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Review Round-up: Time After Time

Paul Witcover's The Emperor of All Things and Julie Cross' The Tempest - two books about time and what makes us tick.

Emperor of All ThingsPaul Witcover's The Emperor of All Things (2013) is the start of a sprawling epic. Set in 1758, it features Daniel Quare, a talented journeyman in the Worshipful Company of Clockworkers. The Company is one of the cornerstones of the British Empire, for, as many a general knows, precise time measurement is the key to many a maneuver.

But the remit of the Company extends even further than just making good clocks: it investigates (and quashes) any sort of innovation into time-keeping devices. Daniel's role is a complicated one. He's a double agent within the guild, playing one faction against the other in order to satisfy his own need to learn more about the nature of time.

He's also curious about his own heritage (he's an orphan, naturally). And super-duper curious about the crazy new timepiece that he picked up from the unconscious body of a (sexy) cat burglar named Grimalkin. Something something fairies. Something something French spies. Something something war across dimensions. Did I mention "sprawling epic"? This is a really ambitious book.

For the most part, Mr. Witcover pulls it off: the fairies and the orphans and the cat burglars and the French and the dragons and the time and the espionage. Largely, this is achieved by sacrificing Daniel's agency; he comes across as one of the world's last true innocents, bounding from place to place, attentively listening to vast amounts of exposition.

Granted, being an epic amongst epics, it is revealed that Daniel is Extremely Special, and all the stories that the reader picks up are, inevitably, related to Him. (Of course, any reader that didn't pick up on "Extremely Special" at the word "orphan" is really the last true innocent.)

But the stories within stories are all interesting, and, as Daniel nods and gawks, so does the reader. Mr. Witcover has a talent for bringing these tiny tales to life, be they set in the quaint claustrophobia of a German mountain village or the pseudo-Georgian pseudo-scientific madness of the Company basement. It is a shame then that the book is littered with intentionally anachronistic, atmosphere-shattering malapropisms: a madcap inventor creates a lift and calls it the "stairmaster", a web of tunnels is known as "the internet" and a race of underground East Londoners (who are "more Cockney than Cockney") with members named Jerry and Cornelius (get it?). All of these things are self-consciously cute nods to the reader, and serve little purpose other than dissipating all suspension of disbelief. 

The Emperor of All Things tries to live up to its title. There's a lot happening here, and it almost all works. With the mad dash to lay the foundations now done, hopefully the later books can calm down and focus a bit more on the actual adventures of Daniel Quare. It isn't quite there yet, but definitely one, if you'll pardon the pun, to watch.

TempestJulie Cross' The Tempest (2012) is a young adult romance based around time travel. Jackson Meyer is rich, good-looking, super-cool and, hey, he can time travel. Kind of. He's got a knack for leaping into the past and then, after an arbitrary period of time has (re-)passed, he winds up coming back to the present. It is a handy little trick, but he tries to keep it to himself. Because, cosmic powers are cool, but being weird isn't. Duh.

Things aren't all perfect for Jackson, and when a mysterious someone tries to have him killed, he panics and leaps two years into the past. Now he's stuck there.

And the worst part? The love of his life, Holly, may have died in the attack. And he has no idea. Now Jackson needs to wind his way back to the present. At the same time, since his credit cards won't work, he's got to fit in with the hoi polloi. Just to make things really complicated, he's taken to stalking his future girlfriend. Because, well, that's the sort of logic that makes sense to teenagers, I guess?

The whole thing is pretty cheesy (and predicated on that weird teen fallacy that "The Girl/Boy You Meet At 15 Is The One Forever") but Ms. Cross wisely makes the decision to put the big plot (which involves some sort of international time-travel terrorist conspiracy and special bloodlines n' stuff) on the back-burner and focus almost entirely on Jackson's day to day WOEZ.

He's a good kid, and, however ridiculous his needs may seem to anyone over the age of eighteen, Jackson's angst comes across as pretty believable. He's starving, broke, displaced out of time and on the verge of some sort of cosmic and/or mental breakdown. But he's also making new friends and falling in love. It may seem bonkers, but his priorities are pretty believable.

The Tempest is more about the storm within Jackson than surrounding him - the issues of being an isolated, lonely teenager and not a superheroic time-messiah. That's a brave call from Ms. Cross, but she got the right result. The Tempest isn't my normal reading fare, but I'm glad I made the time. (Ouch. Sorry.)