BY SEAN CLARK
[This time-travel-focused genre buster is a C4 Great Read.]
Author: Félix. J. Palma
2011, Atria Books
Filed Under: Literary, Historical, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Romance.
There’s very little I can say about this book without spoiling something. So I’m going to try something a little different to start. Let’s do word association. Take a look at this list and see how many things you think could help make for a good story:
Victorian romance. Parasols. Hoodwinks. Murder. Historical figures in fictional situations. Meticulous plotting. Vengeance. Paradoxes. Bawdiness. Secret societies. Blackmail. The Terminator. Drunk British whores. Jack the Ripper slaughtering drunk British whores. Minority Report. Tribal magic. The time machine in H.G. Wells’s attic. Street brawls. Apocalyptic robot battles. Dimensional rifts. Time travel. Henry James and Bram Stoker having a sleepover. Time Cop. Lava guns. Immortal dogs. Naive girls easily coerced into sex. Parallel universes. Steam powered automatons. Fourth dimensional dragon-like beasts. Sword fights.
Pretty good odds for an entertaining book right? Right. In any case, if that piqued your interest sufficiently, go ahead and skip the rest of the review, pick up this book, and enjoy. Read on and I’ll try and explain a little more substantively, but be aware that while I’ll try to limit them, there will be spoilers after the break. If you already think you want to read the book, do so, then return to my review in the future (oooooh).
Last chance to avoid SPOILERS. Okay, you’ve been warned.
It’s not perfectly clear that time travel actually exists in this novel. There’s evidence for it, but also evidence against. The reader, much like the 19th century London depicted in Palma’s excellent novel, gets taken in by an elaborate scam. How deep the scam goes remains debatable–perhaps it’s only superficial and H.G. Wells (the primary protagonist) is nothing more than a character embroiled in a twisting murder mystery spanning a multiverse, or perhaps it goes far deeper.
Whatever the truth is, The Map of Time is full of hoaxsters. You will find youself tricked more than once. Yet each time the wool is pulled, you’ll rush to replace it, or begin looking elsewhere for the otherworldy. The twists are never cheap. I continually found myself feeling self-satisfied as I figured out what was going on, just to be wrong again (in fact, I had to rewrite this whole review, because I unwisely began it before finishing the book). Palma sets a meticulous stage, and the readers will see what we want to see, despite any indication to the contrary–I understand how vague that is, but it’s difficult to be spoiler-wary.
The basic plot follows a few main storylines, each twisting from a center plot featuring Wells himself. First there’s Andrew Harrington. He’s a meloncholy rich kid who falls deeply in love with an alcoholic prostitute. On the very night he renounces his family fortune for his love, he finds her skinned and filleted in a Whitechapel boarding room. After despairing for 8 years, Andrew decides to kill himself, but his cousin intervenes with a plan. All of London is talking about Gilliam Murray, who has been leading London’s wealthy elite on expeditions to the year 2000. They turn to him to send Andrew into the past, where he will kill his love’s killer (none other than Jack the Ripper) before her murder can occur.
For complicated reasons, Murray cannot help. But he directs the cousins to the science fiction writer H.G. Wells, who, he surmises, probably has a time machine upon which he based his novel, The Time Machine.
The second storyline features young Claire Haggarty, who falls in love with the savior of the future on one of Murray’s expeditions. After witnessing him destroy the leader of the robot army amongst the ruins of London in an epic sword duel, she swoons. Tom Blunt, a seemingly goodhearted simpleton in Murray’s employ, manages to convince Claire that he’s the savior of the human race, traveled through time to bed her. When this coercion effects life-threatening consequences for the girl, he turns to Wells for help.
Then there’s Inspector Garret of Scotland Yard, who gets a warrant to travel to Murray’s future in order to arrest a suspect for a murder in order to prevent it from occurring in the first place. There are time guardians and pan-dimensional thieves, glimpses into the future and libraries hidden in prehistory. Some of it is real, and perhaps all of it isn’t. Through Wells, everything intertwines brilliantly. And, I should note, the stentorian and somewhat playful narrator–an omnipotent showman of sorts–adds a whole lot of charm to the story.
Palma is not a perfect writer, there are a few smudges on the polish. Occasional bits of dialogue feel stodgy, and the mostly airtight plot has the occasional minor leak in plausibility–namely, characters too often jump to conclusions with too much conviction, a technique that services the plot but hurts the tension and characterization. But as a whole, The Map of Time is an example of a wonderfully planned and crafted novel. Palma keeps a lot of balls in the air, continually adding more; it really is a spectacle.
I was very much looking forward to this book. A steampunk vengeance story about a Victorian time traveler sounds ridiculously awesome to me. Even when I first suspected a hoax, I wasn’t disappointed, not for a moment. I was a sucker spectator eager for what I believed I was being offered. I kept thinking that maybe, just maybe, the illusion was real.
Offering such immersion and such satisfaction is the sign of a top-notch novel. Even when you know its secrets, The Map of Time is very much a Great Read and well worth your time.
Similar Reads: The Time Machine (Wells), The Chess Machine (Löhr), The Resurrectionist (Bradley), The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Wilder)