Review: The Time Roads

January 29th, 2015 by jkastronis

I was in a bookstore with my fiance when a book called The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich caught my eye. The cover featured a quite steampunk looking man, complete with a Victorian suit, handlebar mustache, and goggles. I picked it up, interested because I don’t see too much such overt steampunk fiction and, to my surprise, found a glowing review of the book by Gene Wolfe on the back. Well, I originally discovered Wolfe at least in part through the glowing praise Neil Gaiman had heaped upon him, so I decided it was worth a purchase.

I can gladly say that it was a worthy read, though it does have some problems that keep it from being completely amazing.

The novel takes place on an alternate Earth where, among other changes, the British Isles were dominated by the Irish instead of the English. At the turn of the 20th century, the kingdom of Eire is shakily allied with Alba (Scotland), Frankonia (France), and other European powers. In addition to Ireland, Eire controls England and Wales (Albion and Cymru), better known as the Anglian Dependencies, which are in a constant state of near-rebellion. The King of Eire dies and his young daughter Aine assumes the throne.

Aine brings Brendan O Cuilinn, a brilliant scientist who had been funded by her father to study time travel, to the castle to continue his research there. Aine falls in love with him, which disrupts her relationship with her spymaster and bodyguard Aidrean O Deaghaidh. When several of Eire’s best mathematicians are brutally murdered, Aidrean begins to investigate, only for Brendan to demonstrate his completed time machine, catapulting him into the future and completely disrupting the timeline. In the alternate world, Brendan never existed, the murders never happened, and Aidrean is sent off to Montenegro to investigate a plot which may disrupt all of Europe. But both he and Aine are plagued by memories of the world-that-ceased-to-be. Others in this world uncover the secrets of time travel and begin to utilize it as a weapon, which brings terror to Eire once Anglian insurgents get their hands on it.

The biggest strength of The Time Roads is its incredibly imaginative and well fleshed out world. The world is fundamentally different because of something that happened in the past (though the history of the world isn’t greatly discussed, I suspect it may be that the Roman Empire was never as great a power) and the changes resonate into its present. Technology, religion, politics, culture… It’s all altered. This isn’t an alternate universe story where the historical figures we are familiar with are recast in new roles. Instead, it’s a whole new world. I feel like I could lose myself just in reading history books about the world Bernobich created. What led to the European exploration of the Americas and how did the natives remain dominant there? Why are there numerous Turkish states? Why are Catholic priests exclusively women and venerate “God and Mhuire and Gaia”?

The characters are also extremely well depicted. The story is broken into four sections, each of them narrated in a first person style, following first Aine, then Siomon Madoc (one of Eire’s mathematicians), then Aidrean, then Aine again. Each of  them is explored in intricate depth and feel very authentic and real. Aine’s struggles with rulership and her own passions, Siomon’s horror at the murders happening around him, and Aidrean’s difficulties with his fractured memories are all wonderful. Each of them are quite memorable in their own way.

The writing is quite good as well. Words are not frivolously wasted. The language is compact and vivid without being flowery or overwrought. It was always extremely readable and kept me engaged in the moment. Sentences were crafted creatively.

The biggest downfall of the book is, sadly, the thing that most people look for: the story. I found it somewhat weak. The threads that tied the various sections together were somewhat tenuous. Perhaps an unavoidable flaw given the nature of the story, but it was somewhat distracting. I was unable to really find the focus of the story until the end. Much of the first half is tied up with the murders happening in Eire, the second half the unrest in Europe. The two plot arcs are connected, but do not ever really mesh together cleanly. Often, they seem quite disconnected altogether, with the first half of the book merely being a necessary backdrop for the second half. I feel the story would have been served better by splitting the two halves into separate novels and giving each one more page time.

That does not mean the plot was unenjoyable, however. I found it quite enjoyable. The individual halves moved at a entertaining, if fast, pace and their individual threads and currents were very well woven. It all came to a rather satisfying climax.

Bernobich definitely won a new fan. I highly recommend the book to fans of alternate history novels, steampunk-inspired fiction, or deep character studies.

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