The Cartographers’ Guild by Aaron Cummins

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Have you ever wanted to smuggle a mummy out of Cairo Airport? Does the phrase “gentleman’s bastard” intrigue you? Do you have a very specific idea of what mustaches looked like in the 1930s? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book is for you. The Cartographer’s Guild is a George-Lucas’-childhood simulator by Aaron Cummins.

The titular Guild is a group of scientists digging for Elgin marbles or whatever in Turkistan, when our story begins. Professor Oak, aka “Doc,” is captured by angry Uzbeks, while his assistant Jimmy Olsen cowers on the ground. Ace pilot Launchpad and grizzled grumpyman Davis try and fail to rescue him. Back at base camp, leader Marge and Intern the intern discover that doctor Carambo, who unlike Doc is an actual medical doctor, has been taken by mystery nomads. The kidnappers chose their victims curiously, took no money, and showed the clothing of disparate ethnic groups. Since this is the 30s, I’m guessing Marge also noted their relative skull shapes and Cummins was good enough to leave that part out. There’s nothing to do but go back to town and hope that the authorities can help.

On the way, Launchpad has to get into a gunfight, because this book has the tonal range of a vuvuzela, and heaven forbid we should have two pages where some Dudes Rock stuff isn’t happening. We get a tavern brawl, an unhelpful magistrate who I guess works for the Soviet Union but nobody ever talks about it, another tavern brawl in the warehouse district, then finally the gang catches a break. See, there’s a young boy tailing them, who is paid by the mysterious Yando, who has a map to a hidden Roman city that contains a magical mask, and their timing couldn’t be better, because the angry mob of Lawrence of Arabia extras has converged on their position, presumably hoping to hand them a bill for broken tavern furniture all over town. This kicks off a mad cap adventure that travels by red line across half of central Asia, encountering yeti caves and warlords.

This particular “action archaeologist” subgenre is part of the ecosystem of boys’ adventure serials that made up a big part of those pulp magazines with Frank Frazetta covers and ads for decoder rings. In interviews about Raiders of the Lost Arc, George Lucas made it pretty clear he was operating from nostalgia. “ ‘I started out by asking myself ‘Gee, when I was a kid what did I really like?’ ’ Mr. Lucas recently explained. He liked the derring-do of the serials, and the unbeatable courage of their characters, not to mention the 30’s settings. ‘Practically every movie star of the 30’s has one movie like this, be it Alan Ladd or Clark Gable or whoever – playing a soldier of fortune in a leather jacket and that kind of hat,’ Mr. Lucas said, referring to Mr. Ford’s snap-brim. ‘That’s a favorite period of mine, but it was more the character we were after than the period, although they’re obviously both rooted in the same ground.’ ”

Boy are they! That soldier of fortune bit is telling, since mercenaries filled out a lot more of those stories than scientists ever did. The writer Larry Kasdan made the connection to deliberate historical narrative ever clearer: “With ‘Raiders,’ Mr. Kasdan added, the filmmakers hoped to draw upon ‘all of our greatest, most productive myths about ourselves. Being strong, resourceful and quick. It’s your best dream of heroism- a time of no fears and absolute resourcefulness. And a certain kind of competence in the face of almost any adversity… George is a real American boy. A lot of things he’s interested in have touched a lot of us American boys. One of the things George understands in a very liberating way is what his audience is about. It’s not the only audience in the world. But it just happens to be an enormous one.’ “

History, that heinous killjoy, is as usual more complicated, with multiple cultural trends converging over the course of the twentieth century. Orientalism has always been an integral part of how archaeology is presented to the public. Ever wonder why natural history museums are full of human artifacts, like there’s a T-Rex skeleton and then you turn a corner and you’re in an exhibit on Tibetan Buddhism? You can thank people like Agatha Christie’s husband. They did a fair bit of traveling between historical sites together, and the paternalistic vision of consequence-free galavanting, a sort of imperial Grand Tour, pops up time and again in her books. In the seventies Elizabeth Peters standardized the setting by taking it out of the mystery genre and using it for historical fiction. Crocodile on the Sandbank combines irreverent humor with second wave white lady feminism instead of misery with classism, so that’s an improvement I guess. This was the transferable aesthetic that had been established by the time Indiana Jones was written. So like most instances of nostalgia, the vision Lucas et. al. were working with was largely the invention of intervening decades. Now we’re nostalgic for the version of the thirties that was invented in the seventies.

It’s not for me to say how people should enjoy stories like this. If I were in charge of what media gets created everything would be box-ticking tropey horror anthologies, and that stuff is no better. There’s enough transphobia in classic horror to fill J. K. Rowling’s entire Twitter feed. If we approach it with an open mind, The Cartographer’s Guild is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the ending is a blatant “our princess is in another castle” sequel-bait, but on the other hand, yeti cave! It’s an entire genre based on the question “what if the people looting antiquities for a living were the good guys,” but on the other hand, and I cannot believe I even have to repeat this, a cave of yetis. This is the quintessential example of big dumb fun. It’s three dollars on Kindle.

My childhood was based on George Lucas’s childhood, and I’m surprisingly OK with that.

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