Review: ‘The Cartographers’ explores land of math and magic

“The Cartographers,” by Peng Shepherd (William Morrow)

Nell Young has lived with maps her entire life, first as the only child of eminent cartographers and later as an expert in cartography herself.

Even so, Nell doesn’t realize just how magical maps can be until her estranged father dies suddenly in his office at the New York Public Library and she finds a document that offers a surprising pathway into a strange, secret world.

The gripping story plotted out in “The Cartographers” is the latest product of Peng Shepherd’s creative imagination, providing readers with many tantalizing twists and surprises along the way as she explores the intersection between science and art, mathematics and magic.

Shepherd knows a bit about maps from her life as a globetrotter. Born and raised in Phoenix, she has since lived in far flung cosmopolitan cities including Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, London and New York.

Like her earlier dystopian tale “The Book of M,” Shepherd’s latest novel is sometimes dark, describing mystical happenings that science cannot explain.

“The Cartographers” constantly astonishes readers as Shepherd sweeps us into the past when Nell’s parents are among a group of graduate students drawn together by their goal of creating the world’s ultimate map. Their “Dreamers’ Atlas” was to include even the maps in “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a fantasy novel series by British author C.S. Lewis.

The college friends were all there when Nell was a toddler and her mother died in a fire. Later, they learn of how Nell’s legendary father, Dr. Daniel Young, suddenly and cruelly ended her promising cartography career shortly after an argument over a foldable gas station roadway map of New York state dating back to 1930.

As time goes on, deep secrets held inside families and groups of old friends are revealed, lies hidden inside the truth are laid bare and imaginary places become real as Nell learns about the phantom settlements map makers have used to catch rivals violating their copyrights.

In the end, Nell learns that what is written on paper doesn’t always reflect reality, and that a map’s important purpose is to bring people together.

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