Review: The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Nell Young’s whole life and greatest passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field, and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him ever since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map.

But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable, and also exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence… because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret, and discover the true power that lies in maps…

Publication details: 15 March 2022, by William Morrow. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review

It’s hard to know what to say about this book, because I don’t think the blend of elements will work for everyone, particularly pure genre readers who hate to see their mysteries sullied with magic, but they were perfectly tailored to my interests. As someone who loves genre mashups – the more genres in a book, the merrier – I adored this book.

The premise is a simple one – Nell Young’s estranged cartographer father has just been murdered in the New York Public Library, but her investigation her father’s past and what really led to his death turns up a lot more than she was expecting. But there’s a lot going on in the story itself.

As the plot progresses, Shepherd deftly blends fantasy (what if there was more to maps than we ever knew?), a contemporary mystery/thriller, as well as some light sci-elements, with the inclusion of a geospatial mapping company, that is compared to the FAANGs in terms of market power, but also has capabilities I don’t think Google Maps has just yet. The Cartographers is definitely a ‘dark academia’ story in parts, as some of the characters struggle not to be corrupted by what they learn about the true secrets of maps, but it’s also a hopeful one that hit all of my nerdy childhood cartographer fantasies. This book has a lot to say about the power and sheer joy of discovering something new, the promise of adventure that maps signify, and how niche interests can bring together family and forge friendships.

It’s also compulsively readable. The first few chapters are perhaps a little slow, but once the plot kicked off, I binged about two-thirds of this book in a single evening, because I just wanted to know what happens next. There are quite a few characters, but they are all distinctive, even though those with limited air time.

The Cartographers is one of my early favourites of the year, and I will definitely be reading Shepherd’s other book, and looking out for what she does next.

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