The Cartographers is one of those books that I added to my most anticipated list as soon as the cover and blurb were released. A literary mystery revolving around maps and map-making, with a dose of magical realism to boot? That sounded so very much up my alley that I snatched it up as soon as Book of the Month announced it as a March pick, and have been very much looking forward to it. The fact that it was only in my house for a couple of months before picking up is saying something, as even highly anticipated have my massive TBR to compete with before I manage to get to them. But unfortunately, I think my experience with The Cartographers is a case of letting anticipation spoil whatever is being anticipated, because it fell quite flat for me.
“Maps are love letters written to times and places their makers had explored.”
I loved everything about this on paper. The premise was enticing, and there’s a very intriguing mystery at the story’s core. The cast of characters is vast and varied, and comes with a helping of found family, which is a trope I adore. All of these characters are very passionate about their unusual niche, that is, cartography and maps in general. The magical realism element gave an entirely new meaning to putting a town on the map; I loved the imagination behind the idea. And the writing was solid, which is always a plus.
However, there was something about the execution that just didn’t work for me. First and foremost, the pacing felt off. While Shepherd imbued the story with a tension that made it feel as if it was trying to be fast paced, the actual action of the story felt plodding. And it wouldn’t have, had the tone not felt so tense. The mystery elements that should have been so intriguing also fell flat. I was able to guess every single twist or reveal in the entire novel way before the actual reveals, which was frustrating. I even actively tried not to guess, but I couldn’t ignore all of the clues.
Perhaps most disappointing for me were the characters. This had the potential to be such a bright, wonderfully varied cast, full of unique individuals with a ton of personality. But that wasn’t the case, in my opinion. Even those described as being so interesting and magnetic felt bland to me in their execution. And this made the found family trope, which I love so much, feel like a wasted effort.
Finally, I felt that The Cartographers defied genre in a negative way. It wasn’t mysterious enough to be a mystery, or thrilling enough to constitute a thriller. The fantastical element wasn’t used strongly enough to term fantasy or ever solidly magical realism, in my opinion. The writing wasn’t bad at all, but wasn’t lyrical or polished enough to slot the book into literary fiction, which would have made the book’s inability to fit neatly into a genre a strength instead of a weakness.
While I’m disappointed in the overall execution, there were things that I did truly enjoy about The Cartographers. Namely, the maps themselves. I’ve always really loved maps, and have maps and globes scattered throughout my home as decor. The idea of falling into a map is one that I’ve always found incredibly magical. So the thought of a map itself actually altering the real world in some way immediately drew me in. And seeing these maps through the eyes of people who are so passionate about them was a joyous experience. I love any story revolving around one’s passion for their art or profession or the intersection of both, and The Cartographers really catered to that love. The fact that it’s a more unusual field, one not written about as often as writing or music or other visual arts, made this very much a worthwhile read, regardless of how I felt about the actual plot and characters. And I love that maps as an intersection of science and art was discussed with such devotion through Shepherd’s characters.
Even though The Cartographers didn’t live up to my expectations, it is still a book that I’m glad to have read. If you feel any pull toward this story at all, please don’t let my experience drive you away. Use it to better temper your own expectations, and maybe that will improve your own reading experience. But if the idea of a novel with maps as its focal point intrigues you, The Cartographers is exactly what you’re looking for.
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