The Cartographers, Peng Shepherd (William Morrow 978-0062910691, hardcover, 400pp, $27.99) March 2022.
I must confess that Peng Shepherd’s award-winning debut novel from 2018, The Book of M, slipped right under my radar, and so I come now to her sophomore production without any expectations. From that particular reviewer’s stance, let me say right from the get-go that I am captivated by her sharp eye, her smooth prose stylings, her deft hand at plotting, her inventiveness, and her ability to get living humans down on the page. This book makes me definitely want to search out its predecessor. And while The Cartographers is not revolutionary or an over-the-top rollercoaster-ride thriller of a tale, it affords its fair share of suspense and a lot of little jolts and warm pleasures.
The Cartographers starts out like Katherine Neville’s The Eight—a big global conspiracy based in weird historical arcana—but then fakes left and morphs into a highly personal tale of ambition, disappointment, betrayal, love and magic, all slightly evocative of certain portions of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
Our protagonist is Nell Young (a name perilously close to “Neil Young,” a false cognate I had to keep mentally tamping down). Nell is a woman in her thirties who has been academically trained as a map historian, and who once had full expectations of securing her dream job in the NY Public Library’s Rare Maps division—especially thanks to a bit of nepotismal pull, arising from her father’s stature in the department. Yet inexplicably we encounter her working for a somewhat tawdry firm that specializes in creating over-the-sofa prints of historical maps, tarted up with interior design motifs. What explains this disjunction between Nell’s talents and desires and her current condition? Only this: while interning at NYPL under her father, she transgressed his wishes and he banished her (as well as her cartographical boyfriend Felix) from the NYPL and blackballed her from other related jobs. This inferior work is the best she can do now.
And the horrendous, irremediable falling-out was over such a ridiculous item: a 1930s foldup gas-station road map that Nell found in the dusty storage rooms of the library. Nell wanted to publicize and investigate it, while her father insisted it was junk and unworthy.
But as we shall quickly learn, that particular roadmap is the whole MacGuffin of the plot, for it is the last surviving copy of its kind and it provides magical access to another world.
This much soon becomes obvious, and I hope I am not spoiling anything. What remains for Nell and the reader to excitedly discover is the origin of the map, its history, the players involved, and its modern-day relevance, all of which emerge thanks to Nell’s persistent sleuthing.
She is motivated by the most vital of impulses: to unravel her father’s death. For by Chapter II, Dr. Young the Elder has been murdered, and the map turns up for Nell as her father’s secret legacy.
Nell soon emerges as a dedicated and persistent investigator, but she has great help from several sources. Her father’s coworker, Swann, and other folks of her dad’s generation, who all prove to be seminal figures. More vital is her old boyfriend Felix, who is now working for a cyber-mapping firm named Haberson Global, whose virtual maps exhibit predictive powers. Haberson is run by the eccentric and reclusive William Haberson, and he will also prove pivotal to the tale.
Centered mainly in a nicely limned NYC, our story will eventually venture afield to the mysterious Brigadoon-like town named Agloe, where the map and all the characters converge for a wild climax.
Shepherd’s novel slots nicely into the shelf containing works allied by tone or theme from the contemporary pens of Elizabeth Hand, Tim Powers, Lisa Goldstein. Jonathan Carroll, and China Miéville. But I detect a more distant ancestor at work, and that is Borges. His two stories—”On Exactitude in Science,” about a map as large as the territory it depicts; and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” about the instantiation through paper of a new reality—seem to be the hidden ancestors of The Cartographers.
Perhaps it’s a bit Disneyfied (I can easily see this book being filmed by that firm), but the following passage is not inauthentic to the tenor of the book, and accurately conveys both the lessons that Nell discovers, and the insights which Shepherd earns for—and confers upon—her readers.
What’s the purpose of a map? Swann had asked her in the very beginning, when she had stumbled back into the NYPL after so long, clueless to the danger she was walking into. She had brushed it off then the same way she had a hundred times before, believing it a sentimental oversimplification. It turned out to have been true all along.
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 map alone that made a place real.
It was the people.
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