I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
This review contains spoilers--if you don't want to know, don't read any further.
I’m not sure exactly what I think of this time-travel adventure. There are aspects that I love, some that leave me confused, and at least one that produces both sensations.
I loved the Ancient Egyptian connections—hieroglyphs, gods & goddesses, the great boat of Ra. I appreciated that it wasn’t easy for the time-displaced person to fit into the new society that they found themselves in. Coming from the privileged twentieth century didn’t mean beans when it came to supporting oneself in the late 19th century, something which I think many writers forget or discount. I also loved the use of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” as a signal amongst the time-travelers in old London, something that every 20th century person of a certain age would be familiar with.
One of the confusing aspects of the book for me was the role of the Gypsies. I’m unsure why they were inserted into the narrative—perhaps because there was once a line of thought that the Romany people had originated in Egypt? Also, at least one of the characters, Dog-Faced Joe, has the ability to switch bodies. At points in the latter part of the book, I just couldn’t keep up with who was housed in which body—it became a little much, especially as they were busy eliminating one another.
What was both wonderful and confusing was the poetry of Ashbless. Brendan Doyle has studied Ashbless’ poetry in the 20th century and indeed memorized it (a lost skill these days). While waiting in an inn for Ashbless to show up, he writes out a poem from memory. Doyle is confused when Ashbless does not arrive, as he remembers his history—Ashbless was to spend time at the inn & write that specific poem there, leaving Doyle to wonder if history is being changed. At that point, I realized that Doyle had to actually become Ashbless and write the rest of his poetry from memory—leaving the wonderful paradox: if he learned the poetry in the 20th century, wrote it from memory in the 19th century, where did the actual poetry come from? A lovely circular dilemma for the reader to enjoy.
An interesting ending as well, in that most writers would probably want to bring their main character home to the 20th century and Powers chose not to do that, a detail that I consider to be more realistic (if one can speak of such things in the context of time travel).
Book number 183 in my science fiction/fantasy reading project.