Dispel Illusion (2019) is the final book in Mark Lawrence’s IMPOSSIBLE TIMES trilogy. Readers will need to finish One Word Kill and Limited Wish before beginning Dispel Illusion, so we’ll assume you’ve done that. Kindly, Mark Lawrence provides a recap of previous important events at the beginning of this book. (Thank you, Mr. Lawrence!) Then the story begins, literally, with an explosion. It’s a singular explosion, though: time itself is exploding in their lab, affecting various things in different ways. Dangerously sharp metal shards hang in the air and slowly creep outward, while Nick and other people in the lab are moving on a far faster internal clock. This isn’t as helpful as it might seem; Nick observes that the “air doesn’t want to get out of your way … running at 300 miles an hour is just as hard as standing still in a super-tornado with 300-mile-an-hour winds trying to knock you down.”
At this point in the story, it’s 1992 and Nick is 22 years old. He’s at Cambridge, working on inventing time travel. He knows he has to accomplish this by 2011, the year that he was visited by his future self when he was a teen in One Word Kill. Nick dreads the accident that will inspire his 40-year-old self to go back in time to safeguard Mia’s memories. He also knows that when he goes back to the 1980s, he will die. So at the same time that Nick is inventing time travel and setting events in motion to be able to travel back to 1986 if necessary to save Mia’s memories, he’s also doing his best to help Mia avoid her near-fatal accident in 2011. Those efforts are complicated by the re-emergence of their old nemesis Charles Rust. Rust’s job with Miles Guilder, the unscrupulous business tycoon who has been financing Nick’s time travel research for years for his own reasons, put Nick and Charles at odds once again.
The timeline in Dispel Illusion shifts back and forth between 1992 and 2011, with a few stops along the way in other time periods. Guilder introduces a game-changer when he brings Nick and his girlfriend Mia to a hidden cave that Guilder has discovered, where a shocking, tangible evidence of time travel has been found.
Dispel Illusion is fun. We like Nick and his friends, who are still playing the same game of Dungeons & Dragons that they were playing six years ago. Throughout the trilogy, their D&D game, in which they use spells called Power Word Kill, Limited Wish, and Dispel Illusion, has subtly paralleled the events happening in Nick’s life.
To his credit, Mark Lawrence pays more attention than most authors to the scientific problems and paradoxes that time travel causes, including the complication of the Earth traveling through space. One of the more intriguing complications that Nick and his fellow researchers face is an experiment that causes a time loop. Nick’s handsome, somewhat superficial friend John is forced to rise to the occasion, which leads to an amusing joke referencing the film Groundhog Day. The visible evidence of someone traveling forwards or backwards in time was a unique twist to standard time travel lore. And as Nick and Mia eventually turn time travel into a highly secret enterprise, the psychological motives of the time travelers and the mental effects on Nick were intriguing as well.
I was no longer the Nick Hayes who first met Demus a few streets from Simon’s mum’s house. I had left that boy behind in my wake, just as we all abandon the children we were. Slow or fast, the years pull us apart from them, sometimes in one savage yank, sometimes by degrees, like the hour hand of the clock, too stealthy for us to perceive its motion and yet when you look again it is no longer where you left it. That night I looked in the mirror, not wanting to meet my own gaze, and it was Demus who looked back at me and smiled a bitter little smile.
In our review of Limited Wish, we said, “We are wondering what illusions will be dispelled…” and, indeed, Lawrence pulls the curtain aside and gives us several surprises. The climactic scene sheds a new and unexpected light on some prior events. But in that review we also said, “we’re simply not convinced that the first instance of time-travel, the one that created all these problems for Nick and his friends, ever needed to happen in the first place. So far, the suffering and confusion that has resulted doesn’t seem worth it.”
Unfortunately, we have to report that we are still not convinced. It’s been a while since we read the first two books, so it’s possible that there are facts we’re missing or misremembering, but it seems like there was a much simpler way for adult Nick in 2011 to attempt to save Mia’s life. (Here’s a spoiler, highlight if you want to read it): Why didn’t he just go back far enough to avoid the car accident that damaged Mia’s brain? It seems like that would have been a lot easier and would have avoided all the paradoxes. And though in the end the price paid in pain and loss of life for Demus’s trip to the past was not what it initially seemed to be, Nick/Demus had no knowledge of that when he made the choice to pursue that course, so our point about his motivation being insufficient still stands. And, while we’re discussing this, we’re also not convinced that (another spoiler here, highlight if you want to read it) the truth about Elton’s dad had to be hidden from Nick. Why bother to stage the death if their memories were going to be wiped after? They had their memories wiped twice: once after young Mia notices the wires and they decide to stage it, and then again later. It seems like there must have been another way that didn’t involve losing Elton’s friendship for 25 years.
A few other nitpicks: Lawrence keeps telling us that when Nick goes back in time, he has to do everything exactly like he remembers or it will cause a branch in the timeline. But the human memory is remarkably fallible and there’s no way that Nick remembers every event and conversation (or even most events and conversations) accurately. The text suggests that when Nick doesn’t remember the exact words he tends to naturally say the same thing he said before, but that seems a bit of a stretch. Maybe it doesn’t matter as long as Nick’s memories match, but what about the memories of all the other people involved?
It is possible that we misremember, misunderstood, or simply missed the answers to our questions. If so, we apologize. But even with its flaws, we enjoyed the IMPOSSIBLE TIMES trilogy. Nick and his friends are appealing and it’s easy to sympathize with their plights. The story is fun and after much tension it ends satisfactorily. Who cares that we didn’t always believe it?
Dispel Illusion contains a thoughtful treatment of time travel, moments of brilliance, and the running Dungeons & Dragons subplot supplying several metaphors for the main plot and for life generally. And more (to paraphrase The Princess Bride): Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Friendship. Strong hate. True love. It’s a fitting end to this time travel saga.
Kat recommends the audio versions by Brilliance Audio. Matthew Frow’s performance is charming.