With The Cartographers, Peng Shepherd has penned a new genre with her magical realism thriller academic treasure hunt. This cast of characters goes on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from Manhattan to magical, mystical Algoe, New York. Book nerds will love the library and map room settings, but there is a lot else on offer with themes of fragile friend dynamics, hard family choices and dogged quests.
This book had a complicated premise and even more complicated character dynamics…and the book reviews reflect that with some folks loving it and some hating it. If your book club is the same, you’re going to have quite a conversation. Use our book club questions for The Cartographers to help untangle your thoughts on the book.
Our discussion guide for The Cargographers has 10 discussion prompts for you, along with a book synopsis and some selected (and very binary) review snippets.
And if you were keen on the book, keep reading because we also suggest three related reads to add to your reading pile.
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The Cartographers Synopsis
The Cartographers, Peng Shepherd
Nell Young’s whole life and greatest passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him ever since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map.
But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable and exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence… because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.
To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret and discovers the true power that lies in maps…
From the critically acclaimed author of The Book of M, a highly imaginative thriller about a young woman who discovers that a strange map in her deceased father’s belongings holds an incredible, deadly secret—one that will lead her on an extraordinary adventure and to the truth about her family’s dark history.
10 The Cartographers Book Club Questions
- In order to protect the family from Wally, Nell’s parents made the very difficult choice to keep Tam in Algoe, telling Nell that she had died. What that the right choice?
- Do you know of other families (your own perhaps?) where the mother, father AND kid all had the same passion and aptitude for a certain field? How likely is it? Is it nature or nurture?
- There were a lot of lies and betrayals between Daniel, Tam, Eve, Francis and the others, which get slowly surfaced throughout the book. In your opinion, which was the worst lie or betrayal?
- In many books with fantastical elements, some characters seem to readily accept the surprise of land accessed through the wardrobe door or down the rabbit hole. But when Francis tells Nell that Algoe is real and that it killed her mother, she responds by calling it (and him) a scam, a joke and a prank.
How would you react to such news. Scam or rabbit hole?
- The Dreamer’s Atlas- new maps rendered in an old fantastical style, and old maps and those from fantasy fiction rendered new. Would you buy it for your coffee table?
- Do you think it’s possible for a map to be perfect, as Wally desires?
- Putting on Wally’s tinfoil hat for a moment, if it’s plausible for a map to make a place real, could his virtual vision of the Hab map have done the same?
- “Cartography, at its heart, was about defining one’s place in the world by creating charts and measurements” Maps are thought of as many different things throughout the book. They can define ones place (as in Nell’s quote from above), they can connect you with people, are keepers of history, provide inspiration and more.
Which of these purposes resonated the most with you? How do you use maps?
- At the end, as Felix reads Nell’s invitation, the narrative says “Nell had drawn him a map. A map to someplace new”. This final twist has had many readers confused about the ending and I myself had to read it twice.
How did you respond to the ending? Does this mean a completely new place? Or a reimagined Algoe? Or the place where she moved Algoe?
- In the acknowledgements, Shepherd talks about how General Drafting was indeed real and they did place Algoe on their NY map as a copyright trap. But, once on the map, the few businesses near the fictional Algoe, began to refer to themselves as “Algoe this or that”, county records and addresses began to reflect those change, thus making Algoe real.
Can you think of other instances when documentation of this type, or even mistakes can codify a place?
Selected Reviews for The Cartographers
“I loved this book. It was beautiful and magical but still very exciting. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s Secret History, but with a little Indiana Jones and Da Vinci Code thrown in for good measure.”
“…my biggest issue is the plot holes and gaps in logic that became too obvious to ignore. I struggled to grasp the worldbuilding, and I had many questions: some went unaddressed, while others were addressed but easily misunderstood or went right over my head. eventually, my feelings of uncertainty subsumed the story, making for a terribly frustrating reading experience.”
“still, although the character motivations and decisions are somewhat murky and invite “why, though” scrutiny, that’s true of any fairy tale fantasy, which is how I’m choosing to think of this one—just a sparkling bit of magical realism that you can enjoy on that level.”
“The plot was idiotic and made no sense. The characters were flat, the villain’s motives were non-sensical and the heroes pulled the stupidest s**t imaginable.”
3 Books Like The Cartographers
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow
Like Nell, January Scaller has grown up without her mother. Her father is always off running mysterious errands for the wealthy Cornelius Locke…and then he too disappears.
January is Locke’s ward and things are more than a bit weird in the house. Just before her 17th birthday, January finds a mysterious book that talks about finding magical doors between worlds.
Short of giving you spoilers, I’ll simply say that the book has tight worldbuilding, and is an epic adventure with January as a plucky, resilient heroine.
The Invisible Library (Invisible Library #1), by Genevieve Cogman
If you liked a library setting and the thrill of the chase, then this fantasy series will be right up your alley.
Meet Irene, who is a librarian-slash-international spy sent out by the Invisible Library to retrieve dangerous books that have been lost or stolen. Visualize a librarian hell bent on getting back that overdue book. But also with magical shenanigans, steampunk machinery, a dastardly villain and a (literally) hot assistant, all set in a Victorian(ish) London.
If you say “yes please” to that, then clear your calendar because there are 8 books in the series.
Oxford Atlas of the World, George Philip & Son, Keith Lye, Will Tirion, Oxford University Press
If you are a nerd for maps and geography, then you must get this epic atlas. It’s a coffee table brick with 448 pages of stunning maps and information on topics of geographic significance. The maps and images are beautifully rendered and the book is insanely useful…I refer to mine frequently.
Put it on your birthday or Christmas wish list or buy it for someone who loves geography.
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