Book review: The Crimson Skew, S.E. Grove

I am a huge fan of S.E. Grove’s Mapmakers Trilogy, which includes The Glass Sentence and The Golden Specificconcluding with The Crimson SkewThe series has a really intriguing, well-constructed world, a fantastic heroine, and fun, zesty language that makes all of these books really fun reading. So a part of me was really sad while reading The Crimson Skew and knowing there will be no more, though I also felt like the trilogy format provided the perfect level of fulfillment: I got to love the characters and the world, Grove got to tell a long-form story, and no one had a chance to get irritable and bored.

But first, for those of you who haven’t read this series, you really should. It’s set in a world where different areas of the Earth have been fractured into different ‘Ages,’ set forward and back in time. Sophia Tims lives in New Occident, a highly insular, isolationist Age along the East Coast of the United States. Traveling can be a challenge in a world where times, governments, and ideas are in constant conflict, and Tims has inherited a complicated family legacy that ties directly into that: Mapmaking.

But not just any old maps, and not just static maps. This family of cartographers can make incredibly complicated and beautiful immersive maps, memory maps with secrets and information hidden within them. A mundane object can become a map as readily as the more traditional sheet of paper or vellum. It’s a skill that takes training, smarts, and refinement.

Luckily, our bold heroine possesses all of these qualities! She’s smart and savvy, resourceful and always ready to come up with new solutions to old problems. She also makes fast and loyal friends as she travels the Earth in search of the thing she wants most in the world: Her parents, who appear to have gone missing, though the circumstances are confusing and strange. Whether she’s sailing with pirates or schlepping through Europe or adventuring on the Great Plains, she’s determined that she won’t rest until she finds them.

The disappearance of parents is a persistent theme in middle grade and young adult, because it can be challenging to have adventures with parents hanging around. Grove took that classic trope and twisted it a little, though, making the adventure the search for Sophia Tims’ parents, in a kind of sly acknowledgement of the fact that yes, missing parents are a trope. The entire series has been leading up to the moment where they reunite, and that moment carries some…surprises for the reader.

Before we get to that moment, though, Grove does a really fantastic job of guiding us through the world on a sort of whistlestop grand tour, giving us a chance to resolve a number of interrelated plots along the way, as we learn that strange and isolated events are more closely tied than we realised. We also feel the sting as her slowly gathered assortment of traveling companions and friends starts to break up, missions accomplished and sights set for home or future adventures somewhere far away.

As Sophia comes into herself and learns to use her skills and acquired knowledge to resolve the puzzles that lie at the heart of the series, I like that she’s highly interdependent. She’s not a loner or someone who thinks she can get everything done by herself with no outside influences. To the contrary — she’s someone who understands, intimately, the value of other people. She’s not a snob about who she associates with, either, freely mixing with people from all Ages, walks of life, cultures, and traditions. She’s a silent rebuke to snobbery and elitism, showing that even in a journey of self-discovery for her, she’d never succeed were it not for the people around her.

I really like seeing that in middle grade, and I’m glad to see it growing more common. I’m seeing fewer books about lone heroes who know everything and steamroller through the world, and a lot more about cooperation and collaboration with people who freely admit that they do not in fact know everything, but they would very much like to learn. She’s continuously learning, and constantly recording knowledge as she acquires it, and she’s eager to share with others.

While The Crimson Skew does wrap most of the things in the series up really nicely, not leaving any irritating loose ends, it also leaves things open to the imagination, and that can be a tough balance to strike. I know that the characters are off to new and exciting adventures, and I’m excited for them even if I understand that I won’t be able to go along with them. I love that to the very end, Grove is opening up new and amazing things about this incredibly thoughtfully built world, in a display of really deliberate worldbuilding that carefully mapped out (so to speak) not just the events of the books, but the places and the landscape and how it interacts with the characters.

If you haven’t gathered, I really can’t speak highly enough of this series. If you’re one of those people who waits for series to be all done before you start reading, you have run out of excuses, so go start reading. (FYI to people who do that: Publishers base contract decisions on past sales, so if you wait for a series to wrap up, publishers may conclude that since no one is buying earlier books, there’s not enough interest. Just, you know, something to think about. Especially if you’ve ever wondered why an advertised series cut off in the middle for no apparent reason.)

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

Image: Alaskan moose pair, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Flickr