The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove
Series: The Mapmakers Trilogy, #1
Published: 2014, Viking
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
“Memory is a tricky thing, Sophia,” he had said to her. “It doesn’t just recall the past, it makes the past. If you remember our trip as a few minutes, it will be a few minutes. If you make it something else, it will be something else.”
Sophia Tims’ world is one that should not exist. While for her the year is 1891, that year is not consistent across her world; some places are separated by hundreds of years and do not even have the same number of hours in a day. This is all due to the Great Disruption of 1799, when inexplicable circumstances caused the world to fracture into different eras.
Almost 100 years later, the world is still a fractured, uncertain place to be. In Sophia’s world, there exist cartologers (essentially mapmakers who possess a touch of magic), and it is through their efforts that humanity has the greatest chance of discovering the cause of the Great Disruption, as well as a possible solution. Sophia’s uncle Shadrack is one of the most respected cartologers, and he has promised to start teaching her his craft, so that she not only may better understand their world, but perhaps gain some valuable skills that may help her discover what happened to her missing parents. Almost as soon as their lessons start, however, Shadrack is captured by those who believe he knows where to find the Carta Mayor - a mythic map that apparently contains information about the Great Disruption. And now Sophia is the only one who can save him.
It’s difficult to write a concrete review of this, because this is a novel that focuses so much on abstract, complex, and hypothetical concepts. This novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, which ultimately works both to its advantage and to its detriment.
The world established in this novel is absolutely fascinating. While Sophia’s part of the world (essentially the eastern half of the United States, referred to now as New Occident) is on the cusp of the twentieth century, there are also lands that have moved back to ages such as the Ice Age, the Roman Empire, and the Old West. The explanations provided make it sound as though the various Ages are traversable, separated by some sort of fault lines that occurred during the Great Disruption. The fracturing of the world’s timeline also introduces questions related to history and continuity. Those questions are only superficially introduced in the first book, but they will hopefully be explored in greater depth in upcoming sequels.
To make sense of the world, there is a renewed interest in the mapmaking industry. Cartologers like Shadrack work to create more traditional maps, as well as some absolutely fascinating ones. Cloth maps can be used to identify weather patterns and history, clay maps show topography, metal maps show manmade construction, and glass maps show human memories. These special maps can be read both separately and together and are the closest thing that people have to learning about their world, both as it is now and what it once was.
Really fascinating fantasy elements are at work in this novel, for sure. At times, however, the combination of magical, fantasy-like elements and the scientific facts of mapmaking and history felt a bit...forced. Grove provides readers with enough details to make sense of the immediate situations of the book, but much of the world and its history still lacks substance. It’s an interesting fantasy world, but certainly requires a hefty suspension of disbelief.
Fortunately, readers’ interactions with this world are very much guided by the practical, endearing, and earnest Sophia who’s just trying to make sense of everything. She has this curious ability to lose track of time - she could think she’s spending five minutes watching the skies and really be there for hours. But she’s guided by a genuine curiosity and desire to do right, which makes her incredibly empathetic. Her bouts of uncertainty over her quest and her confusion over a friend’s interaction with her help further ground Sophia into a realistic girl thrust into complex situations.
Much like the world that it resides in, this story doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with itself. Is it more concerned with the science of the Great Disruption or the magical elements stemming from it? As readers should we care most about the motives behind Shadrack’s kidnapping, the existence of the Carta Mayor, Sophia’s missing parents, or the encroaching danger that another Age presents? The vast majority of the tangled plotlines are concluded in a way that feels a bit too much like a Deus ex machina.
Interesting concepts and a likable protagonist aren’t enough to sustain a book, unfortunately. Aside from Sophia’s age and characterization, little in this complex, convoluted book feels like it’s written for middle grade readers - perhaps just the precocious ones. Still, Grove clearly has a lot of imagination and I will be interested to learn more about where this trilogy goes, even if I don’t end up continuing on myself.
Rating: 2.5 stars