Nell Young’s whole life is maps, it always has been. Her father is a world-renowned expert in mapmaking and cartography at the New York Public Library, and he raised her to love maps as much as he does.
She followed in his footsteps through college: studying cartography and earning a highly-competitive internship in the NYPL’s Maps Division. All signs pointed to her earning a full position there when she graduated.
Until the Junk Box Incident. Nell and her father had a very public fight over a map and he fired her in front of the entire office. With her reputation as an up-and-coming academic ruined, and all her connections in the field broken by the loss of her father’s support. Nell was sentenced to a maps-adjacent career designing decorative maps for people’s living rooms.
After the fight, Nell wanted nothing more to do with her father. Although he had fostered her love of maps, he was a somewhat inattentive parent. He had done his best as a single father after her mother’s death, but he always felt distant.
Nell stayed away from him, and from the NYPL, for years. But she finds herself back in the library after hearing the news that her father has passed away at his desk. Looking through her father’s papers, Nell is shocked to find the map that she and her father fought about all those years ago – the catalyst of the Junk Box Incident. A nondescript, mass produced gas station map of New York’s highways.
During her internship, Nell discovered the junk box in the storage room of the Maps Division. Inside she had found some very rare and valuable maps, and – inexplicably – the gas station map. When she ran back to the office with her discovery, her father claimed that the maps in the box were fakes and fired her on the spot. What she cannot understand is why he seems to have held onto that worthless gas station map until the day he died.
As she looks into the history of the map, Nell discovers that every other copy has been claimed by a mysterious group called The Cartographers. Whether by purchase or theft, every copy of this map – in museums, libraries, archives, private collections, and antique shops – has disappeared.
Unable to stop digging into a mystery that is quickly taking over her life, Nell begins to chase down the people her father was in contact with before his death – people who turn out to be her parents’ college friends. They give her new insight into her family history and show her the real potential that maps hold, if you know where to look.
THE CARTOGRAPHERS by PENG SHEPHERD hops back and forth between Nell’s story and the first-person recollections of this older group of map enthusiasts. They tell her about events she was too young to remember and the truth behind lies that she has been told to protect her. The reader listens alongside Nell as she hears these stories from her past.
The book itself is a compelling blend of realism and fantasy. While much of the story is designed as a straight-laced mystery, there is magic here. It is a magic that feels almost plausible – and, if you read the author’s note, you will find that it is a magic that is very nearly real.