A map is meant to point in a certain direction, a reference signifying a place, something to aid you to your destination. But what if your destination exists only on the map and not in-person – unless you have said map in hand? Let’s be honest; geography isn’t exactly the most popular subject to study in school. But add in a bit of murder mystery, paper maps, and family drama, well, then that spices things right up!
That’s the intriguing premise behind the fantastical journey in Peng Shepherd’s TheCartographers. Because if you’re armed with the right map, you’ve got the keys to a whole other universe, apparently.
Nell Young has a few issues: she’s a geography enthusiast, taking after her brilliant dad (the infamous Dr. Daniel Young, and her equally brilliant but deceased mom, Dr. Tamara Jasper-Young). But she was fired from her internship at the New York Public Library, where her dad is the head of the cartography department, all because of an old-school gas station paper map. And not only that, but her dad blacklists her and her then-boyfriend, Felix, from ever working in the cartography industry ever again. And Nell never speaks to her dad again. Whew, family drama, right?
Cut to today where Nell works in a map print shop, replicating classic maps for clients but adding in a bit of flare here and there, similar to what a pirate treasure map might look like. It’s not the prestigious New York Public Library, but it helps keep food in her belly and some shelter over her head.
One day, Nell misses a call from her estranged dad and just as she was about to call him back she receives a call from the police instead. They notify her of her dad’s unexpected death. But something seems off about the heart attack, made even more suspicious when Nell discovers something her dad was hiding in his secret desk compartment — the old gas station map that had gotten her fired in the first place. Now, Nell must uncover all of her family secrets to find out if her dad really died from a heart attack or if it was murder.
Peng Shepherd has a way of creating this magical realism that seems plausible but unfortunately leaves a lot of room for holes in the plotline. Characters appear one-dimensional, never one mistake away from causing a huge catastrophe. As Nell digs further into her family history and secrets, she uncovers a group both her parents used to belong to called The Cartographers. Made up of college friends who all went on to obtain their PhDs, it appears they don’t use their education to help them get out of their bad situation.
I honestly wanted to like this book and support other Asian-American authors, but there are limits to my tolerance. At first glance, The Cartographers appears fine but once you take a moment to ponder the actions of the adult characters who seem hellbent on making the worst possible decisions, it devolves into an exercise in restraint. I suppose when faced with exploring places that can only be entered with the right map we couldn’t expect much in the way of logic or common sense.