Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Review: The Cartographers

The Cartographers, by Peng Shepard, started strong. I really like the premise of a map that looks to be worthless, but is quite valuable. Unfortunately, the book lost its steam and eventually had too many plot holes for me to enjoy.

Warning: Spoilers Below

I was initially pulled into The Cartographers and was very much on board with the premise. Then the pacing and predictability of the characters left the story dragging.

I was willing to grant the author the magic needed to make phantom settlements real. But I was less impressed that every unexplained phenomena is just left, well, unexplained. Are all phantom settlements real when treated as such? How was scanning the Agloe map supposed to give Wally the ability to rewrite reality in any part of the world? What did Nell actually do to save her friends and Mom? These questions piled up, and Peng didn't seem to make any attempts to answer them.

I'll give you that Peng's premise for how the close nit cartographers managed to come unglued over the summer was deftly written. I could see how each of the characters could make the missteps they did, and that could realistically spiral out of control.

But where the text really lost me was the decisions that were made by Nell's parents, Daniel and Tam. Are we to believe the map that is Daniel's sole lifeline to his wife and child's mother is casually tossed into a box marked "junk" and left unattended? That's insane.

And then there's the 'junk box' incident itself. Not only was this excessively cruel behavior from a loving father, but it raised the very red flags that ultimately put himself and Nell in danger. That's not my guess; that's what the book explains. Wally only knew to suspect Daniel had the map when he made the rash decision to excommunicate his daughter from the cartography world.

Even more painfully, Daniel had an easy solution to the junk box incident: the truth. "Oh Nell, the box you found there isn't the mystery you think it is. It's the result of me, in the haze of my grief over the loss of Mom, putting a box from our summer project in the archives and never looking back. I'd forgotten that in it were these precious maps. Let's give them back to the sources they came from."

But the decision that really pushed me over the edge was when Tam and Daniel decided that they needed to fake Tam's death and she needed to remain in Agloe drawing its map. Wait, what?

You're telling me that you have the chance to undo the death of your child's parent, and you're like, 'nope, we've got a map to draw.' I haven't seen sociopath-level thinking like this since the Hunger Games Series.

Like the junk box incident, the character's decisions manufacture the very premise the characters are trying to avoid. Wally desperately wants to get back to Agloe. So what do Nell and Tam do? They keep him from Agloe. Had they simply shared the good news of Tam's survival with the group, there's little doubt Wally would have avoid becoming the obsessed monster that they ultimately create. Not to mention, you'd have spared your friends an unthinkable level of grief.

And even if Wally had insisted they keep Agloe a secret, so what? There are at least 3 other magical phantom settlements in the book, one of which is drawn on a business card. That underscores that Agloe is anything but unique. Give Agloe to Wally and move on.

I get that Peng wants to show us the power of maps. But her approach ultimately doesn't work for me: the character's challenges are just too self inflicted for me to root for them.

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