The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma (translated by Nick Caistor)
Published June 2011 by Atria Books. Originally published in Spanish, 2008.
Review by N. E. White.
Yes, I bought this book for the cover alone. I know, that’s shallow of me. But, you have to admit, it is a wonderful cover, no?
Let me get this out of the way up front: The Map of Time is a hefty tome. Not for the faint of heart. If you think the individual installments of G.R.R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series are just the right size, you’ll be fine with this new series. Otherwise, wait for the abridged version. Now, on to the story…
Told in three parts, we are welcomed to the world of The Map of Time by an unnamed narrator, a sort of ring-master, who tells us, “Your emotion and astonishment are guaranteed.” After raising an eyebrow to that, the reader might pause to think upon this bold statement, but once you turn the page, there’s no looking back, because we immediately meet Andrew Harrington, a young, well-to-do gentlemen in a bit of predicament: He can’t decide which of his father’s pistols he should use to kill himself.
Our narrator then goes on to describe the “mistaken choices” young Mr. Harrington took to end up at the final choice he has made on this one night in late 1800’s-era London. The reader learns that Andrew fell in love with a whore, Marie Kelly. A woman who subsequently was murdered by Jack the Ripper. For the past eight years, Andrew has lived with her loss, but tonight he intends to join Marie. But before he can do that, with a dramatic turn of events, his cousin Charles makes a bargain with Andrew: stay his hand and travel through time to avenge his lover’s death. Nay, not just avenge, but save her.
Though unbelieving, the 26-year-old Mr. Harrington agrees to see a man who claims he can travel to the year 2000. The very next day he meets Gilliam Murray, a charlatan, writer, and time-traveler.
Mr. Murray operates a travel agency that sells train trips to London in the year 2000. After the popular rise of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, business has been brisk, and more of the upper-classes are taking time-travel seriously, enough so to claim it is true, just as Charles believes it is true. But, after visiting with Mr. Murray and witnessing a Map of Time, our stricken lover learns that Mr. Murray can only transport them to the future, precisely to the year 2000 – not 8 years previous to the night Marie was murdered. However, Gilliam Murray reveals that another man may indeed have the means to travel back through time: H.G. Wells.
Charles and Andrew visit the author and there begins an adventure that ends with Andrew killing his lover’s would-be-murderer, and living with the knowledge that in some parallel universe, Marie Kelly lives and breathes.
Which is, of course, a lie. But thus ends Part 1 of The Map of Time.
One of the best parts of the book, the first part of this story immerses the reader in 19th century London. The author brings to life the squalid Whitechapel district and details the distinct social classes that dictated behavior and the course of one’s life. Though not my favorite part, this is, nonetheless, a great piece of writing with incredible storytelling and plot twists (ignoring a writing technique I’ll bring up later).
The second part of The Map of Time tells the story of a new protagonist, Claire Haggerty, who seemingly has absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Harrington, H.G. Wells, or time. Until, that is, her good friend takes her to the future. To the year 2000, to be precise. Once there, she promptly falls in love with a man from the future and a lovely, chaotic love story ensues in which Mr. Wells plays a significant part as a writer. This was my favorite part of the book. Mr. Palma lifts and dashes the reader’s hopes so many times it is truly like riding a roller coaster. Since the stories were initially written as stand-alone short stories, if you decide not to read the entire book, do read this part. It is a wonderful love story.
The last section of the book focuses on H.G. Wells as a time traveler and is a bit of a mystery story. However, to be honest, I skipped most of it. If you are well read in late 19th century science fiction books and love to delve into the philosophical dilemmas these writers tackled in that era, then you’ll love part three. I did not. The only thing I found interesting was the “true” map of time concept. However, it wasn’t cool enough to warrant the slog through the massive info-dump in this section.
Though The Map of Time is well-written, it needed a much stronger editor. There were large passages where the same information was re-told (I imagine a holdover from when the stories stood on their own), overly long letters dump the story on the reader (yes, I know, that’s a literary style), and moral and philosophical tangents, while interesting, were entirely superfluous. The book could have been cut in half and made much better for it – in my opinion.
In addition, our unnamed narrator made far too many appearances. The first time it happened, I felt I had been slapped. Mr. Palma does such a good job of immersing the reader into the world he has created, it really was like getting hit by a cold splash of water. I found it rude and unnerving. I actually put the book down each time it happened, intending to leave it unfinished, but his love-struck characters drew me back each time.
Given all that, I’m glad I read it and I do recommend the book (with reservations). Mr. Palma has an incredible talent for pulling at the heart-strings and coming to profound statements in a startling manner. If you have loads of time, and have read all the (male) contemporary writers of H.G. Wells, The Map of Time can be an entertaining book that I think will become a sort of cult-classic.
N.E. White, October 2012.