Friday, July 19, 2019

Short Book Reviews: Jane Austen Heroine, Time Travel, and Frankenstein's Monsters Win the Battle of Waterloo

Timepiece (Book 1 of the Keeping Time Trilogy) by Heather Albano (Stillpoint Digital Press Prometheus)

The concept: Jane Austen-style characters travel through time to keep Frankenstein’s monsters from saving the Battle of Waterloo and transforming Victorian London into a nightmare of pollution and Orwellian robots.

The execution: Deft prose, careful characterization, and meticulous historical research brought the story alive from the opening pages; On the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington’s position is dire. The French have inflicted massive losses on his forces and he fears with good reason that his lines cannot hold another determined assault. The Prussians, whom he had counted on for relief and reinforcement, have been delayed, despite promises of imminent arrival. His only hope: the “special battalion” troops, descendents of the monsters created by “the Genevese” student (presumably a historical Dr. Frankenstein) a generation ago. He makes a choice and sends for them. That’s the set-up.

Across the Channel in England, a young woman, straight of the pages of Jane Austen and very much an homage to Elizabeth Bennett, aptly named Elizabeth, befriends William, a disabled veteran of those same Napoleonic wars. A mysterious gift, a watch-like device with multiple dials whose purposes are unfathomable, catapults the two to London half a century later, where the city has become an inferno-esque nightmare of pollution, poverty, child labor, and an Orwellian spy state, enforced by gigantic robots. The robots, it turns out, were developed against the “monsters,” who did not simply go away after Waterloo but were used as slaves in hazardous occupations like mining, rebelled, and were driven to Scotland behind “Moore’s Line” (shades of Hadrian, anyone?) Here they meet enigmatic Maxwell, possessor of a second time-travel watch, whose goal has been to prevent the current catastrophe by changing history. His multiple attempts – convince the Genevese to not create a monster, prevent Wellington from using the “special batallion,” etc., have all been unsuccessful. Now our stalwart team, aided by a few sundry folks from 1885 and a few more allies they make upon the way, embark upon the same mission. Needless to say, the following adventures are vastly entertaining, full of poignant moments, character development, and perspectives on the cultural shifts between 1815 and 1885, particularly for women. When they finally return to 1885, the initial signs are good: clear skies, fresh air, streets bustling with normal commerce…except they have inadvertently broken history. And obviously must go on to fix it in the second volume.

Now comes the complaint! Although I read Timepiece in a NetGalley ARC in 2019, when I went looking for the sequels, I found that it was originally published in 2011. All three volumes (Timepiece, Timekeeper, Timebound) are still in print, with new hardcover editions running a shy short of $26.00. Alas, none are available through my public library. While I did enjoy the first installment and am looking forward to the rest, I’m a bit puzzled why Timepiece was offered as an ARC eight years after its publication. The only thing I can figure out is that the third volume was released last year, and this is a strategy to drum up buzz about the series so folks go out and buy all 3.

Regardless, the Keeping Time trilogy is finely handled, thoughtful but exciting travel across time and parallel worlds, all done up in grand steampunk style. I had never heard of it before, but hope that with this re-issue it receives the attention and enjoyment it merits.

The usual disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, but no one bribed me to say anything in particular about it. Although chocolates and fine imported tea are always welcome.

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