darkness; Eshu sings of the unstoppable nature of life and its power:
Then the Crowtaker sang in a voice of famine, and suffering was in her song. She sang flesh sunken over ribs, stomachs swollen and straining; she sang lethargy and racking hunger, hair dropping in hanks to the hard earth. Blowflies buzzed and settled, drank blood from cracked lips. In her tuneless melody was the deep, spiraling dizziness of the end approaching, and the circling of carrion birds overhead.
Although his voice was faltering, still Eshu sang the life in her decay—the blowfly and the maggot, the vultures nesting atop the towering trees. The rot that was life, mold and moss and mushroom; young trees reaching their roots into ancient bones and growing tall, tall, tall.
Essentially, however, Eshu realises that he does not, himself, believe that stories (songs, myths) are true, with reality a diametrically opposed and endlessly malleable fiction. Rather, he thinks both stories and reality are true, and that one shapes the other.
Eshu’s essential optimism, and his essential goodness, serve both him and Rukha through this novel. But wizardry, as another character points out to Eshu, has its dangers: where wizards have remade or are remaking the world, the world is ‘susceptible’. It will listen to what a wizard believes too well; following a wizard’s visions, the world in such places can change too much and too ruthlessly. And since there are many wizards on this world, not all of them as well-intentioned or well-centred as Eshu, disaster may well have been just a matter of time.
Early in the novel, we meet a well-intentioned but not well-centered character, who supplies foreshadowing for what we will eventually learn caused the world catastrophe. When Eshu and Rukha reach Zumera, the city overtaken by crystals, they find an airship platform and its commander, Chief Alique. Badly frightened by the devastation which has struck Zumera, Chief Alique reacts by imposing a kind of martial law (or fascism, I suppose) on everyone who comes within her sphere. Once Eshu and Rukha are on her platform, for instance, she will not let them leave. Neither will she let the airships leave, even to rescue survivors in Zumera. Chief Alique has good intentions – she wants to keep the world safe – but because she has no real way to do that, she ends up causing more harm to those around her.
Eshu and Rukha (now Fern) work together, using Eshu’s wizardry and Fern’s determination, to escape Alique and rescue the survivors in Zumera. After seeing the survivors to safety, Eshu and Fern travel together, by foot, over a mountain pass, having many mishaps and adventures along the way. Eshu is gay and Fern seems to be asexual, so this does not develop into a romance; but they become very good friends. That friendship is put to the test when they arrive in Kulmeni, the city lost in the reality-altering fog.
Fern at one point in the book thinks to herself that the most annoying aspect of wizards – their absolute certainty that they were always right – is in fact the way they do magic. Their certainty allows them to shape reality. In Kulmeni, which is home to the wizard academy, wizards abound, and between them and the fog, reality becomes a very slippery thing, with disastrous results for those caught in its shifting sands. Worse, Tuuri, Eshu’s ex, has reached the Academy (destroying mirrors at his heels). Eshu must find some way to work with him and the other survivors of the disaster if they are to keep reality itself from dissolving into chaos. Rukha/Fern, a scientist rather than a wizard, building her reality on the solid ground of observable facts, becomes a key player in this fight to stabilise reality. The end of the novel is satisfying, with room left for a sequel.
Tuomala’s writing is excellent and lyrical; hir characters well-drawn; and hir plot compelling; but it is the deep dive into how what we ‘know’ to be true can shape (or reshape) reality that makes A. M. Tuomala’s The Map and the Territory a work not to be missed.
Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings now lives in the Boston Mountains, where she writes, teaches about, and reviews science fiction. Her short story ‘History of the Invasion Told in Five Dogs’ appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 35th Annual Collection. Her most recent novel In the Deep, was published by Candlemark & Gleam in 2021. Follow her blog at delagar.blogspot.com
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