Peng Shepherd’s newest novel, The Cartographers, is an intriguing dark-academia thriller—filled with mystery from start to finish. It features maps, murderers, a secret circle of highly educated friends, and an existent-but-nonexistent town. Ultimately, if you’re okay with a bit of a slow burn, The Cartographers is entertaining, with an overarching plot that kept me turning the pages, but it lost itself when it came to the details, at times being far too specific while also failing to explain other seemingly essential moments.
After her father’s suspicious death, Nell Young, a disgraced cartographer, discovers a seemingly worthless map in her father’s study that launches her into an evasive quest of discovery against a shadowy thief and murderer who is hell-bent on retrieving it. Avoiding the questions of the New York Public Library (NYPL), where her father worked, and those of the police, Nell learns more about the map, a General Drafting Corporation road map of New York state. It is the last existing copy—every other copy has been destroyed or stolen. She also finds a phantom settlement on the map, called Agloe, a creation of the mapmakers to ensure that no other company will copy their design. The twist, however, is that Agloe is real, only accessible through the map she has taken.
Shepherd’s exploration of phantom settlements, the meaning and purpose of maps, and geospatial technology is a creative foray into the academic world of cartography. The idea that a place could both exist and not enchants this area, reimagining the discipline through a fantastic lens (with a murder mystery on top!). But there are also several issues with the plot itself, as well as the characters. My main wish is that there might be heavier emphasis on the magic of Agloe itself, a place that manages to simultaneously exist and not exist, completely uninhabited but perfectly formed as a town.
Beginning with characterization, many of the characters in the novel are missing the details that would turn them into truly compelling people. For a thirty-something-year-old woman, Nell reads a lot like a defiant teenage heroine. There’s nothing bad about this, per se, because it allows many of the more interesting plot elements to come to fruition, like her heroic—and possibly stupid—decision to conceal the map from the police and NYPL and learn about it on her own and the earlier instigation of the “Junk Box Incident,” which occurs largely thanks to her childish behavior. However, it’s also slightly odd to read of a professional academic who runs through crowds angrily, yells at coworkers and friends during a private event at the NYPL, and risks her entire career to learn more about a map left to her by her dead father. Apart from being extremely stubborn, her sole defining characteristic seems to be her love for maps, which makes Nell hard to relate to.
Of course, Nell is the main character of the novel, but sometimes this is to the detriment of the realness of the other characters. Although she ignores Swann, an old coworker and father figure at the NYPL, for seven years after her firing, he continues to be unbelievably devoted to her. The same goes for Felix, her ex-boyfriend. While a sympathetic and interesting character, Felix is also a bit of a pushover; Nell explicitly breaks an extremely rational promise to him, ending the renewal of their relationship and endangering her legal and professional standing. The story is written such that Nell is always the center, even when it means that characters make confusing decisions that contradict expectations that the novel itself has set up. Nell lies to Felix, breaking his trust, and also yells at him and insults him when they are at a dedication ceremony at the NYPL. But upon further reflection, Felix feels the need to apologize to her, and Nell seems to agree, going so far as to block Felix’s number. Maybe Felix is just a significantly more understanding and empathetic person than I am. But if I were him, I would be extremely upset, and his characterization up until this point (he and Nell have been separated for seven years) would suggest that he would feel similarly.
Wally, the shadowy figure hunting down copies of the General Drafting Corporation map, makes for a complicated figure for all the wrong reasons, mainly because his motivations are confusing and unconvincing for a villain. A former member of the Cartographers, the friend group of Nell’s parents, his desire to complete the Dreamer’s Atlas (the group’s graduate school project) doesn’t seem that sinister. He is described as quiet, awkward, and fully devoted to Nell’s mother, his best friend; somehow, however, this friendly academic turns into a thief and murderer, hell-bent on stealing every known copy of the map. How is it that Wally had been both a beloved member of the Cartographers for many years and capable of theft and murder, directed at these very friends? While the story evidently needs a villain figure, Wally seems like an awkwardly-formed one with a confusing origin story.
The most compelling element of The Cartographers is Agloe itself, the town that both exists and does not. However, we hear curiously little about it. No one lives in Agloe—it is completely empty, yet it has electricity and furnished buildings. It even has an old-timey printing press (for some reason). The novel is so map-centric that when the Cartographers discover Agloe, they immediately set out mapping it rather than figuring out why it is the way it is; I kept hoping I would learn more about Agloe and how it came to be, but was sadly disappointed. Instead, we learn about how Felix discovers the secret of Agloe, which is essentially a retelling of what Nell discovered some hundred pages earlier, making for what feels like filler to the story. We also learn of the secrets and dramas that occurred within the Cartographers thirty years ago. But there are too many of them—seven in total—and the novel struggles to fill in the details of each friend, making their drama fun to read at times but also rather impersonal and irrelevant to the main plot.
The real strength of The Cartographers lies in its imaginative power. Agloe is a truly intriguing place that makes the novel worth a read for the concept alone. I also enjoyed learning about cartography, and the images of genuine maps inserted throughout the book made the story feel magical and historical at the same time. The murder mystery element is another selling point, providing a number of surprising revelations, but the vague and undetailed constitution of many of the characters combined with confusing plot contortions was slightly frustrating in the long run.