Twelve-year-old Sai is an assistant to master mapmaker Paiyoon. Sai loves her job and is good at it, but she has a secret mission: to save enough money to escape her home kingdom of Mangkon, where prospects for the future are inextricably bound up with family lineage. But on Sai’s 13th birthday, she will not receive a ceremonial lineal, the chain of golden links that symbolize her ancestry, because her family has no history—at least, not one to celebrate. Her father is a con man, and much of Sai’s skill for duplicating maps and charts stems from helping her father with forgeries.
As Sai’s birthday approaches, the queen issues a new directive: Now that Mangkon has finally achieved peace for the first time in 20 years, it’s time for the kingdom to rededicate itself to exploration. Master Paiyoon asks Sai to accompany him on a southbound ship, which will journey past the 50th parallel, also called the Dragon Line.
Sai soon discovers that everyone on board the ship has a secret, including Master Paiyoon, Captain Sangra and the charismatic Miss Rian, who earned her lineal through wartime heroism. As the voyage gets underway, Sai learns that even the queen’s mission is built on a secret. A rich prize awaits any crew who can locate the elusive Sunderlands, a remote and inaccessible continent where, according to legend, Mangkon’s long-departed dragons now dwell.
In 2021, author Christina Soontornvat received two Newbery Honors for in the same year, one for a novel, the other for a work of nonfiction—a first in the award’s centurylong history (E.L. Konigsburg previously received a Medal and an Honor in 1968, while Meindert de Jong received two Honors in 1954, but all four awards were for fiction). Soontornvat returns to high fantasy to create the Thai-inspired world of The Last Mapmaker, a standalone tale into which she seamlessly incorporates themes of colonialism and environmentalism.
Sai, whose first-person narration keeps the action moving faster than a ship under full sail, is a complicated and compassionately flawed character. It’s easy to sympathize with her dual struggles to identify whom she can trust and reconcile with her family’s past.
If The Last Mapmaker has a fault, it’s a too-quick resolution. Readers who grow invested in Soontornvat’s characters will wish they had just a little more time to spend with them. On the whole, however, the novel is a compelling quest narrative brimming with adventure, surprises and betrayal.