Felix J. Palma’s New York Times bestseller The Map Of Time was a charming, clever debut, keeping readers guessing about what was really happening while offering a series of beautiful interwoven love stories. Its strengths make Palma’s sequel, The Map Of The Sky, disappointing by comparison. While the novel has some emotional high points, it’s too often as straightforward as the science-fiction blockbusters to which it pays tribute.
Where The Map Of Time followed H.G. Wells and the events around his penning of The Time Machine, The Map Of The Sky takes place after the release of War Of The Worlds. Soon, London is abuzz with speculation about a Martian invasion, which turns out to be more than fiction when Wells accidentally awakens an alien, who sets about conquering Earth with brutal efficiency.
The Map Of Time’s three sections included linking characters, but they didn’t really come together until the book’s climax. The Map Of The Sky uses a more standard formula, briefly introducing the plot, then plunging back several decades to the events that lead to Wells’ alien encounter. This turns out to be a long tribute to the novella “Who Goes There?”, the inspiration for John Carpenter’s The Thing. A crew of desperate sailors stuck in the ice while searching for an opening to the center of the earth in Antarctica encounters a crashed flying saucer and an alien monster that takes the form of the people it kills. There are a few inspired moments of horror and paranoia-induced comedy, and Palma adds a nice twist by following the impact the events had on one particular survivor, but this is a story that’s been told many times before, and didn’t really need another retelling.
The second section of the novel plays out like any number of alien-invasion action films, though setting it in the Victorian Age leaves humanity even more hopelessly outgunned. Palma turns one of the villains of The Map Of The Sky into a romantic hero, which initially seems forced, but shapes into a sweet look at the transformative power of love. Wells’ dry wit and perpetual contempt continue to be highly entertaining, like when he responds to a paranormal investigator’s tale of how he first delved into the occult with a snide, “Congratulations on believing in werewolves.”
While the finale is predictable, its still clever, and the touching acts of heroism amid the truly disturbing, dire situation Palma paints showcases his talent for moving prose. But those moments never reach the impact he delivered in The Map Of Time, making The Map Of The Sky feel flat by comparison.