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The Cartographers: 09/04/22

The Cartographers

The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd (2022) is a speculative fiction mystery set in New York. Nell Young had a promising career at the New York public library's map collection until the junk box incident. Since then she's been making cheesy replica maps for collectors. Her life is boring and predictable until her father is murdered while working late.

Among the former Dr. Young's person affects is one of the maps from the junk box. It's a 1930 road map of New York. It should be worthless as these things were given away at gas stations for decades. But this seems to be the only copy left and it seems to be dangerous to own.

This novel ended up reading like a satisfying blend of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012) and Paper Towns by John Green (2008). There's a mysterious society, the Cartographers, and a mysterious town — Agloe, NY.

Agloe as authors Green and Shepherd are quick to remind, is a real paper town. The publishers of the original map put Agloe in their road maps to prove that they were the owners of the data being printed. Agloe, NY did show up on other publisher's maps and a lawsuit was started. But nothing came of it.

In The Cartographers, there is a surreal reason for why. The how and why of it brings to mind The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig (2013), in that travel by map can be a very different and magical thing.

But this isn't just a novel about discovering the secret behind a paper town. There is still the unknown person who is killing people to get to the map. That person has also been systematically destroying all the maps. This person's involvement in the events of Nell Young's life and her decisions since her father's death are similar to a certain character's motivations in The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi (2022).

This novel also happens to sit on the Road Narrative Spectrum. Nell's journey to understand (and visit) Agloe is one she does both as a family member and as a couple (33). Agloe being a paper town, an unreal place, counts as a utopia (FF). Nell's route, there, though, is rather pedestrian, being the classic Blue Highways (as mapped in 1930) (33). Summarized, The Cartographers is about a family traveling to utopia via the Blue Highway.

Five stars

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