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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SPOILERS
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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