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.