The Map of Time: Exquisite, but too long

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Map of Time by Felix J. PalmaThe Map of Time by Félix J. Palma

PLOT SUMMARY: Privileged Andrew Harrington is a despondent young man who plans on killing himself. Eight years earlier, he had found the love of his life. It didn’t matter that their lives were vastly different — he born to a rich and entrepreneurial family and she a woman struggling to survive as a prostitute in London’s seedy Whitechapel section. He’s determined to declare his love for her and live happily ever after, even if it means leaving his privileged life behind. Everything changes however, when his beloved Marie Kelly becomes the last victim of the villainous Jack the Ripper.

That’s where H.G. Wells comes in. The publication of his novel, The Time Machine, has set off a furor of interest and curiosity about the possibility of time travel. There is even a company called Murray’s Time Travel that offers trips through time to witness a battle between humans and robots in the year 2000. Andrew’s cousin Charles is certain that Wells can rescue Andrew from despondency by helping him travel back in time to stop Jack the Ripper from killing Marie Kelly…

Claire Haggerty is young, wealthy, and very dissatisfied with her life. She’s sure she’s been born into the wrong time in history. She has no interest in the men who court her and she certainly has no interest in marrying any of them. She fears she will never find a man who will utterly sweep her off her feet and make her fall helplessly in love.

That is, until her cousin Lucy talks her into buying a ticket to one of the expeditions to the year 2000 through Murray’s Time Travel. All the advertisements boast of an incredible battle over the fate of the world between humans, led by the heroic Captain Derek Shackleton, and automatons. Entranced by Captain Shackleton’s courage—not to mention his manly physique — Claire is positive that she’s finally found the man she’s been looking for. She’s determined to go on the expedition and steal away from the group, profess her love for Shackleton, and stay with him in the future.

But Captain Shackleton isn’t quite who he seems, and he and Claire are caught up in a dangerous situation that threatens to rip them apart. And it’s once again up to H.G. Wells to use his imagination to protect a romance that spans time and class…

In the third act of The Map of Time, H.G. Wells must “save” his own life. A brilliant writer who doubts his own skill, Wells has just finished the manuscript for The Invisible Man. No one, not even his beloved wife Jane, has read it. So naturally he’s horrified when he learns that the opening lines to The Invisible Man have been scrawled on the wall above the body of a homeless man who has apparently been murdered by a weapon not of this world. His horror mounts when two additional murders take place, each accompanied by mysterious opening lines, followed by a map requesting his presence at 50 Berkeley Square — the most haunted house in London.

Thus, Wells is compelled to embark on a desperate journey to save himself and his future. And in turn, he must make a momentous decision that will change the course of his — and his wife Jane’s — life forever…

CLASSIFICATION: Historical fiction, alternate history, time travel, mystery, steampunk, pulp adventure, romance and Victorian London collide in The Map of Time, recalling elements of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Jules Verne, The Prestige by Christopher Priest, Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, From Hell, and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

FORMAT/INFO: The Map of Time is 624 pages long, divided over three Parts and forty-three Roman-numbered chapters. Narration is in the third-person omniscient via an unknown narrator who will occasionally break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. The Map of Time is self-contained, but I believe the book is part of a trilogy. June 28, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The Map of Time via Atria Books. The UK version was published on June 9, 2011 via HarperCollins. The Map of Time was translated from Spanish to English by Nick Caistor.

ANALYSIS: Welcome, dear reader, as you plunge into the thrilling pages of our melodrama where you will find adventures of which you never dreamt!

If like any reasonable person you believe that time is a river sweeping away all that is born towards the darkest shore, in these pages you will discover that the past can be revisited, that mankind can retrace his footsteps thanks to a machine that can travel through time.

Your emotion and astonishment are guaranteed.

So begins Félix J. Palma’s astonishing novel, The Map of Time. A novel about time travel — set during Victorian London — that was inspired by The Time Machine and pays homage to its famous author, H.G.

Wells, who is not only a character in the book, but the main protagonist. As a fan of time travel — who doesn’t like Back to the Future or Terminator?—Victorian settings and H.G. Wells, The Map of Time immediately captured my interest and filled me with excitement. However, much to my delight, reading The Map of Time was even better than anticipated.

For starters, Félix J. Palma’s writing is simply exquisite: “It felt so good to let himself be enveloped by the protective mantle of that immense unconditional love, that magic cape shielding him from life’s coldness, the icy indifference of every day that made his soul tremble, the incessant wind filtering through the shutters and seeping into his innermost depths.” Fortunately, there is much more to the author besides gorgeous prose. Félix J. Palma is the complete package, excelling in all phases as a writer including characterization, world-building, creativity and storytelling. (NOTE: As lovely as Félix J. Palma’s writing is, it would not be possible in this edition if not for Nick Caistor’s wonderful translation.)

Characters for instance, are incredibly lifelike with their innermost thoughts and feelings intimately portrayed. Fittingly, Félix J. Palma spends the most time with Herbert George Wells, fleshing out the events that fired his passion for literature and writing; his roundabout path to becoming a published author instead of a baker’s assistant; the meeting with Joseph Merrick—the Elephant Man—that inspired The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau; and his opinions on such varied topics as book reviews, the social commentary found within his novels, love, parallel universes, fate vs. free will, and so on. Since The Map of Time is a work of fiction, Félix J. Palma does take liberties with certain aspects of H.G. Wells’ life, but because the author writes with such authenticity and attention to detail, it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction. Andrew Harrington, Claire Haggerty, Captain Derek Shackleton and Inspector Colin Garrett of Scotland Yard are written with the same skill and intimacy, but none of these characters are as compelling as Wells, although Gilliam Murray—a supporting character—succeeds as an interesting rival to the author.

Félix J. Palma also does a masterful job with the setting, recreating a Victorian London that makes the reader feel like he traveled back in time. Personally though, I was more impressed with the author’s ability to integrate actual historical figures and places into the novel in a manner that felt natural and convincing, including Jack the Ripper, Marie Kelly, Whitechapel, Joseph Merrick, Dr. Treves, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and 50 Berkeley Square. I also appreciated the numerous references to the era—Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Darwin, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nikola Tesla, Allan Kardec, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, King Solomon’s Mines, Inspector Frederick Abberline—that reminded me why the Victorian period is one of my favorite settings in literature.

Time travel meanwhile, is represented in The Map of Time by four different methods: the very same time machine that is depicted in H.G. Wells’ classic novel; a fourth dimension—described as a pink plain—where time is stopped and its inhabitants can create holes to different moments of the time continuum, including May 20, 2000; a machine that digs tunnels through the fabric of time; and Homo temporis, humans who developed the ability to travel through time using their minds. Only one of these methods is actually viable in the book, but all four concepts provide the reader with countless pages of entertainment, thought-provoking moral complexity, and mind-bending paradoxes.

Plot-wise, The Map of Time consists of three Parts, each Part relating a separate tale, with all three stories connected by certain characters and themes including H.G. Wells, Gilliam Murray, love, and time travel. The story’s strength lies in its unpredictability, which in turn, is orchestrated by a mysterious omniscient narrator who uses clever misdirection, well-timed surprises and shocking plot twists to constantly keep readers on their toes. At the same time, Félix J. Palma manages to keep things accessible, despite the complexity and ambitiousness of the story.

Unfortunately, as much as I loved The Map of Time, Félix J. Palma’s novel is not perfect. For one, because of an extraordinary amount of backstory, over two hundred pages go by before any real adventure even transpires in the book. An issue that recurs throughout the novel, though not at the same extreme as the beginning of the book. Not only that, but the author’s writing can be long-winded at times which, combined with all of the backstory, results in a page count that is much longer than necessary. Admittedly, the omniscient narrator’s presence helps alleviate these issues by directly addressing concerns that a reader may have—why the backstory is important for instance, or the reason for switching to another POV in the middle of a paragraph—but nevertheless, the novel could have benefited from additional editing, like the unnecessary details surrounding William Harrington’s ascent to fortune and social status. Furthermore, Félix J. Palma has a tendency to explain certain concepts, plot twists and revelations in explicit detail, as if afraid readers would be unable to figure out things on their own. Finally, as a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I felt cheated a couple of times because of the unexpected direction The Map of Time took, but the novel easily redeems itself in the excellent third act. That said, the novel’s conclusion does feels a bit anticlimactic, especially considering everything that came before…

CONCLUSION: Even with imperfections, Félix J. Palma’s The Map of Time is quite possibly a masterpiece, if not a future classic. At the very least, the novel deserves all of the praise it has received thus far, and will receive in the future. Granted, The Map of Time will not be for everyone, despite the genre-defying scope of the novel, but anyone who can appreciate what Félix J. Palma’s book has to offer will be in for a treat. As for myself, The Map of Time is certainly one of the best novels I’ve read all year, in any genre, and is a book that I will be recommending to readers for years to come…

~Robert Thompson


The Map of Time by Felix J. PalmaFelix J. Palma’s The Map of Time is meta-fiction. It’s about how we think about stories. Specifically, it’s about how we think about time-travel stories. H.G. Wells, who wrote The Time Machine, is the book’s hero, acting as an agent of time through three linked stories, all set in or starting in 1888 London.

Each section opens with an address to the reader, promising excitement and wonder. The first introduction ends with the words, “Your emotion and astonishment are guaranteed.” The tone is that of a high-class carnival barker. This book, the author is telling us, is an Entertainment. It is a book, and it wants you to remember that.

The first two stories deal with love as the impetus for the exploration of time. In the first section, Andrew Harrington, son of wealthy businessman, plans to kill himself on the eighth anniversary of the death of his true love. Marie Kelly, his beloved, was the last victim of Jack the Ripper. After Marie’s death, the Ripper was captured and executed, but Andrew still pines for her. His cousin Charles comes up with a scheme to travel back in time and save her, but he needs the help of H.G. Wells.

Those of us who read Ray Bradbury’s seminal time-travel story, “A Sound of Thunder,” know the theory that the smallest change in the past creates ripples that can build to a cascade of changes in the future, but can those ripples run backward? In the second section, a lady’s parasol left behind in the year 2000 has dramatic impact on two people in 1888, and Wells must step in to help them.

In the final section of the book, Wells must act to save himself and two other famous Victorian writers from a time-traveling villain who has found a sinister way to collect the rarest of first editions.

The Map of Time’s prose is beautiful, and Palma incorporates an impish authorial voice that reminds us that we are reading a work of fiction. The voice points out that it can leave a scene and move instantly to another scene; that it can shift from one point of view to another in the middle of a paragraph. Throughout the book, characters meditate on the nature of writing, or of having written. Gilliam Murray, the successful businessman who owns Murray’s Time Travel, remains a bitter rival of Wells until the end, because Wells did what he could not — write a successful novel. Whether through books, letters or the oral tradition, words are the most powerful time-travel tool humans have, and The Map of Time celebrates that.

In the first section, a lot of time is spent with Andrew and his cousin Charles. Long before we get any sense of time-travel, we watch Andrew develop an obsession with an artist’s model turned prostitute who lives and works in the Whitechapel area. Andrew’s infatuation is believable, but there is no chance that these two people will ever have lasting happiness, and the book knows this even if Andrew doesn’t.

When their bodies came together again, he realized that far from being an act of madness, falling in love with her was possibly the most reasonable thing he had ever done. And when he left the room, with the memory of her skin on his lips, he tried not to look at her husband Joe, who was leaning against the wall shivering with cold.

For all his protestations of love, Andrew has no plans to remove Marie from the life she is living, and she knows it. This changes her behavior and sets in motion the tragedy that Andrew wants desperately to undo.

The second section also deals with two unlikely lovers, separated not by social class, but by a century of time. Claire Haggerty is an upper-class girl with feminist leanings who resents the restrictions placed on women and is bored to screaming by the eligible young men her mother parades past her. As a diversion, Claire and her friend Lucy take Murray’s time-travel excursion, and in the future — May 20, 2000, the only point in the future Murray’s apparatus can reach — she meets the heroic Captain Derek Stapleton. Breaking the rules of the expedition, Claire sneaks away from the group and approaches the handsome, enigmatic Captain. They share a meaningful moment. When she returns to Murray’s dimension-spanning vessel the Cronotilus she leaves behind her parasol. This sets in motion a series of incidents that bring together an unlikely couple, and once again, Wells is called upon to help them.

In the third section, Wells is confronted with a series of murders, each with words chalked on the walls near the body. This is a chilling echo of the Jack the Ripper murders that open the book, but it is even more personal to Wells, who recognizes one passage from the book he has just completed — a book that no one else has seen.

The Map of Time isn’t about the mechanics of time-travel; it’s about the stories we tell ourselves about those mechanics. There are four types of time travel used in the book. [SPOILER ALERT: If you want to read it, highlight the following text] One is fraudulent, made up by a character as a way to cover up how he really came to be in 1888. [END SPOILER]. Only one, Murray’s route through the fourth dimension to a specific point in the future, is thoroughly explained, and Murray himself describes it as “magic.” Characters, even minor characters, discuss possible ramifications, including time paradoxes and the moral dilemmas that crop up when someone from the future brings knowledge from the future to the relative present.

In some places, plot points were resolved a little too neatly, but I forgave that because the concepts are so heady. Palma explores the ways we most commonly travel in time, not through machines, but via thought, imagination and most of all through words. He writes a time-travel novel as if Jorge Luis Borges had written it.

The collaboration between Palma and Nick Caistor, his translator, creates a rich, textured, humorous text that holds multiple layers of meaning. Fans of pure fantasy will have to be patient, but they will be rewarded. Readers who like books about books, and books about writing, will embrace this. For those of us who are still in a pre-Kindle phase, the physical artifact of the book is a thing of beauty with a stunning cover and exquisite endpapers depicting the Map of Time.

~Marion Deeds


The Map of Time by Felix J. PalmaI really wanted to like Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time. It has so many elements that usually appeal to me: nested narratives, multiple plot strands, authors as characters, parallel or alternate histories, internal resonances of image and theme and character, metafictional aspects, a mystery or two. And there were certainly parts of the novel I responded to, but overall, it left me feeling underwhelmed and unengaged.

Most simply and most concretely, it just felt way too long. My version comes in at just about 600 pages and I could have easily been happy had it been missing 200 of them. Because the dragging sense of reading a book that is longer than it needs to be colors the entire reading experience past a certain point, and tends to be cumulative, it’s hard to say just how much more I would have enjoyed the book with that one basic change. I’m guessing a substantial amount; it would have been a much more engaging and enjoyable read, though I believe it still would have left me wanting.

Beyond the length issue, I never really connected to any of the characters on a level beyond their mechanical movements through the plot. Part of this is because of the book’s tripartite structure, which means we spend time with some characters and then leave them behind. But I’ve read similarly structured books without this issue arising and certainly I’ve felt more engaged, though less often, with short story characters with whom I spend much, much less time. Here, very few of the characters struck me as particularly memorable or compelling, the exceptions being Joseph Merrick (the “Elephant Man”), whom we see only very briefly in a scene that was for me by far the most affecting one of the entire novel; and Marie Kelly (Jack the Ripper’s last victim), whom we also see for only a brief all-too-short time, and all too briefly in her own words. The other partial exception was H.G. Wells. I say partial because there were times when the character came alive for me as a fully realized person and especially as a writer — and those moments were almost mesmerizing. But as with the others, they were too few and too far between.

The plot is captivating at the start and through much of it, and, as mentioned, would probably have been so throughout had the book lost about a third of its pages. By the mid-point I was starting to feel things lag and by the latter third I was chafing at the bit to finish, not out of a need to know but simply to get to the end. I did enjoy the book’s structure and movement, but not on this scale.

I appreciated the novel’s musings regarding the power of story and words, the essence of time and memory and imagination, the power and place of deception/delusion (imposed from without or within) in human lives and loves, even if some were a bit familiar, and the many allusions that are scattered throughout the book. The prose, though it rarely wowed me, was consistently smooth and precise and it had its shining moments.

If I could pop into H.G. Wells’ machine and go back and convince Palma’s editor to cut 200 or so pages, I’d love the chance to “reread for a first time” this book, as I think I’d enjoy it so much more. But as it is, it strikes me as a clever book a little too clever for its own sake, invested a bit too much with cleverness and not enough with blood and emotion, and a book whose love of its cleverness led it to a self-indulgent length. There’s a lot to enjoy in its 600 pages, but not enough to justify that length, and that tips The Map of Time into the not recommended category. Which is just too bad.

~Bill Capossere


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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

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7 comments

  1. This looks like something I will like!

  2. You make this sound like a great read! And, at the risk of being shallow, I wonder if the cover is as beautiful in life as it is depicted here.

  3. Kat, if you get a chance to get a copy, I highly recommend you do so! It’s available in both audio & ebook formats…

    Marion, the cover is even more beautiful in real-life, especially when it catches the light in a certain way. Plus it includes a very lovely interior illustration of ‘the map of time’.

  4. Okay, I will try that in audio.
    I was going to say something about the pretty cover, but I don’t want Marion to think I’m shallow!

  5. Great review, Robert, to the point ! I’m not a great fan of time travel nor Victorian era, so… how is it I want to get this book now I’ve read your review ?

  6. If you’re not a fan of time travel and the Victorian era, then you might have difficulty with The Map of Time ;) However, the writing is top-notch and the characters are engaging, so maybe that would be enough for you? If you’re intrigued enough, I would at least try and check it out from a library…

  7. I feel the need to pipe up belatedly–Kat, I would *never* think you were shallow!
    I just ordered my copy and await it eagerly.

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