Book review: Discover the magic of maps in The Cartographers

American author Peng Shepherd's second novel takes the perennial dilemma of the cartographer - accuracy versus artistic licence - and spins it into a nerdy thriller. PHOTOS: RACHEL CRITTENDEN, ORION FICTION

The Cartographers

By Peng Shepherd
Fiction/Orion Fiction/Paperback/400 pages/$32.95/Buy here/Borrow here
3 out of 5

"More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colours," wrote Elizabeth Bishop in her poem The Map.

Maps represent the real world so their readers can find their way around it, but what if it were the other way around? Do some maps in fact transform the reality they are meant to depict?

American author Peng Shepherd made her debut in 2018 with the apocalyptic bestseller The Book Of M. Her second novel takes the perennial dilemma of the cartographer - accuracy versus artistic licence - and spins it into a nerdy thriller.

Nell Young, whose promising research career at the New York Public Library's Map Division ended in disgrace, now jazzes up facsimiles of famous maps with anachronistic flourishes for a living.

Then she is summoned back to the library, where her father - one of its top scholars and the same man who got her fired years ago - has been murdered.

At the scene of the crime is what appears to be an innocuous gas station highway map from 1930. It is a clue to a mystery dating back to Nell's own childhood, when her mother died saving her in a fire. Every other copy of this map in existence seems to be missing or stolen, thanks to a sinister group called the Cartographers.

Nell's investigation takes her into a dangerous world where places appear one moment and vanish the next. People seem to walk through walls, and the connection between a map and reality is a secret some would kill for.

The Cartographers has a clever premise, though it is a better concept than it is a novel. Nell is surrounded by a plethora of characters who are not fleshed out enough to be distinctive. Romances on which the plot turns do not compel, and a major reveal can be spotted a mile away.

What makes the book a worthwhile read is how Shepherd captures the magic of maps. Cartography buffs will delight in the profusion of iconic maps in these pages - from historical marvels like the mediaeval Venetian Fra Mauro, to maps of fantasy realms such as J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth or Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

Shepherd writes: "Maps were love letters written to times and places their makers had explored. They did not control the territory - they told its stories."

Her story, in turn, is a love letter to maps - one that is easy enough to get lost in.

If you like this, read: Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books, 2012, $19.94, buy here, borrow here). Laid off from his Web design job, Clay Jannon winds up working the night shift at a mysterious bookshop run by the eccentric Mr Penumbra, which turns out to be connected to a secret society.

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