The Map Thief – Book Review

Admiral Zheng stops and extends his arm. A Vice admiral places a scroll in his outstretched hand. He turns his attention to it, unrolls it, and reads aloud: “‘All ships moored are ordered back to the capital, and all goods on the ships are to be turned over to the Department of Internal Affairs and stored. All overseas trade and travel is banned. All voyages of the treasure ships are to be stopped. All accounts of the expeditions of Grand Eunuch Admiral Zheng He are to be burned, and the voyages are never to be mentioned again. Violations of this edict are punishable by death.’

“In our new emperor, Hongxi, the mandarins received the emperor they requested. An emperor who will focus China inward and close the doors to the outside world.” -From The Map Thief, page 176-

Historical evidence reveals that the earliest European world maps show lands and oceans which had not yet been discovered by the Europeans for decades. Many historians have conjectured that it was really the Chinese explorers who first circumnavigated the world, but maps of those voyages were destroyed during the mid-1400s when Emperor Hongxi closed China’s doors to the outside world. Could some maps have escaped the bonfires and made their way into European explorers’ hands? It is this question which fuels Heather Terrell’s fascinating second novel: The Map Thief.

The Map Thief is really three interconnected stories which revolve around world exploration, political intrigue, and the art of navigation and mapmaking.

In the early 1400s, a mapmaker and eunuch by the name of Ma Zhi is chosen to accompany the famous Admiral Zheng He from China across the Yellow Sea and Indian Ocean to the coast of Africa. Their journey is to continue on from there to discover new territory…and map it. Zhi is a sympathetic and courageous character who has given up his manhood to bring honor and wealth to his family. His mapmaking is nontraditional and beautiful, and his private life is revealed through his art.

In the late 1400s, Antonio Coehlo is a rough-around-the-edges mapmaker from Portugal who finds himself aboard a vessel with the explorer Vasco da Gama in a quest to locate the sea route to India. But there is a secret he must keep – da Gama already knows the way because of an ancient Chinese map in his possession.

Mara Coyne lives in present day New York – the head of a company which negotiates the return of stolen artwork. She is contacted by a powerful man who is funding an archaeological dig along the Silk Road in China. A map has been unearthed and is now missing. Mara must travel to China to investigate – and what she finds will uncover a mystery long kept secret.

Heather Terrell has done her homework for this richly historical suspense-thriller which weaves together Chinese and Portuguese culture, while exploring the fascinating world of stolen artifacts. The three separate stories come together seamlessly. The Map Thief is suspenseful, but even more so an historical lesson about the early explorers as well as art.

If there is a flaw in the book, it is Terrell’s development of Mara’s character and relationship with Ben, the archeologist in charge of the dig. Their interactions feel contrived at times, and the chemistry they supposedly were building lacked conviction. Despite this, the book exhibits fine pacing, engrossing detail, and tantalizing setting.

Heather Terrell’s debut novel – The Chrysalis – introduces Mara Coyne’s character and should probably be read first. But, The Map Thief can also stand on its own. I’m looking forward to reading more from this talented writer.


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    • Ruth on August 10, 2008 at 20:03

    This looks like a great book for a history lover like me. Thanks for the review. Being a historian, I love to find great books with lots of historical detail to sink my teeth into. I’m reading a really excellent one right now — Bear Any Burden — which is a family epic and spy thriller that spans 90 years of European history through WWII and up to the Cold War.

    • Wendy on August 11, 2008 at 20:19

    Ruth: That looks great! I’d love to read your review of it!!

  1. Hi Ruth, I agree I’m a history lover as well and Bear Any Burden is an excellent choice.
    Thanks for your post! I’m enjoying the book so far.

    • Teddy on August 21, 2008 at 22:39

    Wonderful review Wendy! I just added both of her books to my TBR.

    • Wendy on August 22, 2008 at 10:16

    Thanks Teddy 🙂

    • Rich on September 17, 2008 at 09:37

    I picked up a copy of “Bear Any Burden” by Ellis Goodman at the Chicago Printers Row Book Fair in June, and I found it to be captivating and rich in detail that literally takes you into the story itself, moving smoothly back and forth between the eras. I would recommend this read to anyone that is interested in mystery/espionage.

    • Wendy on September 19, 2008 at 07:24

    Rich: I haven’t read anything by that author – I’ll have to check it out.

    • Rich on September 23, 2008 at 08:52

    You can go on website and enter contest – there’s talk about making the novel into a movie. Interesting and fun.

    • Wendy on September 26, 2008 at 11:16

    Rich: thanks 🙂

  1. […] The Map Thief, by Heather Terrell – Conspiracy Thriller (Completed August 9, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review) […]

  2. […] Original 2008 Reviews […]

  3. […] with The Chrysalis in 2007. Her second novel – The Map Thief – was fast paced and fascinating (read my review). If you’re into thrillers with an historial flavor, you might want to check out […]

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