Review: The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Maps! Secret rooms! Forbidden knowledge! Libraries! This book checked a lot of boxes for me, and it’s definitely a fun, engaging read. Most of the big reveals were telegraphed pretty early on, so I can’t say anything that happened was terribly surprising, but still, I enjoyed the ride.

But of course I have some quibbles. Read on only if you’ve read the book—there are major spoilers ahead.

So I loved the maps and the hidden towns and the copyright traps and the fact that Shepherd never attempts to explain why or how the magic works. It just does, and the characters are pretty much in the dark as much as we are. But here’s the thing for me about anything set in the real world that involves magic or other supernatural goings on: I have to believe it’s happening to real people. People who think and behave like real people help sell the supernatural elements.

And in this book, such people are almost completely absent. First, the plot hole—everyone’s trying to preserve this one single copy of the gas station map as though they’ve never heard of a photocopier. (We know that copies work because Nell finds her way to the map store using a map her father drew on the back of a business card.)

But, then, also? Nell’s mom decides to live apart from her child more or less forever so she can map an empty town? And Nell, upon discovering the ruse about her mother’s death, is not angry or resentful that she grew up bearing the grief of an imaginary loss. (I’m gonna go ahead and guess that the author has not experienced the death of a parent because its impact on Nell is trivialized by this novel.)

There’s more—so much more! Bear has this terrible secret which is that he’s broke, which everyone already knows, and he won’t ask his wealthy friends for help. Nell’s dad would rather have her hate him than just tell the truth about the stupid map which could easily be copied anyway, for chrissakes.

Anyway, I enjoyed the novel despite the fact that the characters don’t act like real people, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed, because if this plot had been populated by authentic characters, this would have been an amazing book rather than just a fun diversion.

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