fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Time Roads Beth Bernobich fantasy book reviewsThe Time Roads Beth Bernobich

Often times I want to tell an author, “You had me at structure.” Give me an atypical form — something eschewing the usual A to B to C linear plotline — and you’ve charmed me from the get-go. For instance, the linked short story form. I first fell in love with it a long, long time ago when I picked up Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven, and since that time the genre has given me a lot of reading joy: Dubliners, The Things They Carried, Winesburg Ohio, Go Down Moses, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, and the list goes on. So it was with a lot of eagerness that I picked up Beth Bernobich’s The Time Roads, a collection of four braided short stories with shared characters and setting, all dealing with the impact of time travel. As I said, she had me at structure. Unfortunately, she lost me at execution, though not always, and not fully. In the end, the whole I think was better than the sum of its parts and thus worth a read, but it’s a close call and were you to ask me another day I might say otherwise.

The core setting for the novel in story form is an alternate history where Ireland (Eire) is a sprawling empire, with the Anglian Dependencies submissive to the Empire but restless. Europe, meanwhile, is a squabbling collection of states, including Prussia, Austria, the Balkans, the Turkish states, and so forth. The setting is roughly between the cusp of the 20th Century to early 1914 (no coincidence this is the year of our World War One). The stories focus on the young Queen of Eire, Aine Lasairiona Devereaux; her spymaster/guard Aidrean O’ Deaghaidh; a pair of brilliant sibling mathematicians — Siomon and Gwen Madoc; and a handful of advisers, dissidents, and scientists. The cycle is made up of four stories, briefly summarized below.

“The Golden Octopus” (1897): Aine comes suddenly and unexpectedly to the throne just as the world is beginning to feel tremors of political unrest. As she tries to keep a firm grip on the Empire, both abroad and at home, she also sponsors a fervent young scientist who believes he is on the verge of creating a time machine. Even as he works on his invention though, someone begins killing the country’s bright young mathematics students and Aidrean O’ Deaghaidh is set to investigate the horrific murders.

“A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange” (1902): Siomon Madoc is a young mathematics student whose sister Gwen, once his partner, is in a sanitorium undergoing treatment for madness (she has been saying nothing but a string of prime numbers for some time now). When his fellow students start being murdered one by one, Siomon comes under the watchful eye of Aidrean, who has been sent to investigate the murders. Siomon, though, is sure the solution lies somewhere in his and his sister’s work on the relationship between numbers and time, and that his sister’s strange litany is part of the answer.

Ars Memoriae” (1904): Aidrean O’ Deaghaidh has spent some time in the sanitorium and is still seeing a psychiatrist now because he is tormented by phantom recollections of a past that seemingly never was, as when he meets one of the Queen’s advisor’s and remembers the man’s grief over the murder of his daughter — a murder Aidrean remembers being tasked to investigate — though now the lord talks happily of how successful his daughter has been ever since she graduated from the university with her degree in mathematics. Despite his affliction (which has improved), Aidrean has been reinstated to his commander rank and is sent by Aine to the kingdom of Montenegro to learn what he can of plots against the Empire. As he learns more, however, he begins to wonder if the worst enemies are without or within the Court.

“The Time Roads” (1914): Political unrest in Europe has worsened, even as the “Anglian problem” has turned violent, with the Dependencies demanding more autonomy from Eire. Assassination attempts, a horrific new weapon, and home-grown and outside-entity conspiracies, find Eire on the brink of potential destruction that would usher in a world-wide conflagration. With Aidrean’s help, Aine seeks a path to a different future.

The structure of the cycle, no surprise, is one of its strengths. Perhaps the strength. While there is a broad center to this collection — the Eire setting, the main characters, the troubles in and outside the Empire — that center is reborn with each new story, something having occurred due to the “time fractures” as they’re called so that the events of the prior story either never happened or happened in some changed form (for instance, a Lord’s daughter killed in one story is alive and well in the next). I loved tracing those threads of what stayed the same, what never happened, and what happened in modified form. It made for some stimulating, attentive reading, and I always enjoy this kind of web of linkages form. “A Flight of Numbers” is particularly disjointed in this fashion and it was by far my favorite of the stories, the most compelling and most atmospheric.

That was the good. The bad fell into the execution of the other aspects: characterization, pace, and plot. None of these characters really stood out for me. Aine was a pretty idealized young monarch and her romantic feelings just didn’t click with me — feeling far too rushed and shallow. Aidrean was a bit bland, and considering the role he plays that’s a real blow to the reader. Other characters are pretty stock and forgettable; I can’t say I really cared all that much what happened to anyone in the book, from minor to major characters. The first person narration didn’t help here, as too much of the characterization was told to us from within, a relatively dull method in comparison especially to the unusual structure.

The pacing has issues throughout for me. It seemed to me there was little differentiation of what to share and not share, what to focus on and what not to focus on. Tiny details of setting or clothing would take up an equal amount of time to major plot/action events; it felt like everything was given equal weight despite not being of anywhere near equal importance. I confess this was driving me crazy by the end of the book. And while I’m all for a politics-centered book, I needed a bit more context for what was happening here. Names just get tossed around with no sense of distinction or power: Prussia, Russia, Turkey, Alba, Montenegro, Serbia. Clearly we’re working with a Great Power analogue here, but once you’ve put me in an alternate history where England is subservient to an Irish Empire, I need a bit more to go on — is everything else the exact same? Am I supposed to read Prussia as Prussia as we know it, but not Ireland as our Ireland and England and our England? Certainly anyone not particularly well-versed in WWI will have even worse of a time, or simply shrug and say — “these guys must be bad…” — which is a hardly a victory for an author. Finally, the ending was a bit too neat for me, but I obviously don’t want to go into the details as to why.

So overall The Time Roads was a disappointing read. I said in my intro it is still a worthy read, that the whole of its effect is greater than the details of its parts, and while that latter part is definitely true, I’m not wholly sure about the first. It’s possible my ingrained bias toward the short story cycle form is winning me over more than it should and thus blinding me to the full impact of the book’s shortcomings. I’m almost sure that had this plot, these characters, and this style been presented in “normal” novel structure, I be rating it a 2 or 2.5. But you know, structure. I’m a sucker. 3.0


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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