CHRYSALIS was one of 2007's great surprises, a debut novel by an
author whose tone and setting was pitch perfect. Heather Terrell's
sophomore effort, THE MAP THIEF, continues its predecessor's level
of quality while heralding the welcome return of Mara Coyne.
Coyne is a unique figure in thriller fiction, an
attorney-cum-antiquities hunter who retrieves stolen artifacts with
research, intellect and negotiation rather than with a bullwhip. As
she did in THE CHRYSALIS, Coyne figures prominently in THE MAP
THIEF. Her firm is retained by Richard Tobias, an influential
political powerbroker who is sponsoring an archaeological dig in
China. A centuries-old map uncovered during the dig has been
stolen, and Tobias wants Coyne to retrieve it. She is intrigued by
the challenge but is unable to shake the feeling that Tobias has
not told her everything about what is going on.
Coyne soon discovers that the map is much more valuable than she
imagined, and not only in monetary terms. If publicized, it may
well change recorded history, and Tobias is planning to use it for
his own ends. Coyne's pursuit takes her from New York to the dusty
and desolate dig site in China to Lisbon, Portugal, and back to New
York again, where she not only resolves the mystery of the missing
map but also indirectly solves a historical mystery surrounding the
discovery of the Americas, the answer to which had previously been
lost in the sands of time.
What I have detailed only covers about half of THE MAP THIEF. There
are two other stories, one that peeks behind the creation of the
map that Coyne is pursuing and the other that describes a very
similar map used by the Portuguese. The former takes place in China
in 1421, at the height of the Ming Dynasty, wherein Admiral Zheng
He is undertaking a mission unprecedented up to that time: charting
the globe. The narrative focuses on Ma Zhi, a uniquely talented
cartographer and navigator. Zhi's story is bittersweet; he is one
of the Dynasty's eunuchs, a position considered honorable, yet is
treated with repulsion.
The descriptions of Zhi's experiences constitute some of Terrell's
best work in THE MAP THIEF, covering his apprenticeship, promotion,
triumph and, ultimately, tragedy, which will have repercussions for
centuries. Even his victories are bittersweet, given what he gave
up --- physically and emotionally --- to attain his position, only
to have time and circumstance sweep everything away.
The third story is set in Portugal in the late 15th century during
what we now call the Age of Discovery. The narrative primarily
concerns a navigator named Antonio Coehlo, who joins legendary
explorer Vasco da Gama on his voyage to discover a sea route to
India. Coehlo's skill and loyalty earns da Gama's trust, resulting
in Coehlo being given the task of guarding a precious map in da
Gama's possession --- one that, unbelievably, already shows the
route. While Coehlo seems to be a bit player in the story, his
contribution demonstrates that even a momentary flash of temper can
have repercussions across the centuries.
Terrell utilizes short chapters that alternate among her stories to
effective purpose, keeping the narrative flowing quickly while
rendering a complex, though nonetheless interesting story readily
understandable. Readers of THE MAP THIEF will be left clamoring for
more of Terrell and her memorable protagonist.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011