It’s been several years since “the event” which pulled the island of Nantucket back in time to 1300 B.C. (We read all about this in Island in the Sea of Time, the first book in S.M. Stirling’s NANTUCKET trilogy.) The islanders have been busy learning how to live without all the modern conveniences of the 20th century. They are successfully learning how to farm and fish, breed animals, acquire fuels, build ships and dirigibles, harvest morphine from poppies, make textiles, and develop vaccines and other medical techniques. They’ve instituted a republican form of government and have begun minting coins and regulating industries such as forestry.
The islanders are spreading their knowledge and ideals to surrounding areas and are working to make the world a better place. They hope to improve “original history” by abolishing slavery, spreading democracy, teaching modern medical theories and techniques, and bringing on an earlier industrial revolution. It helps to have a library full of information and to know where they’re going to find natural resources such as coal deposits and precious metals. They have no idea how this is going to affect “real” history, but they can’t stand by and let people suffer just because they’re worried about a time paradox.
Their biggest challenge is how to deal with the neighboring communities. They’ve made friends with the people of the island of Alba and a few other local communities. However, not all of the natives are friendly. The most dangerous of these are the ones who’ve made friends with William Walker, the American traitor who is trying to set himself up as some kind of emperor. He and his friends, including his wife Alice Hong, a sadistic doctor, have established a little kingdom in Greece. They are allying with Greeks who are anxious to learn and benefit from Walker’s modern knowledge and technology. Besides teaching them English, Walker is building dams, mills, shipyards, forges, and indoor plumbing. He’s also teaching them to make cannons and other weapons. In return, he’s expecting to recruit an army so he can overrun Nantucket. It’s clear he plans to rule the world.
Walker’s former friends in Nantucket know about his plans, so they are responding by building their own army and navy. They’ve recruited soldiers from Alba by promising land grants after several years of service. Eventually the fledgling forces are forced to fight battles just so they can remain free. They also have to deal with drunk natives, a hurricane, and a Smallpox epidemic.
All of this sounds like a lot of fun, but the truth is that I was mostly bored by Against the Tide of Years. I enjoyed all of the society building in the first book, but I was tired of it by this time. Stirling’s manner is teachy and I often felt like I was reading a textbook rather than a story. It was like reading the transcripts of a dozen back-to-back episodes of How Stuff Works. The teachiness would probably have gone down better if I had liked Stirling’s characters. In Island in the Sea of Time, the first novel, we witnessed a lot of character development as each of them came to terms with what being transported back in time meant for their careers, their families, etc. In Against the Tide of Years, the characters feel stagnant and thin. I didn’t enjoy any of them.
One of the main characters, Marion, is a black lesbian commodore. I liked her in the first book but this time I felt like she was there just so she could be the “minority” character. Her relationship with a native woman seems shallow. There are numerous scenes in which they are described as tangled up in bed together and, since Stirling doesn’t show us these scenes with other characters, it feels less like a real relationship and more like Stirling just wants to show us some diversity. (Which, apparently, is difficult to do when your cast consists almost entirely of Nantucket residents.) The way Marion thinks about her lover makes the woman seem more like a pet than a lover.
But at least Marion is likeable. William Walker and his wife Alice Hong are so over-the-top evil that they’re really hard to believe in. William seems to be a walking encyclopedia and Alice is a doctor who likes to torture people. On the front of the door to her bedroom, which looks like the portal to a medieval dungeon, is a skull with glowing eyes. I know you think I made that up but, honestly, I didn’t. Inside you’ll find a nearly naked Alice with whips, chains, clamps, and various other accoutrements de torture. Her scenes play like a cheesy porno flick.
Other issues are how the modern Americans are so surprised whenever one of the locals shows evidence of logical thought or holding multiple pieces of information in their head at the same time. I don’t know why Stirling would think that people who lived in 1300 B.C. were stupid. Our brains have not evolved significantly since then. Also annoying was the constant battle for women to prove that they can be in charge of men. Certainly I appreciate the sentiment, but this became tiring after a while.
So, as much as I enjoyed Island in the Sea of Time, I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this sequel. I will, though, read the last book, On the Oceans of Eternity and hope the trilogy wraps up well. I’m listening to the audio version which is nicely narrated by Todd McLaren. I don’t like his Boston accent, but then I guess I don’t like anybody’s Boston accent.