REVIEW: The Map Thief by Heather Terrell
Dear Ms. Terrell,
I’m not much of one for Conspiracy Theories. When people begin babbling on about the grassy knoll, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Paul McCartney’s death or whether or not NASA astronauts actually landed on the moon, I generally tune them out or (even better) edge away and don’t look back as I flee the scene. I’ve never read the Da Vinci Code and never plan to. So, imagine my surprise when I got going with this book and realized I was right in the middle of one. A multinational one. One that has lasted for centuries and, based on what you wrote in your author’s note, is actually based on a true mystery of history. And I kept on reading. I was amazed.
It took me a while to get into the narrative. With the three storylines and host of characters involved in the story, I kept feeling that – right when I was starting to lose myself in any one chapter – it would end and I would be jerked out of flow. Yet, I’m not sure how else you could present things.
My favorite sections involved Ma Zhi. His struggles to prove himself at the Imperial Court of Emperor Yongle, to attain the perfection demanded by those determining who would accompany the expedition headed by Admiral Zheng He, to fit in as a eunuch on board ship, to struggle to map the unknown world unfolding around him were fascinating. I felt for this poor fish out of water who had given up so much and who ran the risk of losing the very reason for which he’d made his choices. I need to do some googling about late Ming dynasty China, that’s for sure.
The other historical section dealing with the bastard Portuguese map maker who accompanies Vasco da Gama (yes, I remembered his name among the others explorers from Portugal and Spain I learned in high school!) didn’t hold my attention quite as much. Is your portrayal of da Gama based on recorded observations? Unfortunately, I have no problem believing what you have him doing or the fanaticism behind it. Antonio seems to be the unsung man who ends up paying for the crimes of others.
And then there’s the modern sections dealing with Mara Coyne, her uber-amazing staff working with her to restore stolen works of art to the rightful owners and their dealings with the current bully boys of American politics, the far Right and major xenophobes. It’s with regret that I say that lots of the information you have Mara and her sidekick Ben, the “cute under all the archeological dirt on him” discoverer of the priceless 14th century Chinese world map, convey to us readers reads like slightly improved textbook entries. It’s interesting, it’s necessary for our understanding but it’s a bit dull. Up until we get to the heart of the attempt to cover up the centuries old, closely guarded secret. It certainly picked up there and I was hanging on each page flip. Up until
And that’s when my skepticism of all the things that would have to occur and the secrets that would have to be kept and all the other things required of a good Conspiracy Theory rears its head and says, wait a minute. Nope, sorry, you just lost me. But…then you reel me back in with the clever way you work out how Maya is going to get what she wants from one person. Until you lose me again when Maya “plays at a man’s game.” I have trouble believing that the person she goes mano a mano against will cave in so easily. But I am interested in what she decides to do with the lotus.
You certainly include some amazing places and things in the book. Tomar, which is just feaking fantastic, and Tocharians and Tarim mummies which will have me heading over to google, and the ever intriguing Silk Road. Plus all the Ming Dynasty stuff in China that gobsmacked me with wonder. Yeah, I love it when a book sends me shooting over to investigate things on the internet. Like I need to waste more time but hey, it will be done.
I’m curious as to why you used third person present tense for the two historical storylines and third person past tense for the present day action. Is this to bring the historical sections “alive?” Or to differentiate the two historical sections from the contemporary one?
Jennie recently said that she will grade books higher if, despite their faults, they entertain her. This book certainly kept my interest and made me want to know “what happens next.” I’m still going to try and avoid the secret societies and government conspiracies out there but I think you managed a creditable job dreaming up what might have happened to explain the history of world maps. B