Readers who come to The Map of Moments looking for something similar to Mind the Gap are in for a rude shock. Where the first novel of the Hidden Cities was essentially YA, The Map of Moments is steeped in sex and death, a whirlwind ride through centuries of secret history marked by murder, cannibalism, and lust.
The Map of Moments is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, and it’s as much a love letter to the city and its people as it is a lamentation for what has been, perhaps irrevocably, lost. At the same time, it refuses to slip into sentimentality. The New Orleans depicted here isn’t a candy-colored tourist paradise or a twee goth playground, but rather an ancient, haunted city. Marked by tragedy and bounded by darkness, it still strives for the light, even as deadly magical war is waged in its stately homes and cobblestoned streets.
College professor Max Corbett doesn’t know much of this when he returns to the city for the funeral of his ex-girlfriend, Gabrielle. A short-timer in the city who’d taught briefly at Tulane, Max had fled a broken heart and the storm back to Boston after discovering Gabrielle in flagrante delicto with one of his students. Now, though, her body has been recovered from the attic where she barricaded herself for the hurricane, and her cousin Corinne calls him back as perhaps the only other person who cared about her.
Except that there’s more than that, of course. After the funeral, the mysterious conjure-man Ray offers Max what seems to be the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to go back and save Gabrielle. All he has to do is visit magical places within the city and allow that magic to transport him back. Max is just naïve and desperate enough to agree to it, and so begins his tour of the Moments of the city’s secret history that define what it is and how it got that way.
And so Max finds himself on two parallel journeys of discovery, pursued by enemies who have a brutally direct interest in seeing that he fails. One takes him into the past, to witness the magic that made New Orleans what it was. The other takes him across the city as it stands now, one that provides equal understanding as he walks the streets and meets the people that have endured Katrina’s wrath.
The word “seductive” is frequently overused when describing books about New Orleans, but it fits perfectly. Max is seduced: seduced by the city, by Gabrielle, by the responsibilities he takes on himself and by the impossible temptation of somehow making things right. He falls into the action that re-invents him, a willing sacrifice to the city and its possibilities, and he takes the reader with him. The mounting urgency of his quest, his increasing willingness to do whatever it takes to rescue Gabrielle, the slowly dawning realization of how high the stakes really are — all of these suck the reader in as surely as they do Max. The Map of Moments is not an easy, comforting read, but it is an alluring, engrossing one, and a wiser, truer book than something simpler could have been.