Updated: Apr 1
Peng Shepherd's novel, The Cartographers
I've always loved maps, which may be because I have absolutely NO sense of direction. Not only do maps help me find my way, but they are beautiful, detail-laden, and informative. Maps guide me to parks, across rivers, through mountain passes, and toward my destinations. Thanks to common roadway maps, I'm not lost and bewildered, frantically turning over stones to find North-growing moss to find my way.
So when I saw Peng Shepherd's new novel, The Cartographers, I was predestined to buy it.
I'm so glad I did. This is a heck of a romp through a world of map-making and the intense relationships of people who create maps. It's also a wild ride through murders, mayhem, and mysterious places. The Cartographers is an unbelievable story that somehow we begin to believe.
Nell Young had just earned her Doctorate in cartography when she went to work under her father's direction. Dr. Daniel Young is head of the map department at the New York Public Library. Nell is thrilled with her dream job, and she's delighted that her father has given a job to her boyfriend, Felix, also a scholar and mapmaker.
Everything falls apart when Nell finds an old drugstore road map in a box labeled "Junk." Dr. Young, Sr., is furious at Nell for bringing those items to his attention and wasting his time. Nell defends the box because it has some partially preserved old 18th-century American maps, along with a single copy of the common old drugstore map by a company named General Drafting.
Nell and her father argue, and Nell's father abruptly fires Nell and Felix, causing a rift that never heals. Nell doesn't see or speak to her father for seven years - until she gets the call that he's been murdered at the New York Public Library and the killer is at large.
In her father's secret place, a hidden drawer in her father's desk, Nell discovers an old portfolio holding a single map, the cheap drugstore map that had been in the junk box that got her fired.
What begins is a fast-paced, intricately plotted mystery about the true value of the drugstore map, the place it leads people to, and the history of the group who held that map, a secretive, tight-knit group going by the name of The Cartographers.
So much more than a murder mystery
Peng Shepherd's novel, The Cartographers, is so much more than a murder mystery.
It's a look at map-making and a query into the purpose of a map. It's a suspension of belief and a trip into a magical town. It's a study of group dynamics, creativity, and genius, as well as a commentary on how events pull people apart and create distance between them.
But more than anything, it's a look at love, the lengths a parent will go to to protect a child, and the ferocity of greed.
The Cartographers is also a well-written, "peel-back-the-layers" story. Character by character, chapter by chapter, we get the backstories of the seven individuals who make up the Cartographers and the things they did that forever altered Nell Young's life.
One of the millions of things I love about reading is that I am continuously learning...like "dark academia," a new term I learned when I read a couple of reviews of The Cartographers.
No single, hard-core definition exists for what dark academia is, but in general, it's a sub-genre of fantasy, gothic, thrillers, and speculative fiction. Dark academia focuses on the mastery of a specific field of knowledge in a romanticized setting of a library, museum, or university. Often, the main characters are really smart misfits trying to figure something out. The word "dark" is applied because the plot involves strange twists, murders, and deep mysteries. Scholars credit Donna Tartt's, A Secret History, as the book that began the dark academia subgenre.
Before A Secret History, there was Dead Poet's Society, and dozens of books are now being published that focus on the hallowed halls of academia, in part because institutions of higher learning present a combination of exclusivity, the promise of future success, and access to the knowledge of the world all in an enclosed and cloistered society.
Dark academia is a popular trend, right now. So popular, in fact, that dark academia fashion is a huge deal on TikTok. Think tweed blazers, dark colors, black tights, and heavy glasses.
The Cartographers is definitely "dark academia." Set in the revered New York Public Library, it focuses on not one, but two, groups of scholars. First, there's the group of seven extraordinary grad students who form a super-close-knit "family" determined to publish a "Dreamer's Atlas." That group of seven become the ultra-secretive Cartographers and find a town that no one else can ever find. Next, there's the second generation of scholars. Nell is the daughter of Daniel and Tam Young, two of the original Cartographers. She's also a scholar and master map-maker. Nell's boyfriend is an expert in cartography, too, and is using his knowledge to help build a real-time map with the powerful Haberson internet security company.
What the critics say
The Washington Post review of the Cartographers summarized the novel this way:
“The Cartographers is both beautiful and intellectual, and Shepherd sticks the landing in a deeply satisfying fashion, echoing Edmund Spenser: “For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”
Kirkus calls it, "A highly inventive novel that pushes the boundaries of reality."
The Associated Press says the novel gives readers,
"many tantalizing twists and surprises along the way as she explores the intersection between science and art, mathematics and magic ... Shepherd’s latest novel is sometimes dark, describing mystical happenings that science cannot explain."
Two Fascinating Aspects of The Cartographers
Two of the most fascinating aspects of this fictional story are both based on fact.
First, map-making companies had to find a way to copywrite their works in the years before internet searches and online registrations. They didn't want to do the research, the measurements, the traveling, and the drawing only to have another company copy their work. So they would insert a "phantom settlement," a fictious town on a map. If another company's map showed the same town, then it would be clear that they had stolen the first company's work.
This early insight to copyright protection is fascinating in and of itself, but the power of the story is quadrupled when you realize that when a map included a fictious town, that town sprang into being.
(The practice of putting phantom settlements into maps as a form of copyright is similar to the practice of inserting "mountweazels" into the early dictionaries. A "mountweazel" is a fake definition to ensure that one dictionary company would not steal the work of another dictionary company. Check out An Insanely Clever First Novel for Lovers of Language: The Liar’s Dictionary.
When fiction becomes fact
The Cartographers is based on a real life instance, legendary in the world of mapmaking.
When General Drafting Company finished the work on a simple road map, it inserted a fake town named Agloe on the map as a copyright marker. Lo and behold, Rand-McNally also included that town on their map. General Drafting was sure that they had caught the bigger company red-handed in a copyright infringement, so they sued. But when they traveled to that spot on the map to prove that it was indeed, uninhabited, they found a thriving town there named Agloe.
How could that happen?
It turns out that when the residents of the area saw the fictitious name on the General Drafting map, they thought that the local government had created a settlement for them. They renamed their businesses and revised addresses to include the town name, and then those addresses were recorded by county administrators, turning the fictional town into a factual one with actual residents.
General Drafting had to withdraw their suit.
Peng Shepherd, the author of The Cartographers, took that incident and transformed it into a mystical book begging the question: Is it the world that defines the map, or the map that defines the world?
Refrain from the Indigo Girls
The Indigo Girls, a Southern folk-rock band with two female singers, has a song called "Get Out the Map." After reading The Cartographers, I can't seem to stop singing it.
"Get out the map
Get out the map Lay your finger anywhere down
We'll leave the figuring to those we pass on our way out of town.
Don't drink the water There seems to be somethin' ailin' everyone I'm gonna clear my head I'm gonna drink that sun I'm gonna love you good and strong While our love is good and young."
Since The Cartographers' storyline includes lots of maps, travel to a town that makes the people who find it a little crazy, and the love of young scholars intent on a purpose, the lyrics seem appropriate.
I may not have a sense of direction, but I like a good song - and I know a good book when I read it. The Cartographers is definitely a good book!
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