The Time Roads
I have read, quite inadvertently, a number of polarizing novels lately. Some of them are with aforethought (hello, Joe Abercrombie), but most have seemed innocuous going in. Tor sent me an invitation to download an ARC of The Time Roads a couple of months ago. I don’t normally go for either time travel or steampunk, but the blurb hintedat just enough science fictional nuggets to make it worth checking out. I downloaded accordingly. Then I read a review over at Fantasy Review Barn that made it sound amazing. Then I read some other reviews that made it sound horrible. There’s quite a split in opinions with this one. Not a range, mind you, but a split. I have seen almost no lukewarm reactions.
I suppose in hindsight, this shouldn’t have surprised me. Looking down the list of Stuff Two Dudes Likes, The Time Roads ticks most of the boxes. Science front and center? Check. Needlessly convoluted politics? Check. Challenging narrative structure? Check. Everything just a bit more complex than was probably necessary? Check. There is definitely a certain section of the community that isn’t going to go for this, not when half-insane characters are roaming about and muttering about prime numbers, or the whole point of the book is to maintain the delicate balance of power that, in our continuum, crumbled into World War I. For me? Hypnotic.
Part of the fun is Bernobich’s alternate history. The narrative centers on the kingdom of Eire, which apparently overthrew British rule some time in the past and claimed its place as one of the great world powers. (Anglia was then reduced to the level of rabble rousing possession, one which maintains a steady if muted presence throughout the book.) This is the one of the two biggest divergences that we see, the other of course being time travel. The “time roads” are presented in typical steampunk fashion, with lots of brass knobs, smoke, and men in (I assume) top hats peering through monocles and uttering things like “I say,” or “Zounds!” (It’s a bit more serious than this, with serious repercussions, but we can still have fun with it.) The story itself is told in four interlocking novellas, as the reader watches the science of time travel slowly develop in tandem with Eire’s maneuvering to maintain its position in Age of Empires Europe.
I will confess that I got more out of the politics than the time travel. The latter is, mercifully, strictly science-based and mostly devoid of Marty McFly almost seducing his mom type situations. The former is a brilliant evocation of the age, a period that seems to get glossed over in most history studies. I never really learned much about the Age of Empire in class; we always kind of skipped straight from the American Civil War to WWI, with possibly a mention of railroads or Rutherford B. Hayes along the way. It wasn’t until I got deep into International Relations as a grad student that I really learned about the world of the late 1800s. IR types love the era, since it is the cleanest testing ground for their theories: several countries of more or less equal composition, culture, and strength vying in a closed, zero sum system for superiority. Bernobich doesn’t get too deeply into this sort of thing, but I suspect that she is at least a closet dabbler in IR. Her outlines of the global political situation are dead on, particularly as an Irish (Eire-ish?) protagonist is mucking around in Bosnia trying to prevent an assassination of a certain Eastern European Archduke that we might remember from high school history class.
Mileage, as they say, will vary. I tore through The Time Roads in the first few hours of a trans-Pacific plane ride without pause. It handles the whole time travel thing in a way that is both as confusing as time travel would have to be, but as graceful as possible. I am easily irked by the paradoxes and impossibilities inherent in time travel plots, but Bernobich managed to dodge them. It might be too convoluted for some, but I enjoy books that don’t just assume my intelligence, but actively challenge it. Recommended for those who want their steampunk with a bit more crunch.