The Cartographer by Tamsen Parker. 2017.
I do not recommend this book for disabled readers. I would caution queer and/or trans readers to tread carefully, and perhaps to read this review to go in prepared.
Note: I do not participate in keeping late reveals of marginalized identities to the reader “spoiler free”. I do not put them under spoiler warnings, as I feel this kind of late surprise reveal is a framework that is deeply tied in to oppressive narratives, and I will not participate in it.
I have such complex and mixed feelings about this book. I’m a huge fan of this author and how she writes kink beautifully, and with such intensity and intimacy and attention to consent. This has so much of what I loved in other books of hers. And, it also had core problems that I had a really hard time with.
This is book 6 in a series, of which I only read 1 & 2. It works as a stand alone, though I do think it was enriched by meeting Rey in the first two books. It centers two queer men of color; a very experienced dominant sadist gay wealthy Dominican cis man of mixed heritage, and a bisexual homoromantic Black cis man novice submissive living in poverty.
Rey is a dominant sadist and the POV character, and that was the main reason I read it, particularly the sadist part. As a dominant sadist myself, I yearn for that representation, which is few and far between in BDSM romance. It felt like a full and complex and rather beautiful representation of sadism, to me. (I have one main objection to it, and one place where I wish it showed more development, both of which I will get to later.) The descriptions of enjoying giving pain, and the BDSM itself are lovely. Rey’s sadism works in ways that mirror my own sometimes, and dramatically diverge in their internal experience at other times. They have a wholeness to them, and we get to witness his pleasure and desire, which I appreciated very much as this is especially rare in BDSM romance. We see him being afraid of himself some, and using control as a way to manage intense desires, and we see his relationship to his sadism heal some as the novel progresses. (Though I thought this needed more attention, which I discuss later.)
The place I wanted more development: Rey is not my favorite sort of top, I will admit, as he is very attached to never being vulnerable and especially never showing vulnerability to the bottom during play. This was a constant source of frustration for me as a dominant sadist reader. I really wish that there could have been more of an arc around this in the story, that we could see him grow in this regard and see that play out in his kink.
That said, we have a novel told from the point of view of a dominant sadist, that actually describes his internal experiences of sadism in detail throughout the book. A rare and valuable thing.
A thing that unfortunately, was largely spoiled for me by a narrative choice which I will discuss below.
There is a secret at the center of this novel, that drives much of the story and in particular Rey’s actions. Rey has a disability that means he can’t feel physical pain. This is presented as a secret in the novel that Rey tells very few people, and one that the reader does not know until 80% through the book, when Rey tells another character. I found this framing of disability as plot twist and secret source of all of Rey’s actions to be intensely ableist and deeply hurtful to me as a disabled reader. There is no good narrative reason to keep this information from the reader in this story, the only thing it does is treat the disability as a plot device. Which it very clearly is. Many things are explained and justified by Rey’s disability, including his sadism, his choice of embodying a rescuer role in most of his relationships, his relationship with his mother, his feeling that he does not get to ever have a partner or romantic love (which drives the entire romance arc).
Let me repeat that last one again, because it’s central to the ableism that structures the core of the book and Rey’s characterization: we have a disabled main character in a romance novel who has decided, because of his disability, that he can never have a partner or romantic love. This self concept gets challenged by people in his life, but never in a way that addresses how its about ableism and never by fellow disabled people. Which made the removal of this as the main obstacle in the romance arc really fall flat for me. Both because Allie says something so intensely ableist I am not sure its possible to get past it, but also because I didn’t buy it on Rey’s end, especially the speed of it. I just didn’t believe he could unmire himself from that level of internalized oppression that quickly, and from that sort of intervention.
We also have one of the better depictions of a sadist POV that I’ve ever read…and then his sadism is attributed to his disability. (Supposedly he understands how to deliver pain and enjoys it because he studies how people react to it in minute detail as he has no experience with it himself and needs to fake it to pass as abled.) I’m a disabled sadist, and this framing of his sadism felt so hurtful to me as a reader. Especially in conjunction with the way he is afraid of his sadism and conceives of it as monstrous. The stereotype of the cold blooded sadist who is a monster and does not understand the pain he inflicts (one that’s used to demonize kinky people, autistic people and mentally ill people), is evoked here, and not unpacked or challenged nearly enough, partly because of this incredibly late reveal. There is a small arc around it that I appreciated, as this is the societal stereotype of sadists and a very common self conception among us, but it was so weighed down by the ableism that it doesn’t work effectively for me.
So now I’m going to get to how Rey’s disability is “revealed”. Him and his love interest are walking down the street holding hands and get threatened with gay bashing. Which raises my larger frustration with m/m romance as a genre and how it really feels like they are not written for queer readers. This trend of including queer bashing or queer hating violence and abuse is so incredibly common. What queer person wants a surprise queer bashing scene 80% in to the romance they are reading? And to include queer hating violence to solve a plot problem just hurts to read, because it treats it as an object and not as an experience of hatred and violence.
I have mixed feelings about the depiction of race and class in the story. There were several moments where the loaded nature of BDSM for black submissive men was raised. It worked well for me as a white kinky reader; I appreciated that being part of what Rey was being careful about as a top, though I did wish they talked about it instead of just showed him thinking about it and making assumptions. There is a moment where the particularities of danger from police for Black men came up in the story, and Rey acts to protect Allie from that danger. That felt real to me, and important to include. Rey is wealthy, comes from family wealth on his mother’s side. Allie is poor, unemployed, and homeless for most of the story, with a history of living in poverty, being in gangs and getting free from them via the military. This is an incredibly intense and loaded disparity between them, and it didn’t really feel like Rey got how intensely he had power in this situation, though he seemed to try and to do his best to respect Allie’s autonomy. It still made me uncomfortable, especially as he was so given to orchestrating things behind Allie’s back.
Late in the story (87%), a trans man character is introduced, and set up to be an obstacle to the romance. Trans characters set up merely as obstacles for the central romance between cis people makes me deeply uncomfortable, but this character is also introduced in a deeply cissexist way. When we first hear about him, we immediately learn about his medical transition and the decisions he has made about that. This is followed by the description “He binds and packs and has perfected the art of walking through the world as a man.” Soon after this we witness Rey assessing whether someone would be ok with dating him because he is trans. He outs him as trans to this person and watches the person’s reactions. It goes on to say that although Rey chooses not to reveal “what’s under [the character’s] clothes”, as he thinks that crosses a line, he thinks this person would be ok with it, and likely be delighted about the potential of children without adoption. I read this section of the book in horror. This is not how you present a trans character respectfully. There is so much wrong and hurtful in those few pages that I felt nauseous by the end of them.
The thing is, I liked Allie, and really thought he was engaging and lovely. I adored the moment where he differentiated between his sexual attraction and his romantic attraction. I loved how he stood up for himself, claimed his desire, loved his family, was just beautiful in his submission. I wanted him to get treated much better than he was, and hoped Rey would get it together and do that. I wanted more for Rey, wanted intensely for him to get out of his own way, kept being frustrated that he wouldn’t. I was rooting for them, though I wasn’t sure Rey deserved him, and then this disability “reveal” exploded 80% in and the book completely fell apart for me, on the deepest level, structurally. I can remember enjoying it up til then, but the ableist core of the narrative ruined that for me. I wish that weren’t true. I really wanted to love this book and treasure one of the few representations of a sadist POV in romance. I am sorry to say that I cannot do that.
- Gay disabled multiracial Dominican man MC
- Bisexual homoromantic Black man MC
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
References to past experiences of combat, bullying, abusive BDSM relationships, childhood emotional abuse, physical violence. Intense class disparities in central D/s relationship where the dominant has enormous comparative privilege.
Detailed description of queer bashing, mugging, physical violence. Ableism built into the structure of the story. Trans oppression and cissexism that goes unchallenged. Queer hatred used as plot device.
Consensual sex & kink: anal sex, oral sex, frotting, pain play, D/s, service, enema play, bondage edgeplay including electricity play & bastinado. Descriptions of blood sports and breath play fantasies.
- Source of the book: I bought this myself
- I am friends with the author on Twitter; she sent me a copy of one of her books in the mail.
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Other Relevant Reviews
- Review of Fire on the Ice, also by Tamsen Parker
- Review of On the Brink of Passion, also by Tamsen Parker
- Review of Seduction on the Slopes, also by Tamsen Parker
- Review of Love on the Tracks, also by Tamsen Parker
- Review of Thrown Off Track, also by Tamsen Parker
- Review of Rogue Hearts, an anthology which contains a novella by Tamsen Parker