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The Cartographers coverAbout a quarter of the way into Peng Shepherd’s The Cartographers, we learn that the eponymous and (at least at the outset) mysterious group once conceived of a great collaborative work, the Dreamer’s Atlas, in which they would imagine famous fictional and real-world maps in their corresponding forms:

Our recreations of the fantasy maps would be rigidly detailed and precise, and our re-creations of the realistic maps would be embellished, expanded, and dreamlike, like their fictional cousins. Once complete, we planned to publish it in one giant volume. Readers would open it, expecting the same old type of atlas, but instead, they’d find previously familiar lands rendered in a completely unexpected manner, opening their imaginations to an entirely new way of looking at maps. (pp. 95-96)

Cartographers and students of fantasy maps will be able to point out the problems with this concept (it’s a false dichotomy, to start with), [1] but in the context of the story it represents a swing for the fences, an all-encompassing attack on an all-encompassing subject.

The same could be said for The Cartographers itself. I have been writing about maps for nearly two decades, and in that time I have encountered many works of fiction that incorporate maps and map tropes into their storytelling, whether as paratexts or as plot elements, and I have never encountered a story, at any length, as thoroughly encompassed by maps as The Cartographers. It’s not just that almost every character in the book works with maps in some fashion, whether as a cartographer, artist, librarian, map dealer, or technician. Nor are maps just a plot point—they are the point. The Cartographers is a Stations of the Map: its pilgrimage follows a path that touches on so many aspects of maps and mapmaking, from academic cartography to fire insurance maps. It spends time on the purpose and meaning of maps: it aspires to an almost Socratic dialogue. It deploys familiar fantasy genre tropes about maps. But it’s structured as a mystery novel, and opens with a murder.

Nell Young works for a company that makes reproductions of classic maps, retouched to make them look a little more old-timey. It’s unsatisfying work, but the only work in the field she could find after being dismissed from the New York Public Library’s map division seven years earlier, when she and her father, who works there as a curator, had a falling out over something cryptically referred to as the Junk Box incident. When the elder Young is found dead at his desk, under suspicious circumstances, Nell retrieves from his belongings a seemingly ordinary gas station map—the very map that was the object of the Junk Box incident. Nell’s rediscovery of this apparently worthless map sets the story in motion. The map, then, is a McGuffin, which is a role maps often play in fiction, particularly when the map is valuable (which the Junk Box map does not appear to be).

The story does not remain in murder mystery mode for very long: though we do eventually know who did, in fact, dunnit, as Nell learns more about the map, its provenance, and its importance, the story pivots. Rather than giving us a tale of map thefts and murder in the vein of recent map murder mysteries, such as Heather Terrell’s The Map Thief (2008), Linda Fairstein’s Lethal Legacy (2009), and Colin Harrison’s You Belong to Me (2017), The Cartographers raises the spectre of a secret and ominous group known as, yes, the Cartographers, who seem very interested in obtaining a copy of the gas station map, copies of which have been disappearing from collections everywhere. And then, instead of giving us another iteration of a Dan Brown-style secret-society thriller, Shepherd fakes us out again: the Cartographers turn out to be rather more mundane in origin: they were a group of cartography grad students out to change their field forever that was torn apart by the pressures inherent to a closely entwined group in a hothouse environment, then by a tragic event that broke them jointly and severally. The gas station map is at the centre of a quite different story, one that is revealed in flashbacks as Nell encounters one former member of the Cartographers after the other. Nell’s story turns out to be, on some level, the novel’s framing story, and the story of the aftermath to that tragedy.

But this isn’t just a mystery novel, and the gas station map isn’t just a McGuffin. The Cartographers is a fantasy, and its fantastic element is that maps are powerful—powerful in ways we’ve seen in other fantasy stories. The fantasy map tropes that Shepherd deploys—the map as portal, and the map that creates reality—do what we have come to expect in fantasy literature: they make the metaphor literal. Variations on the map-as-portal theme—maps literally opening passages to the places they map—turn up in Catherynne M. Valente’s 2009 novel Palimpsest, Michael Jasper and Niki Smith’s 2011 graphic novel In Maps and Legends, and Ellen Klages’s 2014 short story “Caligo Lane.” But fantasy stories also give maps the power to create what they map: draw it on the map, and it’s real. In Maps and Legends also makes use of this, as does Alix E. Harrow’s “The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage” (2016) and, mutatis mutandis, Christopher Rowe’s “Another Word for Map Is Faith” (2006), which involves more mundane and physical ways to make the terrain match the map, rather than the other way around. In each case, the distinction between territory and map is erased.

In The Cartographers the equation is just as straightforward: if it’s on the map, it’s real—and if you have a copy of the map in your possession, you can go there. The Junk Box map is one of the last, and may well be the last, of the entry passes to a place that otherwise does not exist. To say the least, this has implications—any random mark on a map can be magicked into being by simply being on that map—and to be sure the book does explore them, with several twists of the plot turning on this power. (At least to some degree. A world where this power exists would be, to say the least, chaotic: anyone can draw a map, after all.) Giving maps literal power makes the possession of the map more than a venal matter, which ultimately makes The Cartographers far more satisfying—more significant—than a murder mystery.

The map’s power turns on the concepts of phantom settlements (towns that exist on the map, but not in the real world) and copyright traps (points on the map that don’t exist, but were put there to catch plagiarists). Among the best known examples of both is the paper town of Agloe, New York: it first appeared on a 1930 road map of New York published by the General Drafting Company, which placed it at a nondescript road junction as a copyright trap. But The Cartographers doesn’t depict a phantom settlement like Agloe; it uses Agloe itself. And the gas station map at the heart of the Junk Box incident is literally the same General Drafting Company 1930 road map of New York.

At this point I very nearly hurled the ARC across the room: there’s a cautionary tale somewhere about reviewing a work of fiction that draws on a field you know a bit too much about. But using fairly well-known real-world maps as story elements is something that map mysteries tend to do. The McGuffin of Terrell’s Map Thief is the Liu Gang map, a modern forgery that was seized upon as proof that China had pre-Columbian knowledge of the Americas. [2] Fairstein’s Lethal Legacy imagines a copy of the 1508 Waldseemüller map lost in the bowels of the NYPL, and has a minor, offstage character based on the notorious map thief E. Forbes Smiley: Fairstein actually named her character Eddy Forbes. [3]

A map that can make things real draws fairly directly on the idea that maps tell the truth—and that’s an idea deeply embedded in popular culture. Maps, like any other form of communication, are subjective: they tell a story, they have a point of view, they can lie, or simply be wrong. [4] Even so, the notion that maps tell the unmediated truth is difficult for us to shake off: it’s why we obey directions on our phones even when they send us into a ditch. We need maps to be factual and true, despite ample evidence to the contrary. The apotheosis of this belief is that maps are, if not perfect, perfectable. Matthew Edney has traced the emergence of a teleological ideal of cartography that subsumes all mapmaking to its purpose: a map (or rather The Map) that is empirically accurate, unbiased, and altruistic. [5] In The Cartographers, this ideal finds a home in the mind of William Haberson, whose tech company is a fairly transparent analogue of Google, with an all-seeing, map-based panopticon. When Nell’s ex Felix Kimble applies to work for him, his interview question is simply, “What makes a perfect map?” His belief in a perfectable map—in the Perfect Map—recurs throughout the book as well.

It serves as the counter-argument to the elder Young’s belief that the point of maps was “to bring people together”: a sentiment that serves as the novel’s theme, much of its connective tissue, and its emotional core. It’s meant both metaphorically and literally. Perhaps too literally, in the sense that the characters turn out to be a little too connected. In a book structured (and marketed) as a thriller, where plot twists and reveals are meaningful, it’s difficult to discuss a significant problem with these reveals in the context of a review. I’m decidedly not a fan of spoiler culture, but this is one of those times where even I acknowledge that spoilers do in fact matter. Suffice it to say that nearly every person Nell encounters in the course of figuring out the mystery turns out to have an important link to her past. This may be a function of genre: the puzzle-box aspect of a mystery, where there is such a thing as conservation of characters, and of guns on mantelpieces. But there is also such a thing as too neat and tidy, and the third or fourth such revelation ceases to surprise. And there’s a certain amount of wish-fulfillment fantasy at work here: Nell, at a dark point of her life, discovers that she is surrounded by people who wish her the best after all. The emotional landscape of this book tends toward comfort: maps connect you with the people you love; maps can bring you home. Sometimes the metaphor is apt, even if it’s just a bit too much on the nose.

I’ve spent a lot of time unpacking and contextualizing what The Cartographers does with maps. That’s partly due to my own proclivities and to what I can bring to this review. But it’s also because, yes, The Cartographers really is that much about maps. And indeed maps do a lot of the heavy lifting here: at least to some extent, the book presumes that the reader is as passionate about maps as its characters (and, I’m hazarding a guess here, its author). This is not necessarily an unsafe assumption: there’s very little doubt who this book is for.


[1] Fantasy maps seem sui generis today, but they developed out of a pictorial map genre that was once much more widespread: see my article, “Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?”,, 23 Sept 2019. On pictorial maps in general, see Stephen J. Hornsby, The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps (University of Chicago Press, 2017). [return]

[2] The map, owned by lawyer and collector Liu Gang, surfaced in early 2006 and purported to be a 1763 reproduction of a 1418 Chinese original. Because it included the Americas, Gavin Menzies used it as proof for his theory that Chinese sailors had visited the Americas before Columbus. It is generally considered a modern forgery using old paper, based on textual anachronisms and other errors. See Geoff Wade, “The ‘Liu/Menzies’ World Map: A Critique,” e-Perimetron 2, no. 4 (Autumn 2007) and my blog post, “A Look Back at the Chinese Map Controversy,” The Map Room, 3 Feb 2006. [return]

[3] In 2005 map dealer E. Forbes Smiley was caught stealing maps from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. He pled guilty to stealing 97 maps from six institutions and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison; he was released in 2010. See Michael Blanding, The Map Thief (Gotham, 2014). [return]

[4] Mark Monmonier’s How to Lie with Maps is in its third edition (University of Chicago Press, 2018). [return]

[5] Matthew H. Edney, Cartography: The Ideal and Its History (University of Chicago Press, 2019). [return]

Jonathan Crowe blogs about maps at The Map Room. His essays and reviews have been published by AE, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and A former historian, civil servant, snake breeder, reporter, and fanzine editor, he lives in Shawville, Quebec. Visit his website at
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