I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In The Cartographers, Nell’s career in cartography was derailed seven years ago, when she had a very public falling out with her father, a famous academic and fellow cartographer. Now, she’s stuck working a dead-end job only vaguely related to her passion. But her life is upended again when she gets the news that her father is dead, and the circumstances are suspicious. And in his desk, she finds the very map they had their now-infamous argument over—a seemingly worthless cheap road map—hidden in a secret compartment in his desk. The more Nell looks into this map, hoping it will shed light on her father’s death, the more she comes to find that there’s more to it—and to cartography itself—than she ever dreamed.
First of all, this has such an intriguing concept! And overall, it’s pretty interesting. I quite enjoyed the way this story blended mystery with fantasy. Most of the plot centers around Nell learning about the secrets her father has kept from her about their family history, but there’s enough magic in there to make this more than a simple murder mystery/family drama. I do wish we could have delved further into the more fantastical aspects, though. I feel like we only scratched the surface of what these maps can do, and that there was much more we could have discovered.
This is especially clear in the scenes that take place in the town of Agloe. Its entire existence is so cool, and it was thrilling to find it along with the characters. However, I wanted this setting—so vital to the entire plot—to be more immersive. Something about the descriptions didn’t quite do it for me, and I wanted to know more about this place, to feel more of what it was like there. For such an important location, I feel we didn’t spend nearly enough time getting to know it.
That said, I liked the characters, for the most part. Nell makes for a sympathetic lead. You feel for her as she grapples with her complex feelings toward her father, and share her desire to discover what he’s been hiding. I also liked getting glimpses into the minds of the other characters, especially Romi and Francis. The flashbacks were some of the most entertaining parts, for me, because those were the parts of the book where the magic felt most immediate. However, in the present day timeline, I also liked the scenes with Swann and Humphrey, who were very kind and fun to spend time with.
As for the love interest and his subplot, I feel like a lot more could have been done there. I didn’t get a good grasp on who Felix is as a person, other than a surface-level impression, and though I didn’t dislike him, I also didn’t feel entirely invested. This is somewhat frustrating, because there was a lot of potential there. I wanted to more fully understand the company he works at and what they were doing. I feel like I might have missed something with the description of that digital map, but it felt like a vague version of the artificial intelligences in the show Person of Interest (an obsession of mine from a few years ago). Not sure, though, and I guess I’ll never be sure now.
Other than Felix, there’s another character I wanted to mention: Wally. I think his motivation was a little unclear; why did he care so much about Agloe? What was his reasoning? What’s the psychology at play here? But in the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter. Also, without spoilers, I will say I predicted the dramatic reveal toward the end of the book about Wally way early on. I’m pretty proud of myself.
In the end, The Cartographers is a decently entertaining story with murder, secrets, and a small but intriguing dose of magic. I liked the way academia was blended with the fantastical, and the way the past and present timelines interacted. Some of the characters and settings were good, but others left me wanting. All in all, this is a good book, though, and I am glad to have read it.
The Cartographers is available now!