Fiction Reviews

The Cartographers

(2022) Peng Shepherd, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 392pp, ISBN 978-1-398-70543-2


Nell Young is a young woman ostracised from her dream job of working in Maps Division of the New York Public Library (NYPL). An unfortunate mistake led her to her being fired: an argument over a seemingly worthless, mass-produced highway roadside map.

It doesnít help that the firing was instigated by her father, Dr. Daniel Young, one of the most respected cartographers in the world who also works at the NYPL. As a result, Nell has not spoken to her father in over seven years. She now works for Classic Maps and Atlases, a company who produces replica maps for owners to hang on their walls and impress their friends. The irony is not lost on the reader.

The death of her father results in Nellís reluctant return to the NYPL, where she uncovers a secret that involves a much sought-after item kept hidden by her Dad, and one that for which people may have been killed!

Her determination to get to the truth of her fatherís death and work out what a hidden message means leads to Nell re-establishing contact with her estranged boyfriend Felix, who now works for digital mapper Haberson Global, and meeting some of her fatherís long-lost friends. Through the backstory, we are then told of other events also unknown to Nell - how her father and dead-mother Tamara met, and how the friendship group all worked together at university to then become distant after her death.

I think that the most important thing for this book to work is whether you buy into the key conceit that maps have hidden treasures. It generally worked for me, as thereís more than a touch of Bradbury-ian Americana in there, but I can see why some might baulk at such a fantastical premise.

As a book about the mystery, history, and ineffable romance of maps, itís wonderful. It is a story that celebrates maps, both old and new, that accepts the digital age but also celebrates the old with a seemingly - innocuous map from the past. The sense of history and of truth being stranger than fiction is emphasised by the point Peng makes in her afterword that tells us that one of the oddest parts of the story is based on a true event, which adds to the surreal nature of the tale.

The relationship between the friends mainly told in backstory is rather engaging too, and thereís a nicely done fledgling romance thatís not too awkward.

My only issue is that as much as I love the idea, the central conceit doesnít seem practicable Ė Iím tempted to say Ďlogicalí, under scrutiny (but then this is a fantasy novel!) Whether what happens could be kept a secret all this time seems unlikely, as much as the author tries to make it seem rational, and at the end I was wondering how all this could have been sorted early on with a scanner and a printerÖ

Consequently, although the book begins very well, it doesnít quite work for me at the end. Itís a case of too many plates spinning at once, leading to loose ends, plot inconsistencies and a disappointingly convenient conclusion that all too apparently sets things up for another book.

Nevertheless, thereís an awful lot to like here, even if it doesnít quite work at the end. For those who like mysterious journeys, can suspend their sense of disbelief and enjoy a little romance The Cartographers may be for you.

Mark Yon

See also Steven's take on The Cartographers.


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