Review: The Map of Time

The Map of Time
Félix J. Palma (trans. Nick Caistor)
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster
$26.00, hardcover, 624 pages
Also available as an ebook ($12.99)
Release date: June 28, 2011

The Map of Time presents three separate stories set in Victorian England. In the first, Andrew Harrington seeks to travel through time to save Jack the Ripper’s last victim, with whom Andrew was in love despite the differences in their social class. The second centers on Claire Haggerty’s desires to find a world where she belongs; she settles on the year 2000 when England has been overrun by robots. The final section has H.G. Wells determining which universe is real and which is merely a parallel universe destined to end abruptly.

If that seems confusing, you’re not far off. The three stories are tied together loosely by the illusion and reality of time travel and by the presence of Wells.

The ideas behind the novel are promising. The first two sections look at the ethics and paradoxes of time travel, while simultaneously rejecting it.

Whether Wells helps Harrington really save Mary Kelly, thus creating a parallel universe in which she and Harrington can live out their lives together, isn’t as important as the effect of believing in possibility. Likewise, Haggerty’s search for somewhere her 21st-century outlook is at home and her beau’s search for meaning in life doesn’t depend on his true identity or whether Haggerty visits the future. Much like Dorothy, the answers they seek were at home all along. To explain more about the ins and outs of the Harrington and Haggerty plots leads into spoiler territory.

Not that there’s much to be spoiled. The Map of Time doesn’t live up to its promise nor its book-jacket description. The characters are superficial and show no objection to being pushed into various set pieces by their overly vocal creator. Imitating the “dear reader” voice of some Victorian authors, Palma inserts himself as a commentator on action and character. At one point, he tells the reader he’s going to skip over a scene because it would be boring otherwise.

Wells is an integral part of Harrington’s story and pops in and out of Haggerty’s. He receives his own focus in the final section of the book where he, Henry James and Bram Stoker are told a time traveler is about to kill them and claim some of their works as his own. Wells is perhaps the most well-developed character of the novel. Not surprising as Palma has historical details to draw on. But the section feels underdeveloped and tacked on, as if Palma wanted a better hook to draw in readers.

He may not have needed one. The Victorian era is a favorite setting for authors, particularly those who dabble in time travel without jumping into steampunk. Like its cousins, The Map of Time makes sure readers revisit the high points of the time as if moving through a checklist: Jack the Ripper, Joseph Merrick, electricity, social mores. Some of these are relevant to the plot; others, mere waystations before the last page. Wells’ meeting with Merrick is the best nod to the genre tropes, with the conversation having an emotional resonance absent from the rest of the novel.

The main problem with The Map of Time isn’t that it’s a bad novel. Palma’s writing can be engaging, and the pages turn quickly. Readers looking for a great time travel story or Victorian novel or simply a good read, however, will be disappointed. Too often, Palma neglects what could be a good novel in favor of moving quickly to the next section or wrapping up the novel. Glimpses of a novel that could have been devoted to Tom Blunt’s life in the lower classes or one about Wells’ personal life may cause readers to wish they could find a parallel universe to read these (possibly) more rewarding stories.

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