• The Fiction Fox

Review: The Cartographers - Peng Shepherd


Genre: Fantasy, Mystery Published: William Morrow, March 2022

My Rating: 2/5 stars


“<i>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, thank you…

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.


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