The Map that Breathed, by Melanie Gideon

the-map-that-breathed-by-melanie-gideon coverGenre: YA Fantasy
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: four and a half stars
Book Review by Lynn Nicole Louis

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In The Map the Breathed, Nora and Billy, two ‘normal’ kids, discover that they actually have powerful abilities that, when combined, allow them to not only see into an alternate world, but actually open a doorway into it. I’m fond of stories about people from our normal, mundane Earth who are transported to other words. The idea of parallel realities always has always been one of my favorites, if only because it comes so close to my frustrated wish for adventure. Given my age, even if I did manage to get teleported to another world, I’d probably lose my wind a few leagues in and beg off. My days of sitting atop a white stallion clad in gleaming mail riding to battle as a warrior princess are long behind me, though the dottering head of some magical order or a crusty, rolling-pin wielding tavern owner are probably still achievable.

I think this escapist desire is especially prevalent among children in the target group of this book (which I would place around 12-13 years of age). Such children, based on my observations, are just starting to come to grips with the reality that being a grown-up is the exact opposite of what they thought; that it entails more work and more responsibility, not less. “When I’m a grown-up, I’ll do whatever I want!” Well, you’re in for a surprise, little Johnny. Being a grown-up pretty much means doing what everybody else wants, much more so than being a kid. Anyway… enough simpering.

In a small town in Rhode Island twelve-year-old Nora Sweetkale receives a mysterious book and eleven year-old Billy discovers has had the ability to open doorways to a land called Sanasarea. A chance meeting between them is obviously more than chance, for Billy is a Gatemaker and Nora his Traveler. At first, Billy can only make windows, through which they observe a magical map that appears to breath, yet trapped inside the map they the hideous face of some sort of monster. In the land of Sanasarea, Asa, the Gatemaker who imprisoned the Provisioner in the map, steals the map just as its magic becomes too weak to hold the Provisioner. The Provisioner escapes, and once more begins to feed upon the children of Sanasarea by stealing their souls.

Meanwhile, Nora and Billy have decided to try going through into Sanasarea. Billy’s opens the door with the intent of going through, but Nora pushes him aside and leaps through herself. The Provisioner is waiting, and although Nora is too old to have her soul stolen, the Provisioner’s magic steals her memories and she finds herself in a strange land with no recollection of her past.

I’m loathe to say more, since I don’t want to give the story away. Sufice to say that despite its brevity, there’s an engaging amount of story and complexity here. We meet a variety of well-done characters in both worlds, each of whom possesses satisfying and realistic motivation, and Sanasarea is a well thought out and interesting place, sort of a cross between England circa 1800 and Middle Earth. The concept of Gatemaker and Traveler, which is by no means unique, is handled in a fresh and interesting way. There are mysteries and secrets here that the characters must uncover in order to overcome in the end; Gideon does a good job of keeping the tension high and the outcome shrouded, yet a natural resolution to what has gone before.

Any complaints? Minor ones only. Gideon has a habit of switching points of view quickly; this can sometimes be a bit jarring. Some mystery is good, but I think she kept a little too much in her head. At the end, I was still confused about some things, one of which being the source of the Provisioner’s magic and how he came about it. Some of the characters take, or have taken, actions in the past that didn’t make much sense to me and didn’t seem to be instigators of events in the story. A few times I was left scratching my head and thinking, “Now why did he (or she) do that?”

So it’s not perfect; the flaws that bothered me would be less likely to bother a YA reader. If you’re a young adult, or a reader who’s young at heart, and you enjoyed any of the Narnia books, the Loyd Alexander books, or participated in the Harry Potter phenomena, then this one would be a perfect fit.

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