Right around the time when my blog was more than just a past-time, or needed respite, from a busy lifestyle, Ronlyn Domingue’s The Mapmaker’s War came into my life in serendipitous fashion. It was just around a certain time in my life where I was desperate to read a fantasy book more enmeshed in the fabric of meaningful myth, more-so than tedious exposition. I wanted to read something not just mystifying, or engaging, in the way good fantasy transports you outside the confines of the mundane, but rather something I could be deeply-impacted by without my realizing. Both books in the series, prior to this one, were impacting in ways instantaneous and easy to articulate, whereas The Plague Diaries, the complex culmination of so many seemingly disparate narrative and allegoric threads, is quite the nebulous read, when you’re reading it for the first time.
And sometimes too close for comfort, when it comes to books. And I think more than the complexity of the structure of Ronlyn Domingue’s novel (which can feel daunting at first, this is a complex work of literature), the reasons the book is so tough for me to speak about is because I quite honestly don’t like the self-conscious discomfort and unease of self-examination that these kind of books demand. I mean this in the best possible way, of course: this book forced me to stare deeply into my own neuroses that plague me much in the way the literal plague in this book practically forces an entire community’s repressed vices to the surface. These vices, or neuroses (fears and sins are interrelated) come by way of dreadful mortification and injuries, of course, an actual physical manifestation more-so than the subtler sublimation we’re more accustomed in our own reality.
Through the medium of fantasy storytelling, our anxieties that dog us, put us in a fraught state, have corporeal forms, and in this story, nature is made into an anthropomorphism in true mythic fashion, wreaking revenge on humanity’s overweening pride in trying to control and manipulate nature to the extent of doing it harm, destroying the delicate balance needed for all live in its myriad complexities to somehow coexist.
This story is structured very much in an alchemical scaffolding. Basically, The Keeper of the Tales trilogy, like many other modern works of fantasy fiction/literature, entrenched with roots in mythic archetypes, has a literary alchemy template. Rather than explain through my own words, I am including here words from literary scholar of Harry Potter, originator of the literary alchemy theory applied to JK Rowling’s books, about the essential structure of the literary alchemy storytelling. In trying to explain to his readership, before applying the theory to concrete examples from Harry Potter, he first retells the template of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet while applying the stages of literary alchemy:
“This play you’ve all read and probably seen on stage or screen has a black and a white and a red stage that ends in gold. You remember Romeo’s melancholic beginnings, and the strife and division in the streets of Verona. The white stage begins when the young lovers meet. The division between Capulet and Montague is joined when this couple is bound by the sacrament of marriage. The story is essentially over when they’re married in the church service and the marriage is consummated. But the accomplishments of the white stage that are hidden have to be revealed on a larger stage in the crucible of the red stage. Through the deaths of Romeo and Juliet in the Capulet tomb, greater life comes to Verona. Juliet’s parents and Romeo’s father promise to erect golden statues of the star-crossed lovers and the city is at peace at last.” (John Granger, hogwartsprofessor.com)
The plague itself is a vehicle of the alchemical change ushered into the series, all of which coincide with a deeper revelation for not just the characters in the story, but ourselves, that all of us is “gold,” at least spiritually speaking, meaning unique/waiting to be shaped and molded by our life’s trials and experiences. And it is this deceptively simple message that unites all the characters and pieces together, leaving one in a state of solemn meditation over their own experiences, decisions in life, how we’ve affected others, or whether or not we’ve properly forgiven our past vices, etc. to the point where we have not let them fester in our subconscious like shadows.
I don’t want to speak too much more about the specific ways that this book works subtle magic in such deft ways, or just how it leaves the reader in awe like the great works of either Ursula K. LeGuin or Octavia Butler, involving examinations on feminist gender politics in the traditional male-dominated template of fantasy storytelling, and how time is ripe for more egalitarian-minded stories to utilize classic storytelling tropes and archetypes to tell an important story that resonates deeply in our psyches.
This was the perfect book to end my book blog with because it symbolizes all the things I love most about books, in that they don’t just transport us away from the drudgery of the mundane, but rather force ourselves to meditate on our own burdens, or things we’ve never confronted ourselves. Most important, Ronlyn Domingue’s book is a work of fantasy literature that excels in the refined art of literary alchemy or more commonly known as deeper magic. The books I remember most, sometimes the ones that elude my ability to fully comprehend them, are the ones I routinely can return back to, again and again, gleaning new meaning each and every time. I read The Plague Diaries now twice through, and I still feel I have so many more things to gain in terms of interpretations, things for myself to take away, etc. So many tears were shed throughout both readings of this book, so many moments of the deep frisson of familiarity/deja-vu when I could relate to Secret, and the trials and tribulations of others, throughout the book, or just the ineffable awe of wordplay or magnificent working of allegorical writing. Simply put, I highly recommend this book to readers of all preferences, eclectic, or even stubbornly cloistered/fixated on one genre. It is a series to treasure, and return to occasionally, to soak in the edifying prose of Ronlyn Domingue’s artful, mesmerizing writing.
Closing Statement: While I will no longer be formally writing book reviews in this space, the archive remains open and the URL name will remain unchanged. This blog may have a definitive end, but the potential for future readers to find new reads themselves is the most important reason why I’m leaving it open. The reason I am closing my blog is due not just to busyness of life, changed priorities, etc. I’ve actually been reading more than ever in my life. It’s just harder for me to write reviews. Though this review may not imply this feeling, I am actually finding the art of writing reviews to be something I find more challenging, the more I read. I essentially read more for enjoyment/creative mind-expansion, challenging my unconscious biases/bigotries more than ever, than writing reviews. And yes, I’m sure that sounds mighty pretentious, but it’s also the truth. More than ever, I find reading to be the one place where I can ultimately escape and wrestle with new ideas, away from the cacophonous environment of chatty talking head new shows, or omniscience of political blog writers. All of these things seem like very weak excuses, but this decision has been long made before writing this review.
So while it is very hard to write the following, because I don’t know how to best write it: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for years of support of this space, for recommending new titles, for the countless fresh perspectives of so many magnificent contributors, both book and tea reviewers alike. I hope you all know that this statement is all-inclusive of all of you, who I feel are more deserving than a litany of names being rattled off. My deepest thanks to each and everyone of you.