One of March’s most hotly anticipated releases, Peng Shepherd’s The Cartographers follows disgraced cartographer Nell Young as she works to untangle the secrets wrapped up in a mysterious mass-produced gas station map hidden away by her father just before his equally mysterious death. The New York Public Library has a starring role in Shepherd’s tale, as does a suspiciously beneficent (if extremely secretive) tech billionaire, as does the infamously fictional rural town of Agloe, New York. As any good puzzle-box mystery with a soupçon of magical realism requires, there are also murders, encoded messages, and a plethora of both people and places that seem to disappear into thin air.
In short: The Cartographers is threading a very fun needle.
Moreover, it’s a thread that benefits from being sewn up in an audio format. While Nell’s investigation in the present day is fairly straightforward, the story from her parents’ past that she discovers in bits and pieces along the way unfolds a bit like a map itself, each new twist coming at the hands—and, in the audiobook version, with the voice—of someone entirely new. In fact, by the time you get to the book’s biggest reveal, you’ll have heard not only from lead narrator Emily Woo Zeller (who also previously narrated Shepherd’s debut, The Book of M), but also Nancy Wu (Severance, Bestiary), Karen Chilton (How to Catch a Queen), Ron Butler (just about any Brenda Jackson book you can think of), Neil Hellegers (The Passenger), Jason Culp (Anatomy of a Murder), and Brittany Pressley (Oona Out of Order). Talk about a murderer’s row!
Happily, as singular as the combination of Shepherd’s book and this particular line-up of narrators might seem, the world of ambitious, compellingly narrated map-adjacent mysteries—family, fantastical and otherwise—is vast. So whether you’re just coming off The Cartographers and looking to surf the same cartographic vibe, or you’re still waiting for your copy to come off your local library’s holds list but want to get in the mappy mood now, we’ve got a recommendation for you.
It can be daunting to dive headfirst into any Helen Oyeyemi book, let alone one that mixes a solid family recipe for (possibly magical) gingerbread, a hidden (possibly fictional) country, and a long-lost (possibly imaginary) best friend, so it’s probably for the best that in the case of Gingerbread, Oyeymi takes the task on herself.
Sweet and high and somehow both straightforward and cheeky all at once, Oyeyemi’s voice gives the story of Perdita and Harriet Lee a disconcertingly real Grimm’s Fairy Tale feel. Eerily cheerful, might be another way of putting it—and that’s without taking the disorienting, delectable story at the heart of the book itself into account. Listen to this one while puttering around your oven/garden (but be careful not to fall into either one).
Arcane used book stores, bizarro-world typography history, and a hilariously scary inside view of Google’s world domination—save for the lack of cartography as a central conceit, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the perfect companion to The Cartographers. And while it’s a shame to lose the delightful moment every print copy reader has the first time they turn the lights off after reading Penumbra late into the night and find the cover glowing in the dark, the audio version of Robin Sloan’s 2014 bestseller has so much going for it I’m going to press you to make the switch all the same.
It’s not just Ari Fliakos’ lead performance that sells it, though—although he is quite winning. It’s the fact that Sloan’s big mystery hinges on the magic of audiobooks, themselves… which in turn means that when a very important audiobook makes its appearance within the narrative, itself, listeners will have their own moment of it glows in the dark! delight.
While John Green’s now-classic YA road trip novel, Paper Towns, might be the more obviously relevant Green brothers title, premised as it is on the same non-existence Agloe, New York as Nell Young’s gas station map mystery in The Cartographers, it’s nevertheless his brother Hank’s first novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, that I think is a better match, spiritually. I’ve gone long on how staggering I found this book elsewhere in Paste’s digital pages, so I’ll keep it short here: There are mysteriously appearing robots. There is a globally shared real-but-not-real dreamspace the world tries—and fails—to map. There is a wry, beautifully lived-in performance by narrator Kristen Sieh. Listen to it, now.
(NB: If a full cast experience is explicitly what you’re after, this book’s sequel, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, narrated by Kristen Sieh, Joe Hempel, Jesse Vilinsky, Nicole Lewis, P.J. Ochlan, Gabra Zackman, Kevin R. Free, Hank Green, Robert Petkoff, Angelo Di Loreto, Oliver Wyman, and Hillary Huber, ought to more than do the trick.)
In many ways, Shepherd’s New York City-set The Cartographers and Zeyn Joukhadar’s Homs-set The Map of Salt and Stars couldn’t be further apart—and I don’t just mean that literally. Still, while The Cartographers is all murder mysteries and map-based family puzzles and The Map of Salt and Stars is all, well, war, there are a surprising number of threads that connect the two. Both feature mapmaking mothers; both feature storytelling as a means of survival; both feature the idea that, if you have the right tools and enough imagination, you can draw the world to be as open as it is cruel.
And both, most crucially for this list, feature excellent narration, Lara Sawalha capably taking on, in the case of The Map of Salt and Stars, both the present-day story of young Nour as she and her family seek refuge outside of Syria after their home is shelled in the middle of family supper, and in the 13th-century tale that Nour is slowly recounting to herself about a teen girl named Rawiya who disguises herself as a boy to become a mapmaker’s apprentice. A very different approach than the full cast maximalism of The Cartographers, with a very different effect, but just as compelling in the end.
The Real (Fictional) Characters Living in a Secret (Non-Fictional) Place: The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H. G. Parry
Narrated by: Calum Gittins
Run time: 18 hours 23 minutes
Audible | Libro.fm | Overdrive
In The Cartographers, Nell Young, her parents, and all her parents’ friends are so obsessed with the act of map-making that reality all but shifts to meet them. In H. G. Parry’s The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, it’s readers’ collective obsessions with literature’s most beloved (or at least, most infamous) characters that compels reality to shift—a shift that includes the slipping of a hidden Victorian-era street in the middle of modern-day Wellington.
For American listeners, any audiobook set in New Zealand is likely to be a treat, but in the case of Uriah Heep, Calum Gittins imbues Parry’s—and, for that matter, all of English literature’s—characters with such life and contrast that it would be a treat even without the Kiwi accent at its core.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She
can be found @AlexisKG.