Soontornvat’s rousing ‘The Last Mapmaker’, a reckless seafaring potboiler, contrasts sharply with Barnhill’s cozy fable, but once again a dragon takes center stage. Only in this case, the heroine tries to hide the dragon instead of exposing it. Sai, a 12-year-old mapmaker’s assistant, eagerly joins his expedition to find the rumored Dragonlands in the south. According to a Queen’s proclamation, the crew who successfully mapped this area will be showered with treasure.
Both books play extensive games of Find the Dragon. But where Barnhill’s monster represents demagoguery, Soontornvat’s creature is a colonialist’s prize – the closer Sai gets to finding and mapping the dragon’s whereabouts, the more she feels the consequences of claiming his home to her queen.
The two novels mirror each other. While the villagers of Stone-in-the-Glen have to be awakened out of ignorance to become neighbors again, Sai realizes that sometimes being a good neighbor means putting a dream to sleep.
All the while, Soontornvat (a Newbery honoree for “A Wish in the Dark”) skillfully uses tropes to repel us. Introduce a young wretched heroine who seeks a flying monster for glory and the reader can’t help but chase the dragon with her.
It would be hard to find anyone less sung about than Sai, with an absent mother, an impostor father, and no wealth or ancestry in a land called Mangkon, where the rank of one’s ancestors dictates status. In order to earn enough money to survive, she pretends to come from a high-class family so that she can maintain her apprenticeship – which she gained by passing by the shop of Master Paiyoon, Mangkon’s best mapmaker, at the time when his previous assistant locked the door in agony after spilling ink during two months of work.
Early on, it’s clear there’s nothing in Mangkon for Sai – any affection she may have had for her father disappears when he intimidates her into giving him her last savings – so when she’s offered a place on her boss’s ship to go on a dragon hunt, she plunges into head-on danger: “Paiyoon looked at me gravely. … ‘There’s a small chance we won’t come back.’ That’s exactly what I bet on.”
Sai’s goal is simple: find the dragon, map his home for the queen and she will reap a reward that will make her past life a distant memory. It’s a story we’ve heard before – the timeless theater of playgrounds – and yet we want Sai to have her moment of triumph with the Queen, to be recognized for transcending her birth.