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The Cartographers

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What is the purpose of a map?

Nell Young’s whole life and greatest passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him ever since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map.

But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable and exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence... because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret and discovers the true power that lies in maps...

From the critically acclaimed author of The Book of M, a highly imaginative thriller about a young woman who discovers that a strange map in her deceased father’s belongings holds an incredible, deadly secret—one that will lead her on an extraordinary adventure and to the truth about her family’s dark history.

392 pages, Hardcover

First published March 15, 2022

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About the author

Peng Shepherd

6 books2,450 followers
Peng Shepherd is the nationally bestselling author of The Cartographers, The Book of M, and The Future Library.

Her second novel, The Cartographers, was a USA Today bestseller, a national Independent Bookstores bestseller, and was named a Best Book of 2022 by The Washington Post, as well as a Pick of the Month by Good Morning America, Amazon, Apple, Real Simple, Buzzfeed, Bustle, and Goodreads, and was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Her first novel, The Book of M, won the 2019 Neukom Institute for Literary Arts Award for Debut Speculative Fiction, and was chosen as a Best Book of the Year by Amazon, Elle, Refinery29, and The Verge, a Best Book of the Summer by the Today Show and NPR On Point, and has been optioned for television.

A graduate of New York University's MFA program, Peng is the recipient of a 2020 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

She was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where she rode horses and trained in classical ballet, and has lived in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, London, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York, and Mexico City.

When not writing, she can be found planning her next trip or haunting local bookstores.

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5 stars
10,795 (20%)
4 stars
20,662 (38%)
3 stars
15,369 (28%)
2 stars
5,166 (9%)
1 star
1,188 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 8,431 reviews
Profile Image for emma.
1,823 reviews48.7k followers
December 15, 2022
Special occasions just make things better.

Sugar cookies are better at Christmas. Surprise parties are acceptable because society did one (1) good thing by restricting them to birthdays. (Imagine if surprise parties could lie in wait around every corner. Horrifying. Like a scary movie to even imagine.) Fancy outfits are by their nature fancy because you can't wear them every day.

So by the same logic, the 1-2 times I manage to scrounge up the courage to read a fantasy annually should be fun.

But here we are.

It appears I have grown out of fantasy, which is not to say that magic books are for kids but that I got tired of YA and for some reason find its adult counterpart to require amounts of energy roughly equivalent to heart attack-inducing caffeination and candy store buyout level sugar rush.

So I don't do it often.

But I am always - ALWAYS! - excited when I do, because I read only the fantasy that sounds the veryvery best.

Such was the case with this book, which I anticipated well before its release date (see below proof) and which involves a world of secrecy and magic and maps that sounds reminiscent of the best middle grade duology of all time.

But here we are, with a two star rating on our hands, all the same.


Let's get into it. I really only have one complaint, but it's a doozy:

This wasn't magical enough!

When I pick up my yearly magic book, I want, guess what, MAGIC. One of favorite genres (besides literary fiction about awful women) is magical realism, or urban fantasy, maybe, or really just generally books in which magic exists in our real world. Because wouldn't that be a dream??? And I read books to make my dreams come true!

But there was not enough magic in this.

Really, there wasn't really enough of anything.

There was a love story, kind of, except it was a second-chance romance that depended on 10 year old feelings still being there even though the people involved had not so much as glimpsed each other on crowded public transit in a decade.

There's a bit of found family, which is in the hall of fame of all tropes, but every single character in the book is simultaneously willing to not speak to their dearest loved ones for decades and yet have those feelings not fade at all.

There was magic, sort of, but magic built on a weird, confusing, and above all inconsistent and illogical system, one involving maps that sometimes had to be held in the hand and sometimes didn't and sometimes could bring places into being or destruction via their existence alone and sometimes were just maps and sometimes had to be Real Maps and sometimes could be scrawled on a napkin.

There's a plot reliance on the New York Public Library, but only a handful of scenes take place (unsatisfyingly) there.

In short (or medium, at best), I wanted more library, more romance, more magic, more love, more friends, more family.

I would have taken any of the above, but there was very little of any of it.

Bottom line: This is a great idea with disappointing execution.


all is right with the world.

correction: all is just okay with the world.

review to come / 2.5ish

tbr review

sometimes when books aren't out yet it seems like a deliberate attempt to upset me
Profile Image for jessica.
2,535 reviews32.7k followers
February 6, 2023
this book is a map that will carry you through the world of academia, personal histories, and paper towns.

its a diagram for daring adventures and charts a course to uncover mysterious secrets.

it will take you down winding trails and bumpy turns, but will never lead you astray.

and boy, i cant think of a better travel companion to have.

5 stars
Profile Image for jenny✨.
563 reviews805 followers
June 21, 2022
the cartographers had me hooked at the get-go.

intriguing premise? check.
stunning cover? um, i still can’t stop ogling it!
strong opening chapters? 100%.

and then everything fell to pieces: my expectations, my excitement, the plot itself… what maddening, disappointing execution of a thoroughly riveting idea. :(


a quick summary: nell young is, like her father and late mother before her, a brilliant cartographer. well, she was, until a scandal seven years ago left her alienated from the profession and community that she loves so fiercely - and it was none other than nell's father who cast her out. when he is murdered at the new york public library, nell stumbles upon a conspiracy involving not only her father but also her mother, a strange map, and the shadowy group known as the cartographers.


my biggest issue is the plot holes and gaps in logic that became too obvious to ignore. i struggled to grasp the worldbuilding, and i had many questions: some went unaddressed, while others were addressed but easily misunderstood or went right over my head. eventually, my feelings of uncertainty subsumed the story, making for a terribly frustrating reading experience. for instance, .

my disbelief and confusion grew with each chapter, until i realized that i wasn’t connecting with the characters or plot at all.

the characters' emotions, motivations, and decisions in the cartographers depend heavily on suspension of disbelief, on your NOT questioning why things are the (baffling) way they are. if you're able to just accept everything as is, you'll have a better time of this book than i did.

not to mention, i was also able to guess - early on - all of the major twists and reveals, which further robbed the story of its stakes.

that being said, i did love the wondrous premise: artifacts with secret histories are so my jam! i also very much enjoyed learning about cartography and phantom settlements, and i liked how the book featured several BIPOC characters. in spite of some of the disappointing bits i’ve mentioned above, shepherd’s prose kept me wanting more.

this was my first book by peng shepherd and i am definitely going to continue reading her work!
Profile Image for R.F. Kuang.
Author 16 books30.7k followers
December 26, 2021
Peng Shepherd does it again! For anyone who's into academic drama, map-making, nerd sleuthing and magic, this is for you.
Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
587 reviews4,737 followers
April 3, 2022
I am beyond disappointed. A weird Secret History backstory, an underdeveloped plot, and a huge cast of characters I couldn't connect with...it all added up to a big ol' mess that had me facepalming on more than one occasion.

Click here to hear more of my thoughts on this book over on my Booktube channel, abookolive!

Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,264 reviews222 followers
March 31, 2022
I really should have DNFed this deeply stupid book.

The plot idea is possibly the least interesting take on the central idea that I've seen (better explored in Kraken and Doctor Who of all places). It's a shallow take that fails to explore even the basic implications of what it reveals.

The characters seem like an exercise of writing a book where every single character says and does the most stupid thing they could do at any given time.

The whole plot hinges on characters making stupidly extreme decisions based on knowledge of what the villain of the piece hasn't yet decided he would do or any demonstrated actual threat from him.

The central romantic relationship fails the first time because of a stupid reason (which is later revealed to be even more stupid than we thought initially), fails a second time because of a stupid ultimatum given at a stupid time and then magically coalesces later because ... reasons (stupid ones).

There's even the death of the main character's surrogate father-figure in possibly the most stupid way he could die.

The whole book made me angry and I feel stupider for having read it.
Profile Image for Alyson.
202 reviews16 followers
June 27, 2022
This started out as such a great premise and then turned so stupid, that I became annoyed. Please enjoy my spoiler-filled list of things that made me go wt actual f.

Yeah, anyway, didn't like this, don't recommend it.
Profile Image for Rosh.
1,450 reviews1,407 followers
May 27, 2022
In a Nutshell: When I finished reading this, I was on a book high. But as the day went by, I began to see a few logical loopholes in the plot. So as long as you don’t overanalyse this book, it can be one heck of an entertainer!

Nell Young has always been passionate about cartography. But after a very public spat with her illustrious father (who is also a respected cartographer), Nell’s career track has been a standstill. But now, after seven years of no contact with him, she learns that her father has been found dead under mysterious circumstances, that too in his office at the New York Public Library. In his possession is the same map the two had had a fight over a mass-produced highway gas station map. Why is this ordinary map still with him? Did he die or was he killed? What is the secret behind the conspiracy that seems to be ballooning every day?
The story comes to us mainly in a limited third person narrative of Nell and her ex-beau Felix, but with some first person interludes from other key characters.

Where the book worked for me:
😍 The storyline was innovative enough to keep me hooked till the end. Yes, it had some flaws that kept it from becoming a perfect narrative, but its uniqueness and pace made me forgive and forget most of the problems.

😍 I loved the way the book mixed up its genres and does justice to almost every one of them. Part family drama, part friendship saga, part crime thriller and part magical realism, the book straddles all these with ease without going over the top. I especially loved the magical realism bits. They were so unexpected and imaginative.

😍 I found the pacing working very much to my liking. With its constant tempo and a steady unfurling of events without much of rambling musings, I could complete this within a day.

😍 I learnt so many things about maps! Every detail connected to cartography is almost like an eye-opener. I especially loved knowing about phantom settlements. Who knew! What an idea to ensure copyright protection!

😍 While there is the mandatory romantic arc in the plot, it never overpowers the main focus of the story and never feels artificial.

😍 All the main characters are geeks, and that too, highly intelligent ones. So when the reader is also a geek (albeit in a different subject area), it is a match made in heaven. I drooled over the tech terms and cartographical insights. (It reminded me of my initial experiences with Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books. It is fun to see braniacs at work when they aren’t being pompous about it.)

😍 The author’s note at the end about something crucial in the story was just mind-blowing! I have nothing to say but WOW!

😍 Yay for the representation, and a bigger YAY for the way it is seamlessly woven into the story. There are characters from many backgrounds but nowhere is present a stereotypical stress on their ethnicity/nationality and never will you feel that they are there just for a token representation. There’s also an LGBT character and again, this person is a routine part of the story. I felt like I was interacting with these characters as I would in real life; it just felt so natural. Simply loved the handling of diversity in this book!

Where the book could have worked better for me:
😑 The first person perspectives didn’t work very well in the book. With a similar-sounding voice across multiple characters, it became very confusing to remember who was narrating that specific flashback. I’d have preferred having the third person narration even for the flashbacks.

😑 The methodology of presenting scenes was quite jarring at times. For instance, the first person flashbacks contained some references that no one in real life would recount while narrating a story. There are some well-timed coincidences, some farfetched decision, and some minor plot points that never get explained. (Then again, it is a magical realism story. Not everything will get explained.) The writing is a bit repetitive and simplistic.

😑 There is a secret villain in the story but it doesn’t take any genius to figure out who the villain could be. So if you are reading this primarily as a crime thriller, you will be disappointed. Luckily for me, I was reading it more for the cartographical details and the magical realism part. So I was okay with the crime detection going for a toss. (The book still offers many thrills, just not as the crime thriller.)

Despite these minor flaws in the execution. I still find myself highly satisfied with the book. The writing style wasn't too good but the plot kept me invested. Every geeky cell in my body was engrossed in the narrative. I relished the story and look forward to reading more books by this author. Definitely recommended if you are looking for a cerebral entertainer.

4.25 stars from me.

My thanks to Orion Publishing Group and NetGalley for the DRC of “The Cartographers”. This review is voluntary and contains my honest opinion about the book.

Join me on the Facebook group, Readers Forever! , for more reviews, book-related discussions and fun.
Profile Image for Allison.
341 reviews8 followers
March 15, 2022
This is a perfect example of why librarians should not read books set in or about libraries.

I DNF'd this book after chapter three because of the wild inaccuracies about special collections, i.e. the map department at the NYPL where the book is set. As someone who works in special collections I could not stomach the absolutely ridiculous practices stated in this book. Some examples from just the first three chapters:

1. The main character is constantly misusing the word cartographer. She does not make the maps herself so she is not a cartographer. She is some combination of curator/scholar/maybe conservator (I didn't read far enough to really tell).
2. She states that nothing has ever been stolen from the NYPL, when in fact, it has. In the map department no less! (I realize this may be a liberty Shepherd is taking for the sake of the story, but it's still wrong).
3. No one who is trained in the care and handling of rare materials would use DISH GLOVES to handle a rare item!
4. No way in hell would her father have been allowed to TAKE MAPS HOME FROM THE LIBRARY!!!! This is where the book lost me. No special collection library would allow such a horrific practice and no self-respecting scholar would do such a thing.

I realize that this is a magical fiction novel but there is no need for these inaccuracies to be included. Even just a little bit of research would show the author how these things would not occur in any special collection repository and it breaks my heart that these false claims are being perpetuated in such a high profile book.
Profile Image for karen.
3,979 reviews170k followers
May 12, 2022
fulfilling my 2022 goal to read one book each month that was not published in my country that i wanted badly enough to have a copy shipped to me from abroad and then...never read.

this wasn't an appropriate book for this particular challenge, but i will nestle my explanation 'bout that beneath a spoiler tag for easy skippability because i know it's pretty self-indulgent to dwell on such an irrelevant matter, but i am powerless to resist my need to justify my LIFE CHOICES. come into my confessional, or don't.

okay, that's sorted. now to the book.

i initially gave this five stars, but i brought it down to a four because five stars puts it on the same level as The Book of M, which it is not.

it's a completely different beast than my very-beloved The Book of M, which is haunting and measured and examines huge themes of identity, community, and memory. The Cartographers is more of a romp—very fast-paced and zippy, very light in tone. and at first i appreciated its zippiness as a contrast to the gravitas of The Book of M, because it showcases the breadth of shepherd's range. but while i'm sad to see so many negative reviews of this, i can't disagree with some of the points being made against it. this one doesn't go so deep. and the relationships between the characters are not particularly complex. and there are, perhaps, too many characters. and it leaves itself open to a lot of questions about why characters did or didn't do things that seem like pretty obvious ways to avoid decades of headaches. it's a breezy adventure story, and i loved that about it, but it doesn't ultimately stick to yer ribs.

still, although the character motivations and decisions are somewhat murky and invite "why, though" scrutiny, that's true of any fairy tale fantasy, which is how i'm choosing to think of this one—just a sparkling bit of magical realism that you can enjoy on that level. dissecting this one won't bring you any joy. i'm not saying people shouldn't have questions or are wrong to want something with import and resonance, and to them, i can confidently say that The Book of M will scratch that itch. this one is a bit more surface-level enjoyment, and i'm okay with that.

it's light, it's lovely. there are some sad bits in it, but there's no time spent on emotional fallout—each setback is briskly dealt with and the story's energies are refocused on the obsessive hunt, the discovery, the drive towards answers.

The Book of M is weightier, more profound and sad and oozing with meaningful themes. i recommended it to a friend recently and she started to read it, but said it felt too close to home, quarantine-wise, and she had to put it down. which i get. this is the opposite of that—it's an adventure story built out of pure escapist wonder, imagination, and possibilities, which is the kind of thing i appreciate more in the nowtimes, when i find myself craving something swift-but-satisfying that'll relieve some of the pressure of existing in a world on fire.

i love the idea of paper towns—imaginary places included by cartographers on their maps to prevent other mapmakers from copying their work—and shepherd's afterword, in which she divulges her inspiration for the idea of a paper town becoming real is some absolutely charming real-life magic.

The Book of M lives in a very special place in my heart that this didn't come close to approaching, but i enjoyed the hell out of reading it and knowing now that shepherd can write ALL KINDS OF BOOKS is thrilling to me, so i'm excited to devour whatever she comes up with next.

oh my god, when did this cover drop? it is gorgeous and almost makes up for the yearlong publishing delay.

i loved The Book of M, i loved The Future Library, i am so prepared to fall in love with this one.

and i DID! review to come!

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Anne Bogel.
Author 7 books55.1k followers
August 1, 2022
This is the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club August 2022 selection and a Summer Reading Guide Minimalist Pick.

A page-turning literary mystery with a dynamite premise and a little bit of magic. Seven years ago, cartographer Nell Young lost everything—her career, her reputation, her fiancé, and her family—because of an argument over a cheap gas station map. After her esteemed cartographer father unexpectedly dies, Nell learns he’d been working on some sort of secret project connected to the map, which isn’t junk at all but an incredibly rare and hotly sought-after artifact—and her knowledge of its existence may put her very life in danger. A sophisticated scavenger hunt ensues, leading Nell to a secretive and powerful band of mapmakers called The Cartographers, and to closely guarded secrets held by her own family. A gripping and inventive story of family secrets, found family, second chances, and cartography, set against the backdrop of the storied New York Public Library. For fans of Shepherd’s The Book of M and Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January.
Profile Image for Jesse (JesseTheReader).
468 reviews169k followers
December 30, 2022
I had a weird experience with this book as I was pushed and pulled back and forth between love and distaste. There were a lot of elements brought in at the start that had me pulled in and excited for what was to come, but things eventually took a turn and I was left confused and underwhelmed. There were bits of the story that were structured so strangely and threw me for a loop and I also felt like a few plot developments didn't make sense.
Profile Image for urwa.
292 reviews122 followers
February 24, 2022
2.5 stars
Well, this was a humongous disappointment. The Cartographers is a prime example of a great idea, but terrible execution. I didn't vibe with the writing at all. It was bland and boring. The plot was idiotic and made no sense. The characters were flat, the villain's motives were non-sensical and the heroes pulled the stupidest shit imaginable.
The plot of The Cartographers is inspired by General Drafting and the town of Agloe NY. I first heard about Agloe when I read John Green's Paper Towns and his infamous TED Talk on the topic of paper towns and phantom settlements. I found the concept so cool, mix it in with some magical realism, and this could have been such a great book. But with the weak characterization and non-existent plot,The Cartographers ended up being a terrible disappointment. Should have DNF-ed it at 30%. I had to force myself to finish this book.
Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins Publishers for providing me an eARC in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own and unbiased.
Profile Image for Terrie  Robinson.
399 reviews590 followers
June 17, 2022
"The Cartographers" by Peng Shepherd is this author's sophomore novel!

I just love old maps, the fold-able ones from gas stations back in the day. They fit so nicely in your glove box, you knew where to find them when you were on the road, and counted on their reliability. But what if those maps hadn't been accurate?

A cartographer is an individual who meticulously draws or produces maps. It might surprise you that it was once common practice for cartographers to hide intentional errors or 'phantom settlements' on maps. These small, barely noticeable inaccuracies were also referred to as 'paper towns' that never existed. This book is inspired by this confirmed secret practice with an entertaining 'magical spin' added!

Nell Young studied to become a cartographer just like her hero, a legend in the field, her father, Dr. Daniel Young. They haven't seen or spoken to each other in years, not since he fired Nell after they argued over an old 1930 paper map she found in a junk box in the basement of the NY Public Library where they both worked.

When Nell is notified that her father has been found dead in his office, she quietly searches his office and finds the same old map hidden in his desk. Why does he still have this old, worthless gas station map after so many years? Nell is sure there's a reason and she feels compelled to find out what it is!

This story gets off and running quickly with a blend of Literary Fiction, Magical Realism and just enough Mystery to keep you reading. The pace is fast with lots happening all the way through. At times, it feels like an adventure. It offers interesting information about cartography, pre-GPS, and I was fascinated to learn that the map making business was such a cut-throat industry. Go figure!

This is the longest audiobook I've read to date with 15 hours of listening time, but the subject matter is new and different so it pulls me in and the time flies. The ensemble of talented narrators and diverse group of characters is an added bonus.

I enjoyed the multiple topics of family and friendship, romance and love, deception and forgiveness. My only quibble is the amount of characters being over-the-top and a bit of a 'who's who' and 'who belongs to who' dilemma. Be warned!

4.25 stars for the audiobook, 3.75 stars for the story, averaging 4 stars! I highly recommend!
Profile Image for Mai.
124 reviews209 followers
May 18, 2023
AAPI Heritage Month #13

author: Taiwanese American

The backstory between me and this book. I had noticed Peng's name, figured it sounded Chinese, and was willing to give it a go. The premise drew me in. I requested from LAPL (I'm acronyming all libraries now, if you've read this book you know why) on audio. Terrible choice. Be it the narrator or the format, it just didn't work for me. Now if you're like me, and certain books only work in certain formats (yes some books work in multiple formats), you set this aside for a rainy day to try again on print/ebook.

Cut to this year's LA Times Festival of Books. I tried to fill my time a little more proactively this year. I noticed Peng was speaking on a panel with VE Schwab called Mystery/Thriller: Mixing Magic and Mystery. I didn't know this book was a mystery. I assumed it was speculative fiction with a little magical realism thrown in. All things I love. But the mystery is there, and it really is the heart of the story.

I've always been obsessed with maps. The drawing of them. The fact that people set out to explore just to put facts to paper. The beauty of them. The act of exploring just to explore. But this book goes so much deeper than that. It takes a seemingly innocuous gas station map that has an innocent "mistake" and asks several questions. Are mistakes in maps actual mistakes? Or are they maps to places you can only get to if you have the right map? What is real? Are fabrications real? Are mistakes real?

Don't get me wrong. There are things I glossed over just for the sake of the story. Actual cartographers in the reviews seem highly agitated that Nell would use dish gloves to handle maps. And drink wine near them. And a variety of other things. But I'm not a cartographer. Nor do I pretend to be. I'm willing to suspend disbelief to enjoy the meat of the story. If you've read some of my other reviews, you know this doesn't extend to all stories, but every one story is not for every person. And isn't that the beauty of books?

Highly recommend. One of my favorites for this year. I'll be picking up more of Peng's work. I'm only sad I didn't grab a signed copy, because I was marathoning to my next panel. Maybe I'll space it out a little better next year.
Profile Image for Mara.
1,562 reviews3,778 followers
April 23, 2022
1.5 stars - If this had been more fun, I could have engaged more in the spirit of "going with it-ness." But this was both dull and poorly thought out IMO, so... while I've had worse times in a book and it didn't make me actively mad, it just didn't click with me at all
Profile Image for Chrissie.
964 reviews40 followers
March 21, 2022
1.5 stars

One of those books where its pinnacle is at the beginning. Beyond that opener and its death / murder at the New York Public Library, no doubt, the book fell apart, bit by bit. Another one where I really found the central idea to be intriguing, but the execution to be well below par.

In The Cartographers, Shepherd introduces a known but interesting topic about paper towns, around which the majority of the book revolves. Paper towns are phony points inscribed on earlier maps to act as a copyright marker, indicating that another cartographer had simply copied that company's map, and its fictitious town, rather than creating their own map if it reappears through another mapmaker.

The Cartographers begins with an estranged daughter finding out about her father's death. He had worked at the NYPL and died at his desk. Nothing suspicious about his death — at first (dun, dun, dun). But Nell discovers that her father, Dr. Daniel Young, had kept an old gas station map in the secret drawer of his desk — the very map that is pivotal to when he fired her from also working at the NYPL and basically blackballed her from working in the cartography field anywhere. Hence their estrangement. Now Nell is on the hunt for the truth, mostly.

Nell is soon in touch with her parents' best friends from college, through a breadcrumb trail of sorts. Now, Nell has no memory of these people, and they haven't seen her (mostly) since she was three years old, but they are quite suddenly dire to the plot and to Nell's life. If for no other reason than to continually tell Nell how much danger she is in because of the knowledge their cool cartography gang gained in college, when Nell was a toddler. There are several deaths that happen over the course of the book (including Dr. Daniel Young's), but oddly enough I never believed anyone was in any real danger.

On top of that, the characters are incredibly static, and the novel is somehow plot-heavy without having much of a plot at all. It's almost all delivered as a tell-and-not-show book. The two main characters, who take turns with their third-person narration, Nell and Felix, have almost nothing to do — and what little they manage feels bumbling and childish. The ending — once it has revealed all its reveals — is so patently absurd that I was offended. I guessed two of, what I assume were, the big reveals from so early on it became increasingly difficult to believe that no one else was catching on yet. So, when we get to the third reveal, it was so wholly unbelievable that I could just barely manage to finish the book.

The most fascinating parts of The Cartographers was the way Shepherd delivered the flashbacks. Nell gets multiple chances to sit down with her parents' college buddies and they deliver their portions of the backstory in truncated sections that are written in second person, which I found to be oddly effective. Odd, especially since it kind of rubs against the grain of the third-person narration Nell gets, rather than a first-person and second-person narrative pairing. Regardless, these flashbacks were leaning far closer to having depth and properly fleshed-out characters.

So many potential directions for this story from that intriguing beginning, but never quite landing on a solid choice. Instead, this one tries too hard to be everything at once, neglecting all that remained.
Profile Image for Carrie.
3,164 reviews1,521 followers
March 15, 2022
The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd is a mystery that is written using magical realism with the setting being our world but a touch of magic happening. The story in The Cartographers is one that is told by changing the point of view between characters and with some time spent in a past timeline.

Nell Young had followed her parents passion in life studying to become a cartographer. Nell loved that she was able to work with her father with some of the rarest maps in the world until one day they had a falling out over a cheap gas station map.

Now years later Nell gets notice that her father had passed away in his office at the New York Public Library. After all this time Nell finds that her father still had that same map that caused their separation and she finds that it’s actually incredibly valuable which leads her to investigate just why her father still had the map hidden away.

The Cartographers is the first book I’ve read by Peng Shepherd picking up after being drawn in by the lovely cover. I really thought I was going to fall completely in love with this one when I first started reading but I found that to me the pacing was on the slow side which isn’t always my favorite. The bones of the story is actually great, hidden areas on maps, but it also left some questions and gave me some open areas in the story that by the time I finished I was left with the ‘it was alright’ feeling but could’ve been a little better.

I received an advance copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

For more reviews please visit https://carriesbookreviews.com/

Profile Image for Renee Godding.
613 reviews576 followers
March 27, 2022
"What is the purpose of a map? (…) To bring people together."

With an ironclad premise that sounded completely up my alley, as well as their wonderful debut fresh in my mind, I had high expectations for Peng Shepherds sophomore novel. Unfortunately, this goes down as a textbook example of “brilliant concept, poor execution”, and I can’t say I’m not a little bit devastated about it…

What I loved:
Part fantasy treasure-hunt, part mystery-thriller, The Cartographers is inspired by the real-life mystery of Agloe NY; the phantomtown that doesn’t exist. In our reality, Agloe is a so called “paper town”; a fictional place added by General Drafting Mapmakers, to catch copyright-fraud with their products. In the world of The Cartographers, our protagonist Nell learns there is much more to the story than that.
After the disappearance of her mother, Nell has grown up with only her father, a legend in the field of cartographical research. When her father is found dead in his office with a strange map hidden in his desk, Nell is send on a wild-goose chase around NY to uncover the secrets that have seemingly torn her family apart.
It’s a fascinating, adventure-filled mystery that drew me in from the start, but unfortunately starts to fall apart quickly after.

What I didn’t love:
- Plot holes (and not just a few)
The novel is riddled with them, and as is inevitable with any hole-infested structure, the whole thing comes tumbling down in the end. It’s not helped by the fact that the author goes out of her way to “explain” some of the twists through some of the most overused tropes in the book , thereby only hammering home the fact that it doesn’t make sense.
- Static, flat and unmemorable characters
From bland Nell, to her “nerdy and smart” academic friends, to the cartoonish mustachio-twirling villain; I couldn’t get a feel for any of the characters, other than annoyance.
That wasn’t helped by the fact that Shepherd goes out of their way to emphasize how brilliantly smart these characters are, only to have them make the stupidest choices. There were so many moments where there’s an easy solution right in front of them, and yet the characters make up the most convoluted plans for seemingly no reason at all. Other than furthering the plot of course…
- A second-chance romance plot that felt as forcefully dry as dragging your nails over a chalkboard.
Just... No…

I was reminded more than once of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown or the movie National Treasure, in both the good and bad ways. Easily readable fun adventure, as long as you don’t think too hard about it making sense. If you’re looking for something similar to that, The Cartographers might be worth a read. For me however, the whole thing just left me with a bitter taste of disappointment that I haven’t completely shaken just yet.
Profile Image for Sean Gibson.
Author 6 books5,722 followers
May 12, 2022
If you’re looking for a twisty slice of fantastical realism wedged into a thriller populated with indelible characters, THE CARTOGRAPHERS has got you covered. I highly recommend it.

If you’re looking for something delicious, I would refrain from looking between the cushions of your couch because a lot of gross stuff lives—and I do mean lives, by the time you discover those old bits of food—there. I do not recommend it.
March 13, 2022
I didn't have any expectations, but this was a fun read! Such a magical adventure. I really enjoyed it. I had a hard time putting it down. I shared it with a family member, who didn't like it as much as I did. I would recommend it to those who like a DaVinci code type books.
Profile Image for Jordan (Jordy’s Book Club).
374 reviews18.2k followers
November 13, 2021
QUICK TAKE: I am an enormous fan of Peng Shepherd's BOOK OF M and still recommend it to friends and family. Her latest, THE CARTOGRAPHERS, is an excellent idea, but the execution ultimately left me wanting more. I love the idea of magical mapmakers, but the story is grounded a bit too much in reality. I needed more magical realism, and the ending left me a bit unsatisfied and I had trouble understanding some of the character motivations. That being said, I will read whatever Peng writes, so looking forward to seeing what else she has in store for readers.
Profile Image for Ciera.
201 reviews21 followers
March 7, 2022
This book was good but it wasn't great, and I think it ultimately boils down to Shepherd getting a little too invested in the overall emotional tone of the book without actually dedicating time to the plot.

The entire book was suffused with this melancholy air; it was clearly meant to elicit a nostalgic feeling from the reader the further into the book we got, and in that respect it succeeded. A story about this young group of savant academics who found something career and life-changing? Sign me up!!! It was the main reason I even kept going, in fact; I was not the least bit interested in Nell or Felix, but I was extremely invested in the Cartographers, their story, what they discovered, and what it meant. But apart from imparting the essence of emotion, the rest of the book had nothing else to it.

I had so many questions as I read the book, and unfortunately none of them were satisfied in any meaningful way. There were so many loose ends because the plot itself was weak. It relied too heavily on its emotional impact, in my opinion.

It was a shame too; if the narrative had been more compelling, this would have been the ultimate love letter to libraries and maps and loving the small things in life; but alas, it was a pale imitation.
Profile Image for Sophie.
165 reviews132 followers
November 5, 2022
Nell Young is a cartographer and archivist who was fired from the New York Public Library and had her career ruined by her own father, a legendary cartographer. Nell found a box of old maps in the uncategorized library archives, including a seemingly random map of the kind that are passed out for free at gas stations. Her father insisted that the maps were fake, and used his reputation to get Nell and her then-boyfriend fired.

Seven years later, she has not spoken to her father since the incident when he dies, and Nell finds the gas-station map, which is more or less worthless, in her father’s desk. Desperate for some sense of closure around her firing and her father’s death, Nell starts investigating the map and why it might be so important.

What starts as a search for closure becomes something much bigger for Nell as she discovers that the gas-station map is actually one piece of a larger puzzle - a puzzle that leads her to abandon everything she knows in order to follow its trail. The Cartographers is an entrancing novel full of mystery, adventure, and discovery, with impeccable worldbuilding that swept me away in the story.

The worldbuilding is exquisite, creating a fully realized setting that feels both familiar and strange all at once - a perfect backdrop for the unfolding mystery. I loved the characters and their intricate relationships with one another, and the plot was compelling and well-conceived. The ending is somewhat anticlimactic, but the journey is well worth taking.
March 29, 2022
Literally just take a picture of the map.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Sheradyn.
26 reviews
March 14, 2022

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd held my attention and anticipation for the first, I don't know, 35-40% of the book, but then left me at the end feeling rather disappointed and frustrated. In fact, the last 30 or so pages were the hardest pages to get through in the almost 400-page book simply because the plot no longer made sense and I no longer felt a connection to the characters, not that there was much connection to begin with. How does a book with such a wonderful and promising premise fumble this hard? How are there so many plot holes? And geez let me tell you, they are large holes.

My issues with this book condenses into two things: confusing character motivation, and one-dimensional character development.

To begin with, the characters that Shepherd creates in this world suffer from something that I call, "one-trait personality" meaning each person has one defining trait that defines them as a character, and not much else — if anything. For example, without spoiling the book, there is a character that doesn't want this group of friends to ever grow apart. With that, every decision this character makes is now driven by this "trait". There's not much else that plays into the character development that gives them much dimension. This being a largely character driven story, this development left these characters to feel mostly unrelatable. Even the main character, Nell, is described as being stubborn and driven. This trait fuels every decision and internal struggle she faces. This also makes most characters and plot fairly predictable throughout the story.

The character development — or lack thereof, plays into this feeling of confusing character motivations. A father and daughter get into a fight, he fires her, and then they don't talk for seven years. Perhaps this would be reasonable if they had a traumatic or tumultuous relationship up until that point, and don't get me wrong their relationship isn't peaches, but not reasonably bad enough to warrant not talking for such a long period of time. Especially since the main character is described several times as stubborn and the type that will never give up. It really just doesn't align.

Spoilers ahead — Along with this same sentiment of confusing character motivation, throughout the book we're told that Nell is in danger, or whomever holds the map is in serious danger because the boogey man — Wally — will come and getcha! But it's truly never explained what would happen if they had just given him the last map. I guess, sure, he would have found Tamara in Agloe and then completed his full map, but if I'm being completely honest, Wally's description of what his map would do — make the world be however people see it — seems like the book I THOUGHT I was reading in the first place. A fantastical map adventure.

My biggest qualm with this book is by far the ending. As I said above, the last 30 pages were the hardest to read because it seems NOTHING comes together in a reasonable way. Tamara locked herself into the town because . . . because why? She left her husband, her child, her friends, her life for what? Because that was the only choice? Because the boogey man was going to find her and what? She stayed there to FiNiSh HeR vErY ImPoRtAnT WoRk? I don't buy it. I don't buy it mainly because there were obvious alternatives that, given the thought, would have worked much better. Like, as an example, turn Wally in to the police for the robberies, then go back to the town whenever you'd like. And seriously, what was Wally so crazy for anyway? I genuinely thought that the town was making him crazy due to some magical force (which would have at least addressed the issue that his motivations made no sense).

I think ultimately, what truly frustrates me is that, if anything, the non-sensical character motivations were all solvable. They weren't impossible hurdles, they perhaps just needed some more thought.

Lastly, and definitely least, The Cartographers just barely dips it's toes into the fantasy genre (at least in my mind). While there are definitely elements that are fantastical and whimsical, this book follows a fairly true path as a mystery. No that this is necessarily a critique, but if you are looking for a fantasy book involving the world of maps, as I was, this may not be the book for you.

Thank you for reading this review, if you have. This obviously has all been pretty scathing, but I haven't read a book that's given me a fire to write a review for quite a long time. And while I'm sure this is not the desired outcome from the author and editors and such, I must say that it did inspire me. So job well done!
Profile Image for Dana Stabenow.
Author 125 books1,910 followers
March 19, 2022
A terrific idea for a plot and the word "cartographers" in a title is an automatic sale for me. If this had been a straightforward murder mystery with the macguffin (won't spoil) as the motive, that would have worked. If it had been a treasure hunt, that would have worked. If this had been a straight up work of modern fantasy, I might have loved it. If it had been a coming of age story, maybe. The love story feels forced, and the generational conflict rings totally false--would a parent really so totally destroy a child's life out of love? I wasn't convinced. But still a terrific idea for a plot.
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