The Cartographers

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Peng Shepherd
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Pub. Date: Mar. 2022 (read Apr. 2022)

I was super excited when I first read the synopsis and saw the cover art for The Cartographers! Everything about the blurb appealed to me and I was stoked to jump into this one. Since its release, it’s getting some pretty mixed reviews, which I can definitely understand. It’s a very compelling story and there’s a lot that I liked about it. Initially I gave it 4 stars, but upon closer reflection, I have to admit that parts of the book are pretty flawed and that I loved the premise of the book more than the execution, so I decided to bump my review down to 3 stars. Still a great read, but not everything it could have been. So let’s talk about it.

The Cartographers features protagonist Nell Young and opens with the death of her estranged father. He passes away at work and when the police notify her of the incident, she discovers a map hidden in his office and sneaks it away with her. She quickly discovers that despite the unassuming nature of this cheap gas station map, it appears to be extremely desirable and is the only remaining map in existence. A shadowy group called the Cartographers appears to be after the map and Nell is quickly catapulted into a mission to unravel the maps secrets before the dangerous cartographers find her.

Sounds great right? It is. I found the writing to be pretty fast paced and the mystery super compelling. There’s a fantastical element to the story as we discover some of the secrets that maps can hold and slowly get answers about who the Cartographers are as we unravel Nell’s family history. I loved the idea that maps can be portals and that some places exist only within the maps on which they are shown. I got totally caught up in the story, in solving the mystery and exposing the secrets.

Unfortunately, as smart as the premise of the plot is, the execution and backstory are so flawed that it does take away from my overall impression of the book. Without getting into spoilers yet, a lot of the characters make questionable decisions, portions of the story are left unexplained, and the ending is perfect and messy in a way that doesn’t really make sense. We are introduced to a lot of characters, but many are left only partially developed. The premise of the plot is excellent, but it’s left unsupported by weak characterization and themes.

I would still recommend this book because of how fun it is. It really captured my imagination and it is very fast paced and I found it hard to put down. It’s just not quite as good as I believe it could be and beyond the extremely creative premise, I felt the author lost that creativity in telling the rest of the story. So I’d still encourage you to check it out, but for now, I’d like to jump into the spoiler part of the my discussion because I want to further explore some of the plot points and would love to hear opinions from others who have read the book.
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My main criticism relates to the Cartographers and their motivations. I feel like Shepherd created this wonderful idea of having the errors on maps become real places and I loved the discovery of Agloe, I just didn’t understand the choices the rest of the characters made. I didn’t understand why Nell’s mother opted to stay in Agloe for 30 years. Actually, I understood it in theory, it’s more that I didn’t believe it.

I didn’t believe that her motivations for deciding to stay in Agloe were strong enough. To say she is hiding from, or afraid of Wally is unfair. While he did become an extremely unstable character, I believe this was mostly due to his grief and ongoing fanaticism about the map. Had Tam simply left Agloe and not been presumed dead, he would not have spent 30 years trying to get back to her and I believe the combined effort of the Cartographers could have managed and support Wally in his grief. Instead they stood idly by for 30 years – allowing Wally to become more and more unhinged and permitting a young girl to grow up without her mother. This is selfish and irresponsible. I could excuse some of the Cartographers since it was only Daniel that knew Tam was still alive, but together Nell’s parents are a bunch of idiots.

Secondly, I didn’t believe any sane individual could stay in a fictional town for 30 years. The perceived danger wasn’t real, but even if it was, what person wouldn’t risk it to be with their husband and daughter. There’s no way Tam would still be sane after 30 years in a make-believe town, but clearly she wasn’t sane to begin with if she thought self isolating for 30 years was a good idea.

So all of the decisions made by the Cartographers were based on this flawed fear of an unhinged individual that they themselves created. It just wasn’t a good enough motivator for me to understand of empathize with their decisions. Tam made the decision to abandon her daughter and Daniel made the decision to ruin her career and slander her. What kind of life are they even trying to protect for Nell? A life where she is estranged from her family and forced to work in a dead end job, never having known a mother or father’s love? What is even the point? Leave Agloe and burn the map. No one should love cartography this much.

Tam being alive explains the motivation for hiding the map for so long, but honestly I thought this book would have been a lot stronger if Tam had actually died in the fire. It would explain why the rest of the Cartographers repressed the entire ordeal out of grief and I would have understood better why they hid it from Nell. Tam being secretly alive for 30 years just made me mad about Nell’s abandonment and weakened the premise for the rest of the story.

Anyways, overall this is leaving me thoroughly confused about the book. Like I said, I can’t deny I had a lot of fun reading it, my frustrations are mostly because I thought it could be stronger and I was sad to end the book feeling disappointed when I wanted so badly to love it. I didn’t quite understand the ending, but it was a wonderful blend of magical realism and I would read it again in hopes of picking up on some other subtleties about how the map magic system works. If you want to enjoy it, you just have to be willing to accept the story for what it is. A great idea, just maybe not perfectly thought out. 3.5 stars

All the Young Dudes

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: MsKingBean89
Genres: Fantasy, Fanfiction
Pub. Date: 2017 (read Dec. 2021)

I debated whether I would take the time to review this, but I spent such a lengthy time reading it and I enjoyed it so much, that I have to give it the praise it deserves.

Let’s say off the bat – this is fanfiction. All the Young Dudes is not a published book, though you can buy 3 volumes of it on the Book Patch, I opted to read it for free on Archive Of Our Own. It’s over 500,000 words, which works out to somewhere around 1700 pages. I have never read fanfiction before, but started hearing about All the Young Dudes and was really intrigued, so I decided to read it. I know there’s a lot of bad fan fiction out there, but this was an eye opening experience to me that there’s also some really quality fan fiction and that there shouldn’t be anything embarrassing about reading it!

All the Young Dudes is Harry Potter fanfic about the Mauraders. It’s set primarily in the 1970’s, though it spans some 25 odd years, and is told from Lupin’s point of view. It is totally canon compliant, with the exception being that it is Wolfstar, which features a relationship between Lupin and Sirius. While there’s no indication in Harry Potter that either of these characters is gay, I didn’t find it a stretch or unbelievable. Every other part of the fiction complied with original harry potter canon and I thought the addition of this relationship actually brought a lot of depth to the story.

All the Young Dudes is a substantial piece of work and honestly felt like an extension of the HP universe to me. Every character is well crafted and acted exactly in the way I would expect them to. It was so fun to revisit this world through the eyes of the Marauders and I loved returning to Hogwarts with them. The first part is largely fun, with lots of childish antics and pranks, like what you would expect from a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds, but as the children age, so does the story. 

In some ways I thought this was maybe even a more accurate portrayal of teenagers at Hogwarts than JK Rowling. The writer includes a lot of 1970’s pop culture into the story, which I liked because it created a more integrated world with both Muggles and Magic. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe wizards wouldn’t be just as crazy for pop sensations like Bowie and the Beatles and the boys get participate in classic teenage shenanigans, like partying and messing around with alcohol, pot, and girls.

There’s just as much depth to the side characters and I loved seeing so many other familiar characters from the series. Lily and Snape also feature in the story, though I would have loved to get a bit more about both Lily’s relationships with Snape and James. Because this is Lupin’s story, he and Sirius are the primary focus – my ideal fiction would probably have a more well rounded telling of the Marauders, with multiple character perspectives, but this was still great and incredible in its scope. 

There’s A LOT of character development and angst and I loved that this focuses on Lupin’s struggles with being a werewolf (and how the wizarding world treats werewolves parallels how the rest of the world also treats gay men, especially in the 70’s). We also get a lot of time dedicated to Sirius’ family and how he struggled with being the black sheep in a family full of dark wizards. It’s a bit of a brutal read in that it’s heartbreaking to spend over 1000 pages falling in love with characters that you know are going to be devastated before the end. The first volume is a fun romp while the second volume is a really meaningful coming of age story during a dark time. I read the first two parts back to back, which covers the boys 7 years at Hogwarts, and then took a break before attempting the third, which I knew would be filled with heartbreak.

The third volume spans from the end of school all the way up to the start of the 5th Harry Potter book, so it has the largest time period and is by far the most depressing. I found the war really interesting, but I kind of wish it had ended when Voldemort was defeated the first time. I understand why the author dragged it out until Sirius got out of Azkaban, but I didn’t find a lot of value in the in between time and would have just preferred an epilogue about Sirius and Remus being reunited. It’s still a great story, but while I would definitely re-read the first 2 volumes, I don’t think I would ever re-read the 3rd. Either way, the whole thing was a really fun experience for me. I’m not sure whether I’ll be back for more fan-fiction, but it was fun to give a try! Let me know in the comments if you’ve read fan-fiction and what you thought, I’m genuinely interested to know!

The House in the Cerulean Sea

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: T.J. Klune
Genres: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Pub. Date: Mar. 2020 (read Aug. 2021)

The House in the Cerulean Sea is definitely a book that came to me very heavily hyped. I feel like this book is all over goodreads and tiktok it’d been on my TBR for a while before I finally picked it up with my book club.

It’s a middle grade read that is highly accessible to an adult audience and features themes that are relatable to any age group. It’s set in a fantasy world similar to ours, but with magical beings. Linus works for the department in Charge of Magical Youth as a case worker for orphaned children. Everything is highly regulated by the government and he checks in on children to make sure they are receiving proper care. Then one day, he is approached to go a highly unusual assignment where he meets some of the department’s most high risk children.

These children all live on an island with their caretaker, Arthur. At first Linus is extremely weary of the children and their abilities, as are the villagers in the mainland town next to the island. However, as Linus gets to know the children, he sees that he may have been unfairly prejudiced against them and recognizes the unfairness of how these children are treated by everyone around them. 

It’s very much a feel good novel about belonging. The ways we treat and perceive those who are different than us and how much we stand to gain and can learn from them if we only treat people with respect. It draws so many parallels to our society and the way some people view and treat others who are gay, or immigrants, or a visible minority. There’s nothing groundbreaking in this novel, but it is a heartwarming book if you’re looking for a pick-me-up. I don’t think I liked it quite as much as most people seem to be loving it, but I did think it was a solid 4 star read and the majority of my book club enjoyed it.

She Who Became the Sun

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Shelley Parker-Chan
Genres: Fantasy
Pub. Date: Jul. 2021 (read Nov. 2021)

I used to read so much fantasy. I loved getting lost in other worlds and getting to return to the same characters over and over again – it made for such an enjoyable reading experience for me. Unfortunately over the last few years, I feel like I’ve almost completely lost my ability to read fantasy. Learning about new worlds seems exhausting and the thought of having to follow a storyline over multiple books daunting. But every couple months I try a new fantasy book to see if I can overcome the slump.

I’ve been hearing a lot about She Who Became the Sun and I wanted to try at least one book nominated in the Goodreads Choice Award fantasy category, so I decided to go with this one. It started off great and I was really invested in Zhu’s character and thought her growth while at the monastery was really interesting. Then something dramatic happens between 15-20% and I was catapulted into a completely different story – it was engaging, but something about the storytelling and pacing just seemed off throughout the rest of the novel.

She Who Became the Sun takes place during the Ming Dynasty in 1345 China and centers around a poor, starving, young girl who steals her older brother’s fate and seeks refuge in a monastery – hiding her true identity and gender. Parts of this book are excellent – primarily the author’s exploration of gender roles, identity, and dysphoria. Initially I got strong Mulan vibes, but Zhu definitely becomes her own character throughout the course of the book. The premise was great and I was invested in Zhu’s character and journey. I found it a bit confusing keeping track of who was who, but there’s some really interesting history in here and it’s a time period I don’t know a lot about, so I really enjoyed that aspect.

Where I struggled is that the author never builds any momentum in the story. She would pick up the pace and energy in the narrative in each chapter, only to have it completely ramp back down in the following chapter. For some reason she chooses to skip over major events, often focusing more on the political side of things than the action. I love a book that has both, so I found this an odd choice. It was just lacking balance and it caused me to keep losing interest in the book whenever I would put it down.

This is the first book in a series – I’d like to think I will continue on with it, but I honestly suspect I won’t. Given that the second book doesn’t have a name or release date yet, I’m sure I will have forgotten all the major plot points by the time it’s released. I get the hype, but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough to raise me out of my fantasy slump. 3.5 stars – good premise and nice writing, but suffers pacing issues.

Elatsoe

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Darcie Little Badger
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pub. Date: Aug. 2020 (read March 2021)

I’m not sure how I stumbled upon Elatsoe, it may have been on Booktube, but I was immediately intrigued by the plotline. Elatsoe is a young adult story about 17 year old, Lipan Apache member, Elatsoe. She is one of a long line of women who can raise the ghosts of dead animals and is inspired by her six-great grandmother for whom she is named.

When her cousin, Trevor passes after a car crash and his ghost visits her in a dream, warning her that he was actually murdered, Elatsoe is catapulted on a mission to bring her cousin’s murderer to justice. She travels to his hometown with her parents to comfort his widow and immediately starts searching for the truth of Trevor’s untimely passing. In the process, she encounters more ghosts and makes a worrisome journey that causes her to seek advice from her elders.

I loved this book. It is such a wholesome story – it deals with heavy themes, yet it always feels like a light and fun read. I thought it read a little more like middle grade than YA, but that is really what made this feel like such a wholesome read. Instead of the teenage angst you usually find within the pages of a YA novel, Elatsoe is an individual who is very much comfortable with who she is and maintains good relationships with her friends and family. In a way it’s a coming of age story, but one in which she is respectful of her family members and seeks guidance from them. It is mentioned in passing that she is asexual and I loved that it’s just accepted by all the characters and we move on from there. Her best friend is male, but there is no love story between them and their friendship is very much built on trust and respect. It’s refreshing to read a book with such well balanced and respectful characters.

The author, Darcie Little Badger, is also Lipan Apache and she brings a very interesting fantastical element to the story. Elatsoe lives in a similar world to us, but her world is filled with monsters both seen and unseen. Personally, I thought the monster idea could have been a bit better developed and overall could probably have done without it, but the inclusion of ghosts in the story is really what makes it shine. She integrates Lipan Apache culture into the story flawlessly and I loved how she wove the verbal storytelling of Elatsoe’s ancestors into the book. I found it very engaging and it added so much depth to the story.

This was really close to a 5 star read for me. I thought it got a little plot heavy towards the end, and while we do see character growth throughout, I would have liked to see a little more character development at the end instead of going heavy on a ghost showdown. But it’s really a minor comment and I would still absolutely recommend this book to everyone. The writing is lovely and it reads very quickly. I think it’s a story that can be enjoyed by all ages and am so happy to see more indigenous voices and indigenous stories being published. 4.5 stars!