Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Justina Robson's second novel, Mappa Mundi, is a strange mixture of techno-thriller and romantic tale as it follows the budding relationship between Doctor Natalie Armstrong and FBI Agent Jude Westhorpe. Their relationship is built around Natalie's research into a process which can lead to mind control and Jude's investigations into the same project, code named Mappa Mundi.
Robson follows her story through several characters, many of whom are introduced in the opening pages of the novel in the form of short vignettes taken from their earlier lives. This gives Robson the chance to explore their personalities and some of the events which made them the way they are. At the same time, she doesn't reveal all of the details of their lives, allowing some important facts to come out later in the course of the novel. The character who is most intriguing in this prelude is Mikhail Guskov, the defector Westhorpe is chasing.
Although Mappa Mundi has much of the feel of a techno-thriller, it lacks the pace associated with a techno-thriller. Robson spends much of the novel setting up the situation, both of Armstrong's research and her relationship with Westhorpe, as well as other plots concerning her other characters. She only slowly reveals information about Mappa Mundi and related projects which are at the center of her tale of espionage. These revelations come too slowly and the novel is not sustained by the budding, but somewhat telegraphed, interpersonal relationships Robson does focus on.
Robson's biggest failure is in her depiction of US government. Although it doesn't play an enormous role in the novel, whenever Robson refers to the US government, she does so in terms more akin to a Parliamentary system of government rather than the Presidential system the United States has. For a reader who understands the US Constitution and the way it works, these offhand comments serve to break the spell she is otherwise weaving with her words.
Mappa Mundi is an ambitious second novel. Robson is attempting a complex multi-viewpoint story. While her characters and plot mostly succeed, the pace of the book doesn't fit what she is doing. Rather than keeping the reader on the edge of his seat reading, it leaves the reader wondering when the Robson is going to introduce action into the story.