The end of the world is nigh: Send in the novelists!
In Felix J. Palma’s third outing in his speculative fiction “Map” trilogy, the creators of the Mad Hatter, the Invisible Man and Sherlock Holmes team up to save the universe from the Age of Chaos. Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) wants to send humanity to safety through an interstellar rabbit hole, while H.G. Wells believes the solution lies in a serum. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is on hand less as a theorist than a man of action.
In Palma’s reinventive trilogy, Wells’s original works have a way of escaping from their pages and threatening humanity. The Spanish author began with Wells’s “The Time Machine” in “The Map of Time” and continued with “The War of the Worlds” in “The Map of the Sky.” This time, Wells finds himself confronting the Invisible Man, “the horror of what can be imagined but not seen.”
Time travel, Palma notes, had given Wells “a lot of headaches as well as an archenemy. Although, to be fair, the re-creation of the Martian invasion from his book ‘The War of the Worlds’ had converted that same enemy into one of his closest friends. He found it difficult to imagine what a possible encounter with the invisible man of his novel might bestow on him. A new pet?”
The three authors are aided by Wells’s brilliant wife, Jane, and the narcoleptic, one-armed Scotland Yard inspector who helped battle the Martians. Also on hand is Wells’s former nemesis, the millionaire Gilliam Murray, whom fans will remember from “The Map of Time” and “The Map of the Sky.” A border collie named Newton, whistling teapots and aniseed-flavored Kemp’s biscuits also have key roles to play. There are seances, a haunted house (with a gigantic dog said to be prowling the moors), cyborg executioners and battles fought with everything from a crossbow and a mace to a well-aimed hairpin.
Guiding us through all of this is Palma’s narrator, one eyebrow expertly arched. Although it’s not necessary to have read the first two books to follow the action, longtime readers will feel the most rewarded by long-awaited answers to the narrator’s identity.
And of course, “any story worth its salt must have a villain, don’t you agree?” asks a woman before vanishing from a locked room.
Many of these characters are chasing a MacGuffin: a book titled “The Map of Chaos,” which promises the key to salvation. “It was small, scarcely larger than a missal, its covers bound in dark leather. On the front, embossed in gold, was a star with eight arrow-like points.”
Palma, who clearly loves these classic Victorian authors, glosses over certain aspects of his characters’ real lives that have been the subject of uncomfortable theories: A darker explanation for Dodgson’s preference for the company of young girls, for example, is never broached. Wells wonders at one point whether Jane would permit an open marriage, but he doesn’t go through with it in this novel. And although Doyle is an ardent spiritualist, there is no mention of fairies. (“I am not gullible!” Doyle roars at one point, with a hilarious lack of self-awareness.) In fact, much of the delight of “The Map of Chaos” lies in Palma’s dry humor and his expectation that readers are familiar enough with his characters’ works that they can keep up with the in-jokes.
For those less fascinated by the Victorians, Palma includes plenty of derring-do, although mercifully less gore than figured in “The Map of the Sky.” Although the plot spans multiple worlds and nearly 600 pages, he keeps the action from spinning out of control while commenting on everything from the nature of love to the challenge of writing. (“A real writer!” Doyle snorts when a 20th-century author makes an appearance at the Natural History Museum. “I wish I knew what the devil that is.”)
It’s no surprise that Palma’s heroes are writers. He wears his love for old-fashioned storytelling on an ink-stained sleeve. Bookworms are always searching for new realms in which to lose themselves. With this trilogy, Palma offers an homage and multiple new worlds to explore.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post. For all of The Washington Post’s book coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.