Echo Cycle by Patrick Edwards

Titan Books, 2020, 333p. Published in Interzone 287, May-Jun 2020.

 Echo Cycle cover

Just before Britain finally locked itself off from the continent, congratulating itself on escaping from incipient chaos, Winston Monk and Lindon Banks were on a school trip to Rome. Monk, a homosexual, had long suffered persecution at the hands of his school year’s bully, Tobias Easter (who in that Public School way is usually referred to only by his surname.) Having just received news he has failed to get into a Cambridge College, Monk snaps under another of Easter’s provocations and almost kills him before fleeing into the Rome night, to vanish.

Twenty years later, in 2070, Britain is much diminished, women are of little account and same-sex marriage utterly out of the question, with such relationships long since criminalised and persecuted, and the Royal Family mostly holed up behind protective barbed wire in Windsor. But in a sudden change of foreign policy, Banks has been chosen as part of a delegation headed by Easter, now a top Government official, to re-establish contact, diplomatic relations and trade with a recently ascendant European Confederacy, whose official language is a carefully chosen resurgent Latin, its centre of gravity switched to southern Europe, and Rome a gleaming, ultra-modern architectural wonder. In this world the US has collapsed after the Yellowstone super-volcano erupted, its citizens desperately seeking refuge in the countries to north and south, besieging the walls they had previously striven so hard to erect. Japan is in recovery after a seemingly unprovoked Chinese immolation of Tokyo.

On the swift train journey south through France Banks feels the contrast between his homeland where cars run on dung, there are riots in the streets and something grim though unspecified has happened in Scotland, and the prosperous, far from gloomy countryside outside. He also misses his deceased wife Elanor, and feels protective of his daughter Sara, sent to a boarding school in his absence. At times he hears his old schoolmaster, Orkney, speaking in his head, bemoaning his follies. In Rome, the British delegation is at pains to refuse all forms of Euro tech, including the near-ubiquitous but expensive translation devices most Europeans carry.

After his flight from the consequences of his attack on Easter, Monk fell through time. No concrete mechanism is presented for this, it has to be accepted for the purposes of story. He came to consciousness in 68 CE, the year of the four Emperors, Nero, Galba, Vitellius and Vespasian, just in time to witness the first’s death. From then on Monk’s fate is closely linked to the fortunes of Nero’s close companion, the androgynous Sporus, which rise and fall according to whoever the new First Man is.

Enslaved, branded, made to clean out latrines by hand – Edwards spares us no gritty detail – plucked by Sporus from utter servitude to become a scribe only to be finally despatched to a gladiatorial ludus, Monk resigns himself to death yet, despite receiving only rudimentary training, in his first arena combat he discovers he has a talent for it and eventually wins his freedom thereby, whiling out the years with a successful scribing business.
This story of his time-slip and sojourn in the past is addressed to an at first anonymous reader (but who we learn soon enough is Banks,) and in the novel is interlaced with Banks’s own first-person account of events in 2070, where he has made a connection with Mariko, a half-Japanese European functionary. This tentative association is tainted (both in Monk’s mind and his superiors’) by suspicion of diplomatic underhandedness. On leaving a restaurant one night the pair literally bump into a dishevelled, disorientated vagrant, who turns out to be Monk, returned from 96 CE.

Despite Monk appearing fairly early in the 2070 narrative the balance between the two strands is handled delicately by Edwards. The tone of both accounts is pitch perfect, encapsulating their narrators’ characters, the Roman set passages seem convincing, the dystopian Britain all-too plausible. The characterisation is adept, though Easter is perhaps a bit too relentlessly crass. But then again he is a bully, and an authoritarian. The author’s verb choices are considered, he has a subtle touch with information dumping and a good eye for description.

The denouement, where the importance of Sporus to the overall design becomes clear, is only slightly marred by tipping over into a thriller type plot which also puts Sara into danger – marvellously readable at the time but in retrospect a touch disappointing. Edwards is a talent though.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite the book having an overwhelmingly English sensibility there are USianisms in the text, snuck (x 2, sneaked,) fit (fitted,) parking lot (car park,) rowboat (rowing boat,) outside of (outside,) to visit with (to visit.) Otherwise; “it was every man for themselves” (for himself, surely?) “less fumes” (fewer fumes,) missing commas before pieces of direct speech, “The intoxicating flash of tomorrows were twisted” (the flash … was twisted,) Antinous’ (Antinous’s; every name ending with an ‘s’ here is treated as regards apostrophes as if it were plural – except we had one ‘Charteris’s’,) “none of us were surprised” (was surprised,) “The only reminder of the tons of water above my head were the small bronzed drains” (the only reminders were, or, the only reminder was,) “to the half-dozen or so people sat facing the stage” (seated, or, sitting,) “and Sporus, her of the large eyes” (she of the large eyes,) “I think I’d already be shaken” (been shaken,) “Didn’t mean the everyday citizen wanted their children to come home speaking another language” (citizens would be more grammatical,) “capacity or compartmentalisation” (for compartmentalisation,) sprung (sprang,) “a sword a foot-long and double-bladed,” (a foot long,) “that held giant, pulsating pupa” (Pupae,) lay (lie,) staunch (stanch,) “and the guttering torchlight fell revealed him there” (fell and revealed him? fell revealing him?) “seeing …. the certainty of death hove in on them” (‘hove’ is past tense, ‘seeing the certainty … heave in.)

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