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Monday, June 20, 2011

“The Map of Time” by Félix J. Palma (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Order “The Map of TimeHERE (US) + HERE (UK)

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Félix J. Palma has been unanimously acclaimed by critics as one of the most brilliant and original storytellers of our time. His devotion to the short story genre has earned him more than a hundred awards. The Map of Time is his first novel to be published in English. It received the 2008 Ateneo de Sevila XL Prize and will be published in more than 30 countries.

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 (see below) 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...


Mihai A. said...

Excellent review, as always :)
I ordered this novel last week, but its Romanian edition since the languages are close and hopefully the translation will be good. We suffer a bit at this chapter. I am also trying to improve my Spanish, so hopefully some day I will be able to read them in their original language as well ;D
Anyway, this sounds like a very interesting novel and I am looking forward to see if it is.

Doug M. said...

I knew nothing of this book. But it's description and your review have sold me! :)

redhead said...

Wow, great review, for something that sounds like a ton of fun! Rarely do I read a review and immediately start a search for the book. This is turning into one of those times!

drew said...

Absolutely my favorite book I've read so far this year

Bets Davies said...

I love your review--no. Not the book. I mean your review. You are comprehensive, specifically positive and negative, all without giving anything away. Kudos.

It even made me thing about reading the book. Which I might. Might not. I've gotten jaded about H.G. Wells popping up in varied forms. Sick of any books set in Victorian times, prettified or realistic, and profoundly sick of Jack the Ripper, but that is because of a traumatic workshop experience I cannot now relate (insert small gasp, hand to mouth. Then a long sigh). Who knows though? Maybe I've finally found something to heal my trauma.

Robert said...

Thanks Mihai! I really think you'll like the book :) Definitely let me know what you think of the novel when you get a chance to read it...

Doug, Little Red Reviewer, I'm glad I could be of assistance :D Hopefully you'll enjoy the book as much as I did!

Drew, I wouldn't be surprised if The Map of Time ended up being many other readers' favorite novel of 2011...

Robert said...

Thank you for your comments about the review Bets. I really appreciate it :)

Regarding the book itself, I can understand if you're not in the mood for such a novel. I go through certain moods myself. For instance, I'm quite sick of urban fantasy, even though I used to be a huge fan of the subgenre. Perhaps in time, you'll be willing to give the book a try. If you do, I'll be interested to hear what you think of it...

Thanks again.

Jaedia said...

This book looks fantastic, thanks for the thorough review, definitely won me over.

I go through moods as well, people think I'm odd for it. I haven't actually read a time travel novel before as far as I can remember but I'm definitely not quite in the mood for a heavy read at the moment. However, it's going straight to the wishlist :)

Michelle (Vilutheril) said...

I also really loved this book and your review is great! I really enjoyed the unique narrative voice in this novel and the amusing tangents the story would occasionally go on when the protagonists were doing something boring. I love speculative and literary fiction and I found this combined both to great effect. :)
Definitely one of my favorites this year!

Robert said...

Thanks Jaedia and Michelle! Jaedia, I hope you enjoy the book when you get in a mood to read it :D

Michelle, I have a feeling The Map of Time will end up being a favorite of 2011 for a lot of people when all is said and done...

James said...

I've just ordered this book (mainly due to your review). Really looking forward to reading it, but I've got to clear my TBR pile first. I want to read A Dance With Dragons first though.

Brian - Australia said...

I'm only up to page 60 and loving it. Found it by chance when walking through the book section of local department store. The cover pix and the word 'time' caught my imagination. Can't wait for the story to unfold...

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