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This is not a stand-alone novel, but a sequel to the author's debut, The Year of Our War. This review is written with the assumption of familiarity with that previous work. It also contains those pesky PLOT GIVEAWAYS, so be forewarned. There is reportedly a third volume called The Modern World or Dangerous Offspring to be available in 2007. Check these links for publication dates.
Opening the novel, two of its main drifts are revealed immediately: one, the Castle is shrouded in mist, just as the machinations of the elusive Sailor Mist Ata will become its paramount but hidden mystery, and two, just as it takes 3 pages for Comet to approach and perch, this book will seem longer than its 317 pages. The author has chosen to flesh out this world and its characters with detailed exposition and more backstory. Fortunately, most of it is interesting reading during a long voyage, but it's still a haul to the pivotal flashpoints. Some of it is Court chatter, as with Wrenn's “impetuous and idealistic” (p.256) posturing and Tern's infidelity. But, thank God, the forays into the cartoon world of The Shift are rare.
It is five years later and the Swordsman, who was never seen in the first volume, is defeated by a young upstart in Challenge. While the naïve Wrenn Culmish is taken into the tutelage of his now-fellow Eszai—Comet, Lightning, and Mist—and shown the ways and decorum of living forever, the now-aging, un-Swordsman— Gio Ami —grudgingly plans rebellion against San and his immortal Circle. Within this arc falls the discovery of an island named Tris with a peaceful population and democratic government which is ripe for commercial plunder and exploitation. The maiden expedition ends disastrously for both sides, as while Tris trades away gold and precious spices for steel swords and trinkets, the Fourlands diplomats unwittingly unleash an Insect onto the island's population. The Trisians ban any further contact between the two cultures and the Eszai and their crew sulk back to a Fourlands smoking with rebellion and slaughter. But this first contact proves to be merely a stubbed toe in Hooterville compared to the second encounter which climaxes the novel.
The elaboration and history of this parallel Earth is welcome and interesting but there's also unsure footing down bland and weary trails. Comet is back on drugs, which engenders two plot thrusts: Tern's supposed reaction to have an affair with the muscle-bound, hard-drinking, hung-like-a-unicorn Strongman Tornado, and Comet's re-trenching into the Shift, where he meets Tarragon, a former Circle member now a sentient shark, who assists him via a Time Fly to enter another parallel world called Vista and convince a giant sea snake to help him. Both are forays better suited for a more “pulpy” approach, as they are plot-moving devices without expansion or intellectual consideration. And, once again Mighty Mousing* it with a drug addict's hallucination, however real and viable, is repetitive and surprisingly unimaginative.
There are other missteps as well. Technically, it seems haphazard to break Comet's narrative flow with insertions from Wrenn's diary, especially since it happens for only two, short passages. And what about starting Chapter Eight in third-person for no apparent reason? But more importantly, alternative History veers a little close to actual History in certain incidents, such as Tris' Grecian-style democracy swept over by conquistador -like**, New World invasion that later morphs into familiar R.L. Stevenson pirate antics, and the library destruction which burns with the same regrettable consequences as its illustrious, Alexandrian counterpart. Both feel like jumbled borrowings carrying unneeded, past connections.
But these are relatively minor criticisms in lieu of the problems in most transitional novels. Second acts are typically lulled by adding more facing onto the body, and, in this case, sacrificing those riveting action sequences finely displayed in the first novel. More depth to the characterizations means accumulated intrigue, mystery, fascination, symbolic import, and ongoing themantic growth. For instance, Emperor San is painted in much colder light shed from the ancient manuscripts of Trisian history. And Lightning, that proverbial troubadour, quite pathetically shows one of the least desirous aspects of immortality in repetitively “writing his three-hundredth romantic novel . . . [like] a lover who has sought the same character in different women over fifteen hundred years” (p.164).
Now, the newest personality introduced to the Circle—the Swordsman Wrenn—would seem the logical choice for detailed development, but, after the initial sketch is flushed with color, he is dropped into the caricature position of the talented but naïve adolescent. No, the character sweating under the interrogation light here is Mist Ata. First presented in The Year of Our War as the seafaring wife who murders her husband to become the Circle's Sailor, she is trusted with the crucial inaugural meeting with Tris' leaders. Her dubious diplomatic strategy involves selling them the eternal life yoke, and acquaintance with that “legendary maneater” (p.136), a live grizzly bear-sized Insect. Comet considers her a “callous human” (p.73), indicating he is not slurping up her bubble-bath water like Wrenn, and, to some extent, even Lightning. But his perception of her actions is suspiciously nondescript through the Archer 's near-death stabbing and her final, fateful voyage back to Tris. She is the beautiful and mysterious woman: competent, cunning, and shadowed by a deluded narrator's mistrusted judgments as either femme-fatal or heroine of some unseen, ubiquitous cause. If Gio is Emperor San's “cat's paw” (p.232), then Mist may well be the fangs.
The author's core theme develops further as San's benefaction shows the bilge of ambition, greed, pride, jealousy, and the rest of the Deadly Sins sloshing down every character's draft. Those of the Circle who are introduced as benign and gifted saviors and protectors of the less-fortunate masses acidify between Trisian Senator Vandace's condemnations (p.135-7) and rebel Gio's incendiary rhetoric (p.210-15). Eternal servitude to Emperor San appears more and more like a life sentence without parole. Vast indiscretions, shocking injustices, and selfish prejudices come to the surface like sea kraits scuttling caravels, opening lethal cracks in a culture threatened into both complaisance and accomplishment solely by this eternal, dangling carrot. It is not quite the “present” (p.210) of the novel's title so enthusiastically hawked earlier.
I have faith in Ms. Swainston's vision and ability. She juggles ingredients both experimental and canonical, sometimes decorative, sometimes poignant. Her world is a lush horizon of significance and intriguing possibilities, and, with each volume, she adds more weighted mass than weightless air. I am regarding No Present Like Time as an interim novel, further refining the palate for a forthcoming sumptuous dessert. As with any worthwhile imbibing, plenary judgment should only descend when the napkin is finally abandoned.
*This used to link to Andy Kaufman's lip-synching of the Mighty Mouse theme song, but copyright infringement removed it. Now, it's just a generic link to YouTube. (7/28/07)
**Think like an Inca or Aztec for a moment. Wouldn't the Spaniards appear like giant beetles in their armor and weaponry? Maybe the bug on Mist's boat should be nicknamed Pizarro, after a real human insect.