Dark Academia and Map Making: The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

Maps hold a fascination, especially the old and rare, and they also hold the power to change an entire society’s perception, to reshape the world and tilt it completely out of balance, both physically and psychologically.

Peng Shepherd knows the power, and promise, of a map. In her second novel, The Cartographers, Dr. Tamara Young, the long-disappeared and presumed dead mother of the book’s protagonist Nell asks her friends and fellow academics, “What is the purpose of a map?”

Her answer is one of a youthful hope, of a once-young academic just starting out, whose career lit brightly ahead of her, as well as a counter and warning as to the untold harm a single cartographer can do: “To bring people together.”

Take, for example, a map created in 1569 by a Flemish cartographer called the Mercator projection, drawn along “colonial lines” and centers Europe as the central, and massive beyond actuality, landmass. It shrinks the size of Africa and South America and overemphasizes the size of North America. This became the standard map for navigation and the basis for all maps used in countless classrooms for centuries. We have been taught through the lens of this “standard” map that the colonial powers are enormous. How, then, can anyone, especially those of us born from the blood shed by brutal European and U.S. colonization, ever envision a different world, one that holds the true key to our freedom?

The Cartographers centers around Helen Young, known as Nell, once the promising Dr. Young about to follow in both her parents’ footsteps as an expert in cartography and work beside her esteemed father in the Map Division of the New York Public Library before a terrible fight, which Nell refers to as the “Junk Box Incident,” caused her father, Dr. Daniel Young, to banish his daughter, and her then-boyfriend and fellow cartographer, Felix, from both the library and the entire field of cartography. Having already lost her mother to a house as a small child, Nell severs all ties with her father for years until seven years later she receives a call from a deleted number to come the library immediately.

When Nell arrives, it’s to find her father dead at his desk and the police ruling out foul play. In a moment alone, she opens her father’s secret drawer and finds her mother’s beloved leather portfolio, slips it in her own bag and returns home. When she discovers a map within the portfolio, she is astonished, and aghast, to find a map from the junk box she uncovered all those years ago that cost her everything—a seemingly worthless 1930 edition of a gas station highway map.

She learns that exact map comes up missing in libraries across the country and that same night, the library’s Map Division is burglarized, leaving a security guard dead and Nell realizes her father kept this map for an important, and deadly, reason. Reuniting with Felix, who works at a giant tech information company run by the mysterious William Haberson, the two begin putting the puzzle together, though they still lack most of the pieces. What they first discover is a shadowy group known as The Cartographers will pay, or possibly do, anything to get ahold of all copies of that specific edition of the gas station map.

A card found tucked into the portfolio with the map leads Nell to Ramona Wu, a map dealer with a nefarious reputation, but it is in her shop Nell finally starts to ask the right questions. It is also where the book first crosses over into the thrilling territory of speculative fiction. We learn Ramona met Nell’s parents at the beginning of college in Wisconsin and was part of their friend group of seven, nicknamed the Cartographers, and one of them, Francis, sent a map that Daniel had requested to Ramona but it came too late to help him. After giving Nell the map, which detailed a New York City block that included the library’s Map Division, Ramona tells Nell to not return for both their safety and warns, “You can’t find a place that doesn’t exist.”

The next time Nell tries to find Ramona’s shop, it’s as if it had never been there. The plot thickening, Nell chases the breadcrumbs to find more members of the Cartographers, and her parents’ own story, and learns about “phantom settlements,” a trap first initiated in the early 1900s when mapmakers feared copyright infringement and placed a fake location on the map, which if it turned up in another company’s map, meant they could be caught. She and Felix then discover the gas station’s phantom settlement, a town called “Agloe.” The danger that surrounds them ramps up as Nell faces a decision to turn the map over the NYPL and reclaim her rightful place at the library and a second chance with Felix, or to chase the truth to its ultimate conclusion, possibly even her own death.

The Cartographers is a strong and original addition to the dark academia sub-genre, which spans fantasy, gothic literature, horror, thrillers, and speculative fiction. I have been an unabashed fan of dark academia since I first read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as a teen, and some of my own all-time favorites include A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas, Threshold by Caitlin Kiernan, and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. The Cartographers teems with delicious dark academia standbys: overly romantic sentiment toward one of the world’s most famous libraries, fierce battles over weird and ridiculously arcane academic knowledge, obsessive (and compulsive) too-smart outcast main characters, and a discovery that the world our intrepid, nerdy, haunted hero is not what she thought.

The book’s pacing is strong, even as Shepherd deals with two different narrative timelines with an ensemble cast of characters. I genuinely did not want to put it down, even if the ending got a bit tangled up in itself, then inexplicably segues into wrapping up a little too neatly. However, the entire premise is bit of a Gordian knot and the book is so entertaining, engaging, and at times chilling, even when the plot veers toward the ridiculous, so a slightly weak ending can absolutely be forgiven.

Shepherd’s strength lives in the foundational concept of her magical world making, which is that maps, old and new, shape the landscapes in the world and also our understanding of the all realities. She based The Cartographers on a true story of the real General Drafting company’s creation of a phantom settlement named after the company’s founder and his assistant’s names. When they thought they caught a rival company’s copyright infringement and went to survey the area for their lawsuit, they found a thriving town where its residents proudly called themselves residents of Agloe. The truth is as strange and extraordinary as fiction and Shepherd does both equal justice.

The Cartographers is available from William Morrow.

Angela Maria Spring is the owner of Duende District, a mobile boutique bookstore by and for people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, was a 2018 Kirkus Fiction Prize judge, and has work forthcoming in Radar Poetry, Pilgrimage, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Third Wednesday. You can find her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua or at duendedistrict.com.

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