On the surface, Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time has everything an historical novel should have. It was full of sumptuous description, historical accuracy, and a well-developed protagonist used to illustrate his own zeitgeist. It is a shame then that no strength of writing could make up for the one thing that The Outcasts of Time was really lacking. A plot.
Within the first few pages, I was already worried that Ian Mortimer would go the way of so many historians turned novelists, and my worries were ultimately well deserved. The Outcasts of Time gets so caught up in its own historicity that it forgets what it’s actually written for. To tell a story. Instead of a flowing narrative that goes somewhere and means something, instead, we are treated to a set of historical vignettes that read like a morality play for the importance of the study of history. I’m a professional historian, so I’m all for that, but the setup was just so contrived that I caught myself physically rolling my eyes at moments.
I find it difficult to write too much more about the novel because nothing happened. What makes this book great is the way that Mortimer brings the historical periods to life (with the exception of John of Wrayment’s foray into the 19th Century, which was just full of exposition rather than any real sense of time or place), but just giving me a good sense of history isn’t enough. The protagonists skip from day to day, century to century, never really getting to know anyone, or really do anything except give us a snapshot of life in their times. But if I wanted that, I would have read one of Mortimer’s exceptional non-fiction books. His Time Traveller’s Guide series is excellent! But a novel is more than just beautiful prose.
Ian Mortimer’s ultimate aim in writing The Outcasts of Time is summed up by one quote, that is often repeated at the end of the novel:
“The man who has no knowledge of the past has no wisdom.”
It’s a bit on the nose, but that’s the ultimate point. History is important, and we are all the sum of what came before. It’s an admirable thought, but it doesn’t make for gripping fiction without a strong narrative to lead us there.