The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma

cvr9781451660319_9781451660319_hrOne of the first posts I did for this blog was a review for the first book in this trilogy, The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma. I loved that book.  It was unlike anything else I think I’ve ever read.  A perfect and unusual mix of magical realism, steampunk, historical fiction, science fiction, and (bonus!) the book featured several authors as characters–most noticeably H.G.Wells.

I reread The Map of Time in anticipation of the sequel, and I still really enjoyed it.  And it’s a good thing I did reread, because most of the characters from the first book make appearances in the second.

Whereas the first book revolved around H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the second book focuses on The War of the Worlds.  In an interview I read, Felix J. Palma said the final book in the trilogy will work around the themes of The Invisible Man. Palma must be a Wells superfan.

The second book features new characters as well as old.  It begins with Wells, resuming his place as one of the protagonists in the brief prologue. His life and his values are turned upside down when he is shown a real-live alien (known as ‘Martians’ throughout the book, though it is clear they are not from Mars).

The first part of the book deals with how this Martian came to be in the locked basement of a museum in London.  We are with the stranded crew of an Antarctic exploration ship in the mid-1800s.  Among the crew include Reynolds, head of scientific exploration on the vessel, and ‘Allan’, a misanthropic poet.  The crew discover a flying saucer type craft, and quickly realize that the alien is among them.  Not only that, but these aliens are shape shifters who can take on human form.  As events unfold, we learn more about Reynolds, and about Allan–revealed to be none other than Edgar Allan Poe–and eventually they do defeat the Martian, though they don’t manage to kill him.

Part of why I love these books is the interweaving of fiction and history.  In the story, Poe dies in a hospital after calling out for Reynolds repeatedly.  In real life, Poe died in exactly the same way–no one knows who Reynolds was or why Poe called out for him.  Palma easily works in facts with his fiction.

The next part of the book deals with an American girl, Emma Harlow, who is perpetually bored with her predictable and numerous suitors.  One, Montgomery Gilmore, is particularly annoying.  To get rid of him, she issues an impossible challenge.  Recreate the Martian Invasion from Wells’ novel, and she will marry him.  Fail, and he will have to leave her alone forever.

We quickly learn that this Montgomery Gilmore is actually Gilliam Murray, the conniving scam artist and ‘Master of Time’ that appeared in the first book. He has faked his own death, lost a few hundred pounds, and reformed himself for the sake of love.  The man portrayed as an utter villain in the first book is like a lovesick puppy in the second.

The story returns to H.G. Wells soon after, as this Martian invasion begins.  Except, we quickly discover that this recreated invasion is in fact a real one.  People begin dying left and right.  The remainder of the book deals with the aftermath (both immediate and a few years down the road) of this horrific invasion.  Humanity is enslaved and the ‘Martians’ prepare to bring their entire species to our planet in order to use up its resources.  We see other characters from the first book, including Charles Winslow and ‘Captain Derek Shackleton’, who has taken up a new life as James Peachey.

In typical Palma fashion, there are numerous timelines, some of which overlap. For every fact we know, there are 2 that are a surprise.  All of the action is curated for us by the extra-omniscient narrator, who can see not only all that occurs in this timeline, but everything that occurs in other ‘parallel timelines’ as well.

I really enjoyed the book, though I cannot say I thought it as good as the first one.  Part of what I loved about the first book was not knowing what to believe.  There are 2-3 different instances of time travel in that book, one after another, all of which are absolutely fake.  Yet, at the end there is genuine time travel.  Each time I found myself thinking…is this real this time?  No…and by the end I thought, there’s no way this is real…and it was.  I liked being flummoxed.  Palma tries something similar; there are real aliens and fake aliens, faked identities, reversals of time…but because I’m wise to his tricks now, it didn’t have quite the same effect on me.  It wasn’t really a fault with the book, just the fact that tricks like that only work one time.  You can’t recapture the first experience.

My other problem with the book was making Gilliam Murray a main character.  He is presented as something of a hero in this book, winning over the girl and making friends out of his nemesis, Wells.  In the first book, he is a morbidly obese con artist who has ordered the killing of at least 2 people who threatened to expose him.  He is arrogant, wrathful, petty, and (at best) pathetic.  I had a hard time believing him immediately reformed.  Palma did not present enough of his inner dialogue for me to believe this transformation.  Of all the characters in the first book, he was the last I would want to see again.  To find him so unrecognizable was a shock and hard to swallow.  I didn’t buy it, even though Palma clearly wanted me to.  I do think that people are absolutely capable of reformation, but it’s hard to believe without seeing more of his inner thoughts that explain it.

I also think there may have been two many characters in this book.  There is a narcoleptic inspector from Scotland Yard that flits in and out without much time to be a real character.  Andrew, who is a main character in the first book, flits in for a second and is gone the next. There is the crew of the Antarctic ship, which we learn about for a few hundred pages and then they are gone.  It’s just a lot to keep track of.

But those were minor problems, which did not detract from my enjoying the book. It was still well written, imaginative, and kept me guessing.  There were still excellent characters and a charmingly obscure narrator. I am definitely going to read the third book in the series.

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