The Cartographers: A Novel
“ . . . the world of cartographic research at the New York Public Library feels alive and real, and the magic of the book is unique and delightful . . .”
The Cartographers starts off well. The early chapters immerse the reader in the arcane world of cartography, a fascinating look at the study of maps hundreds or thousands of years old. Shepherd shows us behind the scenes at the New York Public Library’s map research wing, where researchers discover, restore, preserve, and scrutinize old maps, bringing a sense of excitement and drama to an uncommon profession.
In Shepherd’s hands, maps come alive, not as dry ancient documents, but as personal records. The question “What is the purpose of a map?” is returned to again and again by the characters of the book, and the answer is always the same: “To bring people together.” Maps are a window into the way people viewed and organized their world.
The allure of cartography is felt acutely from the perspective of Nell Young, the more so because she’s been shut out of it. She was blacklisted from a once promising research career by her own father, a respected cartographer she had always revered. The story begins when Nell receives word of her father’s sudden and suspicious death, and she returns once again to the New York Public Library and the world of cartography. When her father’s murder is linked not to the famous maps in the library's collection worth millions of dollars, but to a seemingly ordinary folding gas station map of New York, Nell is pulled into a series of fascinating mysteries that suggest that maps have power to shape reality in ways she never expected.
Shepherd manages a convincing depiction of the world of mapmaking research, but not so much the world of high-tech software. Felix, Nell’s love interest, works for Haberson, a company “so gigantic and profitable, it made companies like Amazon and Google look small.” Felix is working on the ultimate digital map, one meant to allow perfect prediction of any event in the world. The concept of this “perfect” map never quite makes sense, and the descriptions surrounding it are mostly technobabble like “the variable is a go” and “it can cloak to trawl the dark web.”
Unfortunately, the characters’ actions through the rest of the story never quite make sense, either. As Nell tries to understand the map her father was apparently killed over, she discovers a group of her parents’ former friends, all of them cartographers, and she spends the rest of the book uncovering the secret past they don’t want her to know. Most of the drama in this involves backstory, however, it comes from a series of inexplicable decisions in which the friends ruin each other’s lives for no obvious benefit or purpose.
Obsessed over the magical mysteries they discover, the cartographers become secretive, argumentative, and even violent, to the extent that the reader might wonder if there is magic at work causing them to act so erratically. Multiple times, characters insist that “there’s no other way” when there are clearly options that don’t involve betrayal, abandonment, or risking others’ lives. Finally, the most horrible choice of all is uncovered, revealing what happened to Nell’s own family: an intentional choice made by her parents to destroy their lives for apparently no reason at all.
By the end, Nell professes to understand why her father blacklisted her and why her mother chose to abandon her all those many years before, but the reader certainly doesn’t. The choice is presented as noble, even necessary, but it seems ludicrous, a completely unnecessary and self-destructive decision to value a map and its mysteries more than their own child.
Ultimately, although the world of cartographic research at the New York Public Library feels alive and real, and the magic of the book is unique and delightful, the novel fails to deliver a reasonable plot in which character choices made sense. As a result, the awful decisions made by people close to Nell, instead of feeling heartbreakingly necessary, just seem foolish and incomprehensible. A great concept with a great beginning, but ultimately disappointing.