The Map of Time
By Felix J. Palma
This book took forever to read! There were points when I honestly thought I wasn't going to finish this one. Not that it was a bad book, in the end it was extremely compelling and I would recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction, horror, fantasy or historical fiction but, Jeez Louise, did it take a while to get going. But more on that later. Let's get down to the nuts and bolts.
Set in Victorian London, The Map of Time is a loosely (but ingeniously) connected series of stories about time travel centered around a fictionalized H.G. Wells and a charlatan by the name of Gilliam Murray. The stories take place in the wake of the publication of Well's first novel, The Time Machine, and London's burgeoning obsession with the idea of time travel.
Murray has capitalized on this obsession by opening a clever time travel agency that allows travelers to visit the year 2000, via a hole in the fabric of time, where they will be treated to a surprisingly choreographed battle to decide the fate of humanity between humans and automatons. Naturally, the London of 1895 eats it up and Murray gets rich beyond his wildest dreams off his elaborate hoax. Much like the novel, Murray's calculated use of smoke and mirrors allow his patrons to believe what they see though, as Murray points out later in the novel, people are prepared to believe anything.
It's this smoke and mirrors that drew me into this novel more than anything else. Time and again throughout this novel, the narrator describes various methods of time travel and presents them as possible ways in which to travel through the fourth dimension only to deconstruct them craftily as the narrative progresses. As a reader, I began to feel as duped as the marks who paid Murray an exorbitant fee to see a musical theater version of the future. But since I had only paid the price of a used book (and since the ultimate payoff in this book is so enthralling) I didn't close the book with the same bad taste in my mouth that Murray's gullible patrons must have had when the discovered his hoax.
And what a payoff! While I will not even hint at the final 200 pages of the novel, I will admit that it was one of the most exciting endings to a novel I have read in a long time. It is here that Palma makes the leap into pure science fiction and never looks back. Palma bends and twists time in complicated folds reminiscent of The Time Traveler's Wife and left me re-reading passages twice (and even thrice) just to make sure I understand the intricacies. Palma's science fiction universe is positively engrossing and extraordinarily compelling. It is of the sort that will have you up late at night salivating over the "what ifs."
But never mind the science fiction. With a cast of characters that includes not only H.G. Wells but also Henry James, Bram Stoker, Jack the Ripper, Joseph Merrick and the Queen of England herself, The Map of Time is also an exquisitely realized piece of historical fiction. The compellingly believable hoax concocted by Murray to explain is version of time travel is a wonderful side step into the realm of fantasy and the chillingly sinister importance of Jack the Ripper to the story adds an element of horror to an already layered novel. For anyone who likes any (or ll) of these genres, The Map of Time is a real treat... once you get into it, that is.
Which gets me to my only complaint about this novel: The incessant backstory toward the beginning of the book. The novel is told from the perspective of an unnamed but fully realized and entirely omnipotent narrator who seems extremely concerned with the reader's attention span but completely confident that the story he is telling is on for the ages. I was more than a little frustrated with this incessant reassurance. If it was such a great story why not simply get to the good story rather than dilly-dally through the Tom Jones of it all. Although it would seem that Palma, in this respect is his own worst critic. At one point Wells is speaking to Murray about Murray's manuscript:
In my opinion, not only have you started out with a rather naive premise, but you have developed it in a most unfortunate way, stifling its few possibilities. The structure of your narrative is inconsistent and muddled, the episodes are linked only tenuously, and in the end one has the impression that events occur higgledy-piggledy, without any inner cohesion, simply because it suits you.
This quote could have easily been a slander of Palma's first 200 pages. What really galled me was that by the end of the novel I discovered that a good chunk of the initial backstories were entirely unnecessary and did nothing to further the cohesiveness of the narrative. It all seemed like literary filler. For what? I'm still not sure.
But once through those first 200 pages, I must admit that Felix J. Palma has indeed written a science fiction novel for the ages and worth the investment in time. For anyone picking this tome up, I impress upon you the need for patience. I promise you that if you keep the faith, Palma will pay out. Oh yeah, and it has a really cool cover.