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Review: ‘The Outcasts of Time’ by Ian Mortimer

The Outcasts of Time by Ian MortimerOn 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 Travellers 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.

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Review: ‘The Fourteenth Letter’ by Claire Evans

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire EvansNo one was more surprised by my enjoyment of Claire Evans’ The Fourteenth Letter than me.  It looked like the kind of book I would enjoy as a fun distraction, but nothing more.  And I was sorely in need of a fun distraction.

The Fourteenth Letter opens with a grisly murder.  What follows is an historical mystery with a classical twist, blending old world British Gothic with new world American ingenuity.  It was a book about madness, privilege and eugenics, and while it didn’t keep me guessing through the whole reading experience, it definitely swept me along for the ride.

I was impressed with Evans’ characterisation.  Her characters were deeply flawed, mysterious, but personable.  Their experiences created a sense of real personal growth.  The William Lamb of the end of the novel was virtually unrecognisable from the character we’d met at the beginning, but his growth and development were so natural that it really gave his character depth.  Savannah Shelton, the American gunslinger as well, was introduced as a rough and hardened criminal.  Even she proved to have real depth, while Evans’ masterfully omitted the details of her erstwhile crimes, leaving the reader to judge the character on her personality and deeds through the novel rather than her sordid past.  The remaining heroes were appropriately heroic, with the generic good-guy police constable who served to move the plot at an even pace, and the villains were appropriately dark and menacing.

The pace, plotting and characterisation, however, were belied by The Fourteenth Letter’s title and branding.  The cover is more evocative of a feminine gothic family saga/romance.  There was nothing that screamed historical murder mystery.  The titular ‘Fourteenth Letter’ as well, was introduced far too late in the plot for it to have any real impact or meaning.  This was the book’s biggest letdown.  The big reveal was hardly a reveal at all, as I hadn’t even known in was an option up until that point.

All in all The Fourteenth Letter was a strong entry into the historical crime genre.  It was a fun read that was equal parts cliché and original that was just really, really enjoyable.

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Review: ‘The Phantom Tree’ by Nicola Cornick

I Blame Wizards - The Phantom Tree

Nicola Cornick’s The Phantom Tree, while not perfect, was a pleasant surprise.  It was an easy read with some fantastic elements of historical fiction that were believable and genuine. It had similarities to A. S. Byatt’s Possession but lacked its literary focus and genuine depth, yet despite this it was an enjoyable read, if not entirely convincing in its narrative.

The Phantom Tree tells the concurrent stories of two friends, separated by time.  Allison Bannister is a woman living in the present, ripped from her family and stranded in a time that isn’t hers.  Mary Seymour is a woman lost from history who holds a secret she needs to communicate through time itself.

Tudor historical fiction is a dime a dozen these days.  It’s always been popular, so the fact that Nicola Cornick tried to do something different with the formula is commendable.  Her descriptions of the period are emotive and beautiful and gave a deep sense of what life would have been like for the ‘forgotten’ aristocracy of the Tudor period.  It was less about the large political machinations and big personalities that punctuate what we know about the time, and instead put these elements in the background of a much more personal story.  They gave a sense of time and place, rather than becoming the focus of what is, essentially, a very personal story.

It’s a shame then that the modern-day narrative didn’t have the same heart or depth as the historical narrative.  Cornick’s love is obviously history, and that love showed through every word where the Tudor period was concerned.  The modern elements simply felt flat and lifeless in comparison.  We are introduced to Allison when she is already well established in our time.  She has a job, an apartment, has already had a serious relationship (which is rekindled with absolutely no spark or romance) and so we never get to know the difficulty she must have had adjusting to modern life having just come from a time that is so far removed from our own as to be a different planet.  Despite Allison being the protagonist, it was Mary who had all the characterisation and soul.

I think one of the reasons this may have been the case is that there is no internal logic or believability to the central premise of magic and time travel.  At no point is it explained why it is possible.  All the characters simply shrug and seem to say ‘that’s just the way it is’.  There wasn’t enough in it that could suspend my disbelief at the fantasy elements.  If it had been as simply as ‘time travel exists’ I probably could have been ok with that, but there are so many other elements jammed in there that didn’t heighten the narrative at all, that it did bear some kind of explanation. There are visions, precognition, telepathy and a weird telepathic romance that left me a little confused as to why it was necessary.

The ultimate resolution to The Phantom Tree was far too neat.  All Allison’s modern day compatriots simply accept her story of time travelling without even a blink of disbelief.  In only ten years we are meant to simply accept that she perfectly came to grips with modern life, learns to drive, studies abroad with a university despite having no documentation to even prove that she exists and lands a dream job with a start-up travel company that people would probably kill for, despite there being countries on the itinerary that hadn’t even been discovered at the time she was born.  Even the answer to the plot’s great mystery somehow just seems to appear in her mind, despite the plot being set up as a tale of sleuthing through time.

There was a lot to commend The Phantom Tree as a work of historical fiction.  But the fantasy elements and blind acceptance of the fantastical situations by the books characters were a little hard to swallow.  Where the historical elements flowed naturally and worked as a believable narrative, the modern-day and fantasy elements felt somehow forced and made the book in to something that I don’t think it should ever have been.

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