Year published: 1998
Genre: Science fiction, alternative reality, time travel
Setting & time: Oxford, England, 2057 and southern England, late Victorian era
Due to under-manning, 21st century historian and time traveller Ned Henry is sent on an important mission to 19th century Victorian England, despite being an expert on the 20th century. Due to time-lag he is not quite sure what his mission is, but with a little rest and some detective work and help from Verity Kindle, another 21st century historian, he is able to discover what it is that he is supposed to do. At the same time, he is trying to avoid of Lady Shrapnell, a rich aristocrat who is trying to rebuild Coventry Cathedral (in Oxford) and wants him to find the artifact mentioned in the book’s subtitle, so he can recover from the time-lag and continue the search.
Technique and plot:
Here is a book I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who enjoys science fiction, historical fiction and romance, and appreciates literary allusions. The writing is skillful and Ned is a likable, if slightly confused, narrator, a fish out of water who shows remarkable adaptivity when left to fend for himself in an era he does not know enough about to feel comfortable in. The main romance is interesting and humorous without getting sappy and the secondary romance is laugh-out loud funny at times precisely because of the sappiness of the characters involved. The back-story, of Lady Shrapnell and the search for the Bishop’s bird stump, is so wonderfully ridiculous that it kept me chuckling whenever either was mentioned.
I like science fiction best when the futuristic aspects and speculative science is used as a device to further the progress of the narrative rather than to replace story or act as plot filler, so this was a perfect sample of the genre for me. The science is kept firmly in the background, it never gets baffling, and the explanations are kept brief and given on a need-to-know basis only.
Having the story take place in an alternative version of this world rather than a completely different one gives Willis ample opportunity to pepper the story with layered allusions to literature many readers are likely to recognise, mostly to mystery novels and 19th century poets, and of course to the book from which the title of this story is taken.
The plot, while complicated, never lags, and although the book is nearly 500 pages long, I wouldn’t cut a word of it, which is more than I can say of certain other long books I have read.
Rating: An excellent mixture of science fiction, romance and historical novel. 4+ stars.