Fiction Reviews

The Cartographers

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


I so wanted to love this book. After all itís about maps and their power and it has a central character who is plucky and resourceful and who uncovers a secret that has not only shaped her entire life but when revealed will change everyone elseís. But half-way through I realised that I couldnít. Itís written as if intended to be made into a Netflix-featured movie, with startlingly implausible relationships, even for a fantasy novel, and a writing style that shows precious little regard for that old maxim of Ďshow donít tellí (again, even for a fantasy novel).

The hero, Nell, is, or was, a brilliant cartographer just as her mum and dad were (of course). Sadly, her mother is no longer around, so Nell was brought up by her father who just happens to be an acclaimed scholar in the Map Division of the New York Public Library. This is where Nell and her boyfriend Felix are also hired (nepotism alert!) and where Nell discovers an old, apparently worthless road map that sparks such a furious response from her dad that within minutes the two of them are having a blazing row that leads to Nell being summarily sacked and Felix too, for defending her. Even granted the explanation for his fury that comes after the Big Reveal itís just hard to believe that a father would cast out their beloved child like that and refuse any contact for years after.

Her ambitions thwarted, Nell ends up doing hack work in a small company that sells gussied-up copies of antique maps and whose benign owner not only tolerates her resentful moods but loves her for reasons which become clear, again, after the Big Reveal but which can be easily guessed long before. All that changes when her father is discovered dead in the libraryís map room in what appears to be a classic locked room mystery. Nell, of course, discovers what the murderer was looking for and with little more than a snap of her fingers entices her erstwhile boyfriend Felix back in from the cold to help her solve the case. Now Felix just happens to have landed a job at the heart of a fictional form of Google which is attempting to map the entire world, down to the smallest detail and which, conveniently, gives him access to vast resources. The identity of the enigmatic and mysterious owner of this megacorp can also be pretty easily guessed, especially after it turns out they not only have their greedy eyes on the Map Division but are also keen to branch out into providing security for the library. Suspicions abound, with dire warnings issued left, right and centre and the death toll mounts as Nell and Felix race to crack the mystery before anyone else is killed.

Sprinkle in the fantasy element and all this has the making of a gripping thriller. What lets it down is not only the implausibility of the inter-relationships and the bluntly obvious characterisations - so her fatherís boss at the library is straight from central casting as a tweedy academic and of course he too loves her as if she were his own daughter - but the Ďlet me tell you how it isí writing style. And so, everyoneís feelings and motivations are spelled out with no room for ambiguity or reflection on the part of the reader. These thoughts and emotions are further hammered home through chapters in which various core characters directly address Nell, giving her the knowledge of past events that she needs to plug the gaps in her investigation. Interspersed between the Ďactioní sequences these chapters donít add a nice counterpoint to the latter but instead become frustrating impediments to the development of the story. This effect isnít helped by the fact that they read really quite unnaturally - I canít believe that anyone crammed into a car racing towards the denouement would talk to another character sitting in the back in quite that stilted, Ďlet me explain it all to youí manner.

Perhaps I am being overly critical here simply because I was so looking forward to this book. On the face of it has all the ingredients of a cracking read but sadly the end product hasnít quite risen to this readerís expectations.

Steven French

See also Mark's take on The Cartographers.


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