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The Cartographers - a mystery with a touch of magical realism

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Genre: Mystery (Fantasy?)

Published March 2022, 392 pages

When I read the blurb about this book somewhere, I immediately thought of a friend of mine who might enjoy it and we could read it as a "buddy read". She agreed and we set off to find the book. Mine came in first and here's my thoughts.

"Cartography, at its heart, was about defining one's place in the world by creating charts and measurements. Nell had lived her life by that idea, that everything could be mapped according to references and thereby understood. But she could see now that she had been paying attention to the wrong references. It was not a m ap alone that made a place real. It was the people."


This is a book about maps told in a sometimes successful blending of genres: a bit of a mystery, a story of friendship, geeks doing geeky things, some family drama, amateur sleuthing, a touch of romance, and magical realism, all bundled into a novel. That's a lot to attempt to do well.

Nell has followed in the family tradition of being top cartographers and has almost reached her goal of working at the primo position in the Antique Maps department of the New York Public Library with her esteemed father. Then there's a big family blow up, she's fired and black-balled in the industry. Oh, and she doesn't speak to her father until she finds out about her dad's untimely (and suspicious) death.

She discovers an old, ordinary map in his belongings that sends her down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out why that map was important. Her inquiries lead her to old friends of her dads, old secrets, reconnecting with her old boyfriend, and eventually to a magical place ('nuff said).


Since I know nothing about the history of maps or map making, I found that aspect of the story interesting. However, there were a number of issues that took this book from intriguing to average.

In her quest to understand the ordinary road map her dad was holding onto, Nell meets 5 old friends of his and so all through the middle of the book, she's learning of her parent's history with these friends who came to call themselves the Cartographers. Each friend gave a different aspect and timeline to their history. While in theory this might be a good device to fill in back story, it wasn't done well. Each person/chapter was told in a different first person and I had a hell of a time keeping straight who was telling the story. And I found it disconcerting to the point of annoyance that they related things they couldn't have been in the room to see. And it's first person. That was jarring.

I enjoyed the magical realism of the map leading to a "phantom town" and it was so interesting to know that's a real thing, so I was prepared to suspend belief. However, those adults, those 7 best friends all with PHDs, made some of the most ridiculous decisions and choices. And then after the big tragedy/blow out, to all just fade into obscurity? Hmmmm. The "romance" being rekindled felt like an afterthought and was lame and totally unnecessary to the story. The writing is average at best.

You get the idea. The book is okay - read it for the interesting bits about maps but not particularly for delightful characters or beautiful descriptions. This is a book I don't think lived up to it's hype.

Have you read The Cartographers? What did YOU think? Agree or disagree with me?

map photo by Annie Spratt, via unsplash

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