Soontornvat’s stirring “The Last Mapmaker,” a swashbuckling, seafaring potboiler, is quite a contrast to Barnhill’s cozy fable, but a dragon is once again the focus. Only in this case the heroine ends up trying to hide the dragon rather than expose it. Sai, a 12-year-old assistant to a mapmaker, eagerly joins his expedition to find the rumored Dragon Lands to the south. Per a proclamation by the Queen, the crew that successfully maps this territory will be showered with treasure.
Both books play elaborate games of Find the Dragon. But where Barnhill’s monster stands in for demagogy, Soontornvat’s creature is a colonialist’s prize – the closer Sai gets to finding and mapping the dragon’s whereabouts, the more she senses the consequences of claiming her home for her Queen.
The two novels mirror each other. While the villagers of Stone-in-the-Glen must be awakened from ignorance to become neighbors again, Sai realizes that sometimes being a good neighbor means putting a dream to sleep.
All along, Soontornvat (a Newbery honoree for “A Wish in the Dark”) skillfully uses tropes to throw us off. Introduce a young, woebegone heroine questing after a flying monster for glory and the reader can not help chasing the dragon with her.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more unsung than Sai, with an absent mother, a con-man father, and no wealth or lineage in a land called Mangkon, where the rank of one’s ancestors dictates status. To earn enough money to stay alive, she pretends she’s from a highborn family so she can keep her apprenticeship – which she got by happening to pass the shop of Master Paiyoon, Mangkon’s top mapmaker, at the very moment that his previous assistant bursts out. by in terror after spilling ink over two months of work.
Early on, it’s clear there is nothing in Mangkon for Sai – any affection she might have had for her father disappears when he bullies her into giving him her last savings – so when she offered a place on her boss’s ship to go dragon hunting she plunges headfirst into danger: “Paiyoon eyed me gravely. … ‘There’s a small chance we will not come back.’ That’s exactly what I was betting on. ”
Sai’s goal is simple: Find the dragon, map its home for the Queen and she’ll reap a reward that will make her past life a faded 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 acknowledged for transcending her birth.