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The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2015, 560 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Dark Defiles cover

Firstly I must say I am not the intended target for this sort of stuff. I did enjoy and admire Morgan’s earlier novels but they were solidly SF, with no tinge of fantasy. While there are again hints in the text that the setting of The Dark Defiles may be rooted in the real world – albeit unimaginably long ago in the book’s timeline – and machines that seem to be AIs which would make this a fantasy/SF cross, my misgivings about the second in Morgan’s Land Fit for Heroes series (which I reviewed here) are reinforced in this last of the trilogy. Yes, the main characters are rounded and resourceful and the politicking believable but the narrative focuses almost unremittingly on violence. And our hero has magic powers. I also found that the Dark Lords – and the even darker lords in this one – appear too late to convince entirely that they are worthy opponents.

Still, Morgan can undoubtedly write and his world is well-imagined, dense and detailed but this hand, that could have been a strength, is to my mind overplayed. Background is delivered so minutely that it often gets in the way of story, indeed at one point info dumping about some minor characters is actually expressed as a list. Apart from the externals – not only do we have gods to contend with but there are incidental lizard folk to be fought against and also here be dragons (well, one dragon) – like in so many fantasy tales the society against which this is portrayed is mediæval in form. Then again, without this, it is difficult to see how so many sword fights could be fitted in to 500 plus pages.

The book’s structure is both standard and unusual. We start with three viewpoint characters and follow them to the end (whatever that end is for each of them) but their tales bifurcate early as Ringil Eskiath is separated from Archeth Indamaninarmal and Egar Dragonbane; and never become one again. This is in contrast to most narratives and is a brave decision by Morgan. Yet, despite the cover saying “It ends here….” the ending does leave scope for more.

People do seem to relish this sort of thing; but I enjoyed Morgan’s SF better. I hope he returns to it for his next project.

Pedant’s corner:- didn’t use to be (used,) a missing full stop at the end of a line of dialogue, like a herdsmen (herdsman,) hingeing (the normal English spelling of this is hinging, but Morgan has spent part of his life in Scotland where the verb to “hing” means something entirely different hence hingeing would be my preference: hinging is used later though,) careful not apportion (not to apportion,) judgement of those beings (judgement of is for a case, for beings it would be judgement on,) to breath it (breathe,) sprung (sprang – which appears elsewhere,) bid it goodbye (bade it goodbye,) “are going make” (are going to make,) do the math (maths, if you please, x 2) “He’s going pull” (going to pull,) “the Talons of the Sun” (twice this phrase is given a singular verb, surely talons are plural?) gestures him join (to join.) This is a remarkably low strike count of literals for over 500 pages of densely printed text.

David Mitchell and Ursula Le Guin

David Mitchell (for my reviews of whose Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet click on the links) has written an article very appreciative of Ursula Le Guin and published in Saturday’s Guardian. It seems it was Le Guin who inspired Mitchell to become a writer.

Well, there’s always someone to blame. In my case it was Robert Silverberg; but Le Guin came a close second – and that only because I came to her later.

Mitchell puts Le Guin’s Earthsea in the Fantasy world’s super league along with Tolkein and now George RR Martin. He argues Earthsea is a superior creation to Middle Earth. Since I never managed to get past book one of Lord of the Rings (probably because I came to it in my late rather than early teens) I would have to concur.

Though Mitchell doesn’t actually rank them against each other I would also place Earthsea above Martin’s Westeros since that world is too focused on violence and its source material is more obvious. Le Guin’s seems to have sprung out of her own imagination and experiences.

The first book in Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence has apparently now been given a Folio Society edition.

Three Days to Never by Tim Powers

Corvus, 2013, 430 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.*

 Three Days to Never cover

This is a surreal tale. A modern urban fantasy/SF crossover (well, 1987; though someone has travelled back in time from 2006) featuring multiple cultural references – both high and low brow – agents of the Israeli Secret Service (one of whom has premonitions,) a group of Egyptian Occultists, the afore-mentioned time travel, a mummified head that is somehow still alive and is kept in a box, ghosts, an astral plane, a blind woman who can see only through the eyes of those close by, a father and daughter connected by a psychic link, and a lost Charlie Chaplin film.

The time machine itself – a contraption which requires you to stand on a gold swastika shape plus place your hands into the prints of Charlie Chaplin’s lost square from Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre in order for it to work – has been kept in their back yard in what the Marrity family call the Kaleidsocope Shed. Importantly, Frank Marrity and his daughter Daphne are descended from Einstein through Frank’s grandmother Lisa (originally Lieserl.) The plot kicks off when she uses the maschinschen to travel sideways in time and this alerts the groups searching for it.

So far, so ordinary. That Powers manages to allow us to make sense of all of it is a sign of the command he has over his material.

*The library had this labelled as a thriller. While it certainly has thriller elements I doubt those who don’t have some familiarity with fantasy or SF will find it a straightforward read. For aficionados it’s good stuff though.

Pedant’s corner:- When paragraphs begin with a piece of dialogue the start quote mark is omitted, one instance of Kaleidosope for Kaleidoscope, sayi (saying?) supercedes (supersedes,) hiterto (hitherto,) intefere (interfere,) a Dahpne for Daphne, “whistling in the wind wing” (????) worse comes to worse, was was (one was would suffice.)

Irregularity. Edited by Jared Shurin.

Jurassic London, 2014, 303 p. Reviewed for Interzone 256, Jan-Feb 2015.

 Irregularity cover

Irregularity is an anthology of short stories inspired by the history of Science from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries (the back cover invokes the Age of Reason) and intended to coincide with an exhibition, Ships, Clocks and Stars, The Quest for Longitude, at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
To emphasise the “olde” feel the book is printed in a reconstruction of a seventeenth century typeface – though we are spared that italic-f-shape once used for the letter “s”. It has an unusual dedication, “To failure,” plus five internal illustrations adapted from paintings in the Museum’s collection.

The Prologue, Irregularity by Nick Harkaway, which sets the tone, has a woman bequeathed a library in which she finds a book which bears a cover described as similar (to all intents and purposes identical) to the one we are reading, not only relating her life story up to that point but also seeming to tell her future.
In the Afterword, Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring broadly define Science as the search for nature’s laws in order to codify them and ask what happens when things don’t fit. (Answering that last question is actually the most important scientific endeavour.) Irregularity’s contents are about just such attempts to understand the world.

As a coda, positioned after the afterword and which could easily be missed by a less than careful reader, an “email” to the editor comments on the impossibility of a book that loops back on itself.
The authors have interpreted their remit widely, the stories ranging from Science Fiction through Fantasy to Horror. Some could fall under the rubric of steampunk or alternative history. The literary antecedents being what they are it is perhaps not surprising that the majority lean towards the form of journal or diary extracts and epistolary accounts.

And so we have the inevitable pastiche of Samuel Pepys, M Suddain’s The Darkness, set in a steampunk 17th century with radio, telemessages and air defence antenna arrays, where the French are experimenting with Darke Materials, Restoration London has Tunnelcars and Skycars and a Black Fire of nothingness has begun to eat the city.

Of course, encountering well-known names is one of the pleasures of an anthology like this and there are plenty more to conjure with. Two for the price of one in Adam Roberts’s The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle, a piece of Robertsian playfulness in which Boyle has had access to modern physics (even discoursing with Brian May, whom Boyle says Newton resembles) and wishes to preserve the more human cosmogony which Newton’s work will displace. Chock full of allusion – including an extended riff on the “operatic” section of Bohemian Rhapsody – this story might just possibly be too knowing for its own good. Charles Darwin appears in Claire North’s The Voyage of the Basset where we follow him on his second sea voyage, utilising his knowledge of the lycaenidae to ensure nothing can mar the glory of Queen Victoria’s coronation. Ada Lovelace helps produce steam-driven animatronic dinosaurs in Simon Guerrier’s An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought, while Fairchild’s Folly by Tiffani Angus muses on the possible classification of love within a taxonomy via the epistolary relationship between Carl Linnaeus and Thomas Fairchild, who crossed a sweet william with a carnation to produce a sterile plant dubbed Fairchild’s mule. In Kim Curran’s A Woman out of Time unnamed creatures relate how they prevented Émilie du Chatelet from disseminating modern Physics too early. A Game Proposition by Rose Biggin has four women get together once every month to play a game which decides the fate of ships, incidentally giving William Dampier the knowledge to compile his atlas of the trade winds.

The most chilling tale is perhaps Roger Luckhurst’s Circulation, wherein a book-keeper is sent out from London to the island of San Domingue to investigate irregularities in the returns from the plantations there and comes upon the secrets of circulation as discovered by “the wizard Sangatte”.

Elsewhere; in Linnaean era Stockholm a young girl has dreams of the future, inspired by spiders; a maker of maritime clocks, in competition with Harrison for the Longitude prize, uses a variety of gruesome fluids to fine tune his escapement; a taxonomist travels to Southern Africa to seek out unusual beasts and finds the egg of a creature variously called gumma, gauma, gomerah, ghimmra, sjeemera; a found manuscript story with not one, but two introductions, suggests a reason for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral after London’s Great Fire on a realigned axis; an artist and his apprentice, commissioned to depict an anatomy lesson, witness the subject’s heart beating after death.

The stories work well in their own terms, but in totality are rather relentlessly “olde worlde”.

The following comments did not appear in the review:-
In my edition one of the stories was not in the order given on the Contents page.
Span count 1, sunk 1, as you no doubt you anticipated, off of (x 2,) rolled a dice, court-marshalled, the committee force me to seethe (forced,) at prices that seems almost scandalous, her voice is a echo, baster gang (?) missing “it”(x 2,) two references to “three years” since the Great Fire of London (in diary entries dated 1667,) now used now, can secret a substance, they toppled the lids of those wooden prisons and relased their cargo, I might find pick my way back through the canes back to the house, in sight of one of another, walleyed with lust, inside of, to humour and old man.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Jo Fletcher Books, 2014, 400 p

Borrowed from another but returned to a threatened library.

 City of Stairs cover

The Continental city of Bulikov has been under the rule of former colony Saypur since the Great War in which the Continent’s gods were killed by the last Kaj of Saypur. The war ended with the cataclysmic Blink which somehow altered Bulikov’s topography. Buildings are at odd angles, stairways rise to nowhere. On the Continent all references to the defeated gods are banned by the Worldly Regulations. Yet Saypuri historian Efrem Pangyui has been allowed unfettered access to sources about the Divines. Locals have long been stirred into resentment by the Regulations but more recently by Pangyui’s researches. His murder brings Ashara Komayd, descendant of the Kaj and a Saypuri intelligence operative (but under cover as a Cultural Ambassador,) to Bulikov to investigate it, accompanied by her tall bodyguard, Sigrud, in exile from the Dreyling north. Shara (as she is called) feels her longstanding interest in the Continental gods and their miracles makes her most suitable for the task. Her boss, Vinya Komayd, who is also her aunt, appears to be less sure.

City of Stairs is a tale of intrigue, politics, religion, fanaticism, terrorism and betrayals. In it can be read parallels to our world but in the end it remains its own idiosyncratic one. However, the story still deals with the sorts of motivations which activate humans in any time or place. At times an uneasy mix of detective story, intellectual puzzle and thriller it also has the occasional lurch into action adventure. Shara is an engaging enough heroine, if a little bookish, but her recollected reaction to the revelation in her youth of the true nature of her then lover, Vohannes Votrov, seems a little cold-blooded. And Sigrud (of whom a blurb on the cover says, “My God, ….you guys are going to love Sigrud,” – No. Sorry -) is just a cartoon figure, impossibly accomplished in combat skills. Other characters – fanatics apart – are agreeably delineated, though.

The details of the world are nicely nuanced; for example the jurisdiction of each god was geographical. The story hinges on the existence of remaining Divine artefacts which may or may not still be potent and have since the war been kept in the Unmentionable Warehouse (unmentionable because of course due to the Regulations no-one can talk about it.)

While each chapter (except the last two) ends with an extract from the Book of one of the gods or an excerpt from Efrem Pangyui’s writings there is also some not well-integrated info dumping. And despite the title stairs feature very infrequently in the book.

Bennet allows Votrov to voice the pleas for compassion, “I am sorrowful that my fellow countrymen feel that being human is something to repress, something ugly, something nasty,” and, “This incredibly damaging idea that to be human and to love and to risk making mistakes is wrong.”

A bit baggy, but City of Stairs is worth a look if you like your adventure SF/fantasy tinged with agreeable characterisation.

Pedant’s corner:- the … coat kisses the tops of immense black books (boots, I would suggest,) Ahanas’ (Ahanas’s,) none of them know (none is singular, so none knows; later on we have none strike [strikes],) the both of them (both of them, or, at a pinch, the pair of them; not, the both of them,) smoothes (smooths.) “One of the … problems … were the many, many (one of the problems was, even if it was many, many ) Vohannes’ (Vohannes’s,) “quite terribly” is used twice within two lines, “every single inch …. are engraved” (every inch is engraved ,) “more viscera slips out” (more viscera slip out – viscera is a plural noun; the singular is viscus,) “a gathering crescendo” (don’t all crescendos gather?) “a creature of an aquatic nature… swam upstream … .and begin” (began,) soldiers tumble black shrieking (back makes more sense.)

Interzone 257 Mar-Apr 2015

Interzone 257 cover

We kick off with Alastair Reynolds and A Murmuration1 wherein a researcher into the flocking behaviour of starlings begins to be able to control their movements. This leads to conflict with the referee of the scientific paper on the research. Moreover, the birds start to behave contrarily.
In Songbird2 by Fadzlishah Johanabas, due to addiction to electronic devices people can no longer process emotions apart from a few women who can synthesise the emotions when they sing.
Brainwhales Are Stoners, Too3 by Rich Larson sees a teenage girl and the boy she fancies break into the ThinkTank where a brainwhale is confined, wired up, drugged to do computations.
The Worshipful Company of Milliners4 by Tendai Huchu. In a dilapidated factory in Harare a group of half-human, half-cat milliners – invisible to true humans – make equally invisible hats for authors to wear. Full membership of the sisterhood is only granted when the author becomes successful.
Aliya Whiteley’s Blossoms Falling Down is set on a generation starship where different cultures are housed on different decks with occasional tourism between them. The navigator is struck by his visit to a Japanese “Haiku Room”.

1 “The cameras should be aimed into the middle of the perimeter, and elevated sufficiently to catch the murmuration’s epicentre.” (Epicentre used, apparently correctly, as meaning “off-centre”. Remarkable.)
2 written in USian, lay (lie,) the liquid in the cylinders in front of me glow green (glows,) staunch (stanch.) Clear seems to be used as a synonym for colourless.
3 less (fewer,) snuck (sneaked,) a “I’m fine” look (an “I’m fine” look.)
4 sprung (sprang,) epaulets (epaulettes,) “‘almost as though you’re recycled no reincarnated,’” is surely missing punctuation of some sort.

This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2013, 312 p, with iv p introduction by Justina Robson.
(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 This is the Way the World Ends  cover

Framed as a tale told by Doctor Michel de Nostradame in Salon-de-Provence, 1554, (that’ll be Nostradamus to you and me) this is the story of George Paxton, a monumental mason, in the late(ish) twentieth century US.

George is approached by a glib salesman to buy a scopas suit (Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival) for his daughter to protect against nuclear attack. It is too expensive and his wife makes him return it. However, soon such suits are commonplace, people wearing them in the course of everyday life. Then George is offered a free suit provided he accepts the condition that he sign a confession of his complicity in the nuclear arms race. He does so, to give the suit as a Christmas present to his daughter. On his way back home his town is obliterated in a Soviet nuclear strike, a response to the US attack which followed the detection of Soviet Spitball missiles heading for Washington. As he heads towards the blast area to try to rescue his family the last thing he sees before losing consciousness is a giant vulture as big as a pterodactyl heading for him.

As it turns out he was taken from the ruins by the crew of a submarine, the City of New York, now headed for Antarctica. The crew are “unadmitted”, humans – with black blood – whose existences were pre-empted when their hypothetical progenitors were annihilated by the war. The survivors they have gathered were all architects of the war in one way or other. After giving them medical treatment – ‘If one had to say something good about acute radiation sickness, it would be this: either it kills you or it doesn’t,’ – the unadmitted put them on trial, Nuremberg-style. This allows Morrow to skewer the through the looking-glass idiocies and contradictions of deterrence theory. The submarine’s captain, dismissing a particular riddle as having no answer, poses one that does, “When is a first strike not a first strike?” is then asked, “When,” and replies, “When it is an anticipatory retaliation.” (Sounds like 1970s Rugby Union doctrine.)

In the course of all this we encounter a MAD Hatter (Mutually Assured Destruction,) a March Hare (Modulated Attacks in Response to Counterforce Hostilities) and Stable talks (Strategic, Tactical, and Anti-Ballistic Limitation and Equalization,) the likelihood that scopas suits contributed to a willingness to accept the possibility of nuclear war, and the thought that, “When you turn the human race into garbage, you also turn history into garbage.”

At the time of writing (1986) the prospect of nuclear annihilation was never far away, in 2015 it has, perhaps, much less resonance. Whether it is this that contributes to the sense of distance throughout the book is difficult to decipher. Whatever the reason, the tone feels somehow off-kilter. Moreover, rather than being rounded characters most of Paxton’s fellow defendants are ciphers there solely to represent points of view and the unadmitted seem like actors inhabiting parts only shallowly instead of true agents. The role the giant vultures had in precipitating the war is a nice touch though.

The blurb mentions Kurt Vonnegut as a comparison but – repetitions of epitaphs “they were better than they knew” and “they never found out what they were doing here” apart – I was more reminded of R A Lafferty, except without his level of utter bonkersness (giant vultures excepted of course.) Despite Vonnegut’s lighter touches the seriousness with which he treated his subjects was always apparent. Morrow approaches this but doesn’t quite get there.

Pedant’s corner:- Paxton is named as Paxman on the back cover! Then an other (another,) as if a rain were felling on its streets (falling,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) videocassertes (videocassettes,) liquifying (liquefying.)
In the introduction:- whimsys (whimsies,) the reasoning of the accused make them (reasoning is singular so “makes”.)

Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

Gollancz, 2000, 1114 p.

 Ash cover

The main parts of this compendious novel are framed as a (complete with footnotes) modern academic translation from mediæval Latin of several “found” manuscripts depicting the life of Ash, the female leader of a company of 15th century mercenaries whose emblem is the Lion Azure. These are presented in the form of “Ash: The Lost History of Burgundy” as by “Pierce Ratcliff, Ph D.” Ash, like Joan of Arc did, hears a voice in her head; in her case it transpires this is of a machina rei militaris (engine of military matters or, to put it in modern terms, a tactics computer.) In Ash’s story Gentle evokes the mediæval world marvellously; the power balances, the camaraderies, the techniques of fighting, the blood and guts, the miseries of a siege, the inconsequentiality of the common people – and there are more technical terms for pieces of armour than you might think could actually fit on a human body.

It is clear from early on that this is not our history, though. When religion is invoked it is the Green Christ, Christus viridianus, who is called upon – this religion is some sort of mash-up between Mithraism and what we would recognise as Christianity – and, while the Turks have indeed taken Constantinople, there are no Moors in North Africa and Carthage is a power in the world, a Visigothic Carthage. The manuscripts also refer to clay men – a term thereafter “translated” as golems – accompanying the forces of Carthage in an invasion of Europe.

Neither is it the history of Ratcliff’s world. Discrepancies exist between details of the manuscripts he is translating and history as he knows it, in particular the existence of a Visigothic Carthage in the 15th century. Moreover, those few copies of the manuscripts held in academic institutions round the world have been mysteriously reclassified from history to fiction even while he has been in the process of translating them, placing at risk his chances of publishing his findings. In search of evidence for the city he has joined an architectural dig in North Africa. The discovery there of a Stone Golem (another name for the machina rei militaris,) initially dated as modern but on second examination to mediæval times, and traces of the city corresponding to the Carthage of the manuscripts (in a deep trench in the Mediterranean sea floor not found on Royal Navy charts from the Second World War – Green Christ notwithstanding, there are overwhelming similarities between Ratcliff’s world and ours) also point to the fluidity of the historical record. This strand to the book is revealed in a series of transcribed emails between Ratcliff and his publisher supposedly interpolated in the printed out pages of the translation. Discussing many worlds and quantum theories these exchanges lend a Science Fictional air to what would otherwise be a straightforward Fantasy. As a coda to Ash’s story, a transcribed interview with a previous translator of the Ash documents and afterwords to successive editions of Ratcliff’s publications continue this strand.

All of this elaborates a tale of deeper powers beyond the Stone Golem, the Ferae Natura Machinae, or Wild Machines, silicon intelligences located inside pyramids in the desert near Carthage, who have not only cast the shadow of night over both Carthage and most of Europe (bar Burgundy) by drawing down the power of the Sun but also threaten to extinguish humans from the world. Through the Wild Machines’ influence on the Stone Golem, Carthage has been breeding for the ability to alter reality. The leader of their invasion of Europe, the Faris, is the first to be able to communicate with the Stone Golem at a distance and will be the instrument of their designs. Thus is the old Roman epithet Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed) given enduring relevance. Ash turns out to be a by-product of the Carthaginian breeding programme, rejected at birth, who was taken in on a whim by members of the Griffin-in-Gold mercenary company and survived to adulthood merely by chance. The voice she hears is the machina rei militaris.

So why Burgundy and the “Lost History of Burgundy” (which would actually be better rendered as the “History of Lost Burgundy”)? In the story Burgundy has, inadvertently, perpetuated a bloodline that negates the reality-altering ability.

That women were involved in warfare in the mediæval era – as combatants (and surgeons) as well as camp followers – and would be capable leaders, are points worth making into a novel. To my mind, though, it detracts from the possible resonance of that fact that Ash is imbued with “supernatural” powers.

The character of Ash herself is agreeably complicated; accomplished to be sure, decisive, ruthless at times, but also loyal and liable to human flaws. The portraits of others are equally successful.

I’m not sure about that framing device, though – even if it does give us the delight of footnotes and adds the Science Fictional gloss.

Pedant’s corner:- The text flips indiscriminately between the use of ass and arse, and after the Lion Azure’s surgeon is also revealed to be a woman, her name is given equally indiscriminately given as Floria or Florian. The use in the “translation” of modern phrases such as “listen up,” “you bottled it” and “rag-head”- while conveying the essences well enough – jars a little in the context of mediæval discourse. Then we had 2 counts of lay/laying (lie/lying,) sprung (sprang) and sunk (sank,) a snuck (sneaked,) merchant (merchants,) still born up by the welcome (borne up by,) blue slates roofs (slate,) is there proof of your been born from a slave mother (being,) still held prisoned (prisoner?) no one (no-one,) “His took a slow match” (He,) the edges of her armour cuts the hands of men she helps (cut,) force-marched (the phrase is “forced march” so forced-marched,) towards at the head of (either “towards” or “at” but not both,) auxiliary’s’, paying merry hell (playing,) Richard (Rickard,) outside of (outside,) at your Duchesses’s request (but the request had been made by the Duke, now deceased,) deosil for deasil is an variant of deasil I hadn’t previously seen, E pur si muove is usually rendered as Eppur si muove, “to get the stiffness out her neck” (out of,) hung (hanged.)

Tanith Lee

I saw in today’s Guardian Tanith Lee’s obituary.

Despite her prolificity, I don’t recall reading much of her work (SF, Fantasy and Horror in the main) but her name was familiar to me. I may have noticed at the time that she wrote two episodes of Blake’s 7 but it wasn’t something I had at my front of my mind.

She was notable as being the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel (for her book Death’s Master.)

Tanith Lee: 19/09/1947 – 24/5/2015. So it goes.

The Seventh Miss Hatfield by Anna Caltabiano.

Gollancz, 2014, 270 p. Reviewed for Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014.

 The Seventh Miss Hatfield cover

In 1954 an eleven year old girl named Cynthia carries a wrongly delivered parcel to its correct destination across the road. There she meets Miss Hatfield, who has a collection of portraits and antiques plus a strange clock with unusual intervals marking its dial. Miss Hatfield gives Cynthia a glass of lemonade into which she has poured the last drop of liquid from a vial. Within a few pages – bare minutes of conversation, and no change of scene – Cynthia has become a fully grown woman. The physics of this transformation, the chemistry required, its energetics, are all not so much skimmed over or ignored as seemingly unconsidered. The process is only a means for Caltabiano to propel her narrator into the story she wishes to tell. It does of course also signal Cynthia’s altered reality.

Miss Hatfield tells Cynthia the fateful drop was the last remnant of a bottle filled from a mysterious lake stumbled upon by Juan Ponce de León on his first voyage to Florida. The liquid confers immortality on its drinkers. The Misses Hatfield have been employing it to recruit new versions of themselves ever since it came into their hands. Moreover they use the strange clock – which an early Miss Hatfield just happened upon – to navigate time. Miss Hatfield informs her new protégée time is not a river, but a lake; existing all at once. Quite why a clock would then be a suitable device to use to sail on it is odd. Moreover, how it actually manages to achieve this feat is never divulged. Again, it just happens.

Cynthia accepts the actions of Miss Hatfield, plus her subsequent demands to go to 1904 to steal a portrait, indeed begins to think of herself as Rebecca Hatfield, the seventh such, amazingly readily. In no time at all, corsetted and long-skirted, she is rushing off through carless streets to the house of Charles Beauford, who fortuitously takes her for his niece Margaret. There she meets his son Henley who, despite knowing she cannot be his cousin, plays along with the deception. The seventh Miss Hatfield has something of a charmed life, it seems.

This is fine as far as it goes but here the story gets bogged down as Caltabiano’s over-arching fantasy becomes somewhat lost amid the details of the burgeoning relationship between Henley and his “cousin.” True, every so often the new Miss Hatfield (she forgets her past life all too easily) remembers she is supposed to be stealing the painting and also experiences a growing sense of wrongness associated with being out of time but this is all diluted by the routines of daily life in a well-to-do Edwardian household and a preponderance of “playful” dialogue. Even the appearance of the Porter sisters, Christine and Eliza (the first of whom and Henley are effectively promised to each other, the second is by far the most interesting character in the book) does not give Rebecca a quick way back to her own time – or later. Cynthia/Rebecca/Margaret also has a very modern idea of servants’ individuality and sense of self but is annoyingly gauche. Her discovery of what the reader sees as links between the Misses Hatfield and the elder Mr Beauford does not give her pause about her sponsor’s motives.

The book is adorned with a cleverly designed Escheresque cover and the accompanying promotional blurb makes much of Caltabiano’s youth. That earns no free pass here; but Caltabiano can write – even if she occasionally employs awkward sentence constructions and lacks quite the necessary feel for the detail of late nineteenth/early twentieth century speech and mores. In their trip to the country, Henley drives the automobile himself. Families like his had chauffeurs for such tasks. And I doubt that, once the car had broken down, an unmarried man and woman at that time (cousins or not) would be allowed to sleep in the same space – even if it was a barn.

There are other details which niggled. Except in the most unusual circumstances would her assumed persona as Mr Beauford’s sister’s daughter still have his surname? The sixth Miss Hatfield refers to being shown a photo sometime in the early 1840s. So early? Eliza mentions that ever since reading Jules Verne she has wondered about the possibility of time travel. (Oh dear. Unless this is an altered universe in which Verne actually wrote any such stories.) The women take part at a burial. In 1904?

Caltabiano’s story of time-crossed love is never entirely convincing, the book’s resolution a touch rushed, the supposed poignancy of the epilogue not fully earned by the preceding pages and the speculative content comes down to trappings. There are two more novels to come, though.

Pedant’s corner:- goodnight for good night, Tu scies nunquam finem. (Since in Latin verbs are placed at the end of a sentence should this not be Nunquam finem scies?)

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