Reviewby Theron Martin,
Dawn of the Mapmaker: The Surveyor Girl and the Forbidden Knowledge
Knowledge is power, and that most certainly applies to maps too. Few appreciate that more than Unen, a 15-year-old girl so slender that she often gets mistaken for a young boy. She aspires to be a good enough cartographer so she can catch the attention of the king, who would then sponsor her on a journey to map the world, and indeed, she's already being recognized by the name Sparrow Eyes for her talent at drawing incredibly detailed maps. While such maps may be a boon to some, they are a threat to others, as Unen finds out the hard way. Fortunately she has intrepid companions to protect her: her best friend Irena, a self-trained swordswoman; the taciturn warrior Ori; and the scheming mage Mouru. But what might the true motives of the latter two be, and how much do all of her harrowing experiences have to do with a figure from Unen's past? And why does just being around Ori and Mouru trigger the mysterious Murmurs that she often used to hear on the wind?
We take incredibly detailed maps for granted these days, so it's easy to lose sight of just how powerful maps actually are as tools. That is the crux of the premise behind the first novel in this new e-book series: that maps have enough power to be worth killing over, thus making the job of a cartographer far more dangerous and adventuresome than one would normally expect. It is an interestingly different gimmick to base a story around, and without question it's the series' biggest drawing point. While this first novel does offer a few other enticing mysteries, its actual execution is, unfortunately, mostly pedestrian.
The problem isn't with the characters, though none of them are especially memorable so far. Unen is typical for the role of the physically helpless protagonist who needs to be protected because of her enormously valuable emerging skill set; she's small, makes no impression as a young woman, and had a pretty horrible early life. She's not particularly plucky, either, although she can hold her own in a technical discussion of what she's doing. While that may be mold-breaking for such a heroine, it's not used in a beneficial way. Ori fills the role of the taciturn male protector (and, I'm guessing, future love interest), while Irena is the vastly more physically-gifted best friend and Mouru is the standard rascal of a wizard. A few other characters pop up multiple times but none of them make much of an impression, either.
The problem also isn't with the setting. Writer Akira Nashiki does a respectable job of laying out the basics of the setting, including especially the particulars of how magic works there; if anything, that gets more attention than the mapmaking does. The most interesting details are that true wizards are inevitably marked by a special type of black hair and mostly use magic through contracts with gods, which means that they are more limited casters than the wizards of other fantasy settings. Using too much magic at once can also incapacitate the wizard, in a manner similar to KONOSUBA's Megumin but played utterly seriously. The most curious detail in the story is a mention of logarithmic tables, which is anachronistic for a setting which otherwise appears to be no later than late Middle Ages Europe. (Logarithmic tables did not exist until the 1600s in our world.) Other mathematical references seem sound and appropriate for the setting, and their inclusions lends greater credibility to what Unen is doing.
I am more ambivalent on the storytelling approach. Though the business about maps is an underlying plot element, the story is actually at least as much about Ori and Mouru's quest for the man Unen used to know and what all secrets are wrapped up in why he suddenly disappeared three years earlier. Nashiki states in the Afterword that the original story concept focused on Ori and Mouru, with Unen only being added later as a vehicle for presenting the mysteries circling around them to the reader, and that shows in a story progression where the mapping sometimes becomes more an excuse than a goal. Unen is also falling into the trap of the person whom stuff has to happen to because no one else can be realistically victimized, which will have to be watched out for in future volumes.
The real problem is with the actual writing quality. How much of the blame falls on the original writing vs. the translating by Cross Infinite World is hard to tell, but much too often the writing sounds amateurish. Unwieldy sentences pop up especially early on, the way characters are described reacting to each other sometimes sounds unnatural, and the writing can't seem to settle on how informal or formal to be. Nashiki does best at describing action scenes, and character dialog is at least passable, but in general another refinement pass or two could have made a big difference. As is this comes off as mid-grade fanfiction. At least the illustrations provided are a grade above normal light novel quality, including a richly-colored map and a color illustration of the main cast at the beginning.
At a mere 176 pages this first installment is much too short, though it does at least complete the opening stage of the story. Ultimately the story ideas and elements are just interesting enough to get me to read more, though I will continue to lament that it isn't better-written.
Overall : C+
Story : C+
Art : B+
+ Interesting premise, good details on how magic works
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