Éire is one of the most powerful empires in the world. The Anglian Dependencies are a dusty backwater filled with resentful colonial subjects, Europe is a disjointed mess, and many look to Éire for stability and peace. In a series of braided stories, Beth Bernobich has created a tale about the brilliant Éireann scientists who have already bent the laws of nature for Man’s benefit. And who now are striving to conquer the nature of time.
The Golden Octopus: Áine Lasairíona Devereaux, the young Queen of Éire, balances Court politics while pursing the Crown’s goals of furthering scientific discovery. When those discoveries lead to the death and madness of those she loves, Áine must choose between her heart and her duty to her kingdom.
A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange: Síomón Madóc is desperately trying to discover who is killing the brightest of Éire’s mathematicians. The key to saving lives lies in the future…and Síomón must figure out a way to get there.
Ars Memoriae: Éireann spymaster Aidrean Ó Deághaidh goes to the kingdom of Montenegro to investigate rumors of great unrest. But Ó Deághaidh is tormented by visions of a different timeline and suspects that someone in his own government is playing a double game….
The Time Roads: Éire stands on the brink of the modern age, but old troubles still plague the kingdom. An encounter with a mysterious stranger near death holds the clue to both the past and the future of the nation.
The Time Roads is part-novel, part-collection. Its four stories – varying in length from long short story through to average novella – could each be read in isolation, in theory, but the way Bernobich links them and makes each rely on the events of the others means one would get a lot less out of the book, and this review will therefore be treating the whole rather than the individual parts.
It’s a whole that works rather well. Bernobich’s alternate history isn’t actually interested in how it is alternate history, only in how the present of the world – a turn of the century present, granted – works; we’re not treated to long historical digressions on when the world of The Time Roads departed from the world we live in, to stories of how Éire not only broke free from but came to rule Anglia, how the whole face of Europe and the world is changed from that we know. Instead, this is all just taken for granted, revealed piecemeal as and when it becomes necessary without any infodumping. It’s an interesting handling, especially since the period is such a contentious one historically speaking; to release a book which goes right up to alternate-1943, and has stories specifically focused on alternate-1914, is a bold move this year.
It’s also bold to treat the Anglian Dominions the way Bernobich does; but not necessarily a good one – The Time Roads never really challenges whether Éireann rule over the Anglian territories is benevolent, rather than simply unjustified, and thus fails to really engage with some of the issues it raises. Any novel inverting the power involved in the history of Anglo-Irish relations should not simply valourise the Irish it empowers, and The Time Roads does exactly that; it feels like the worst kind of British self-delusion about our treatment of the Irish and Northern Irish populations over the centuries we have ruled there, especially when the Anglians start committing terrorist attacks in a seemingly unprovoked manner.
Of course, The Time Roads is not really concerned with this, which is part of why the problem arises. Instead, it is concerned more with playing with the idea of time and time-travel as tools and weaponry. Hence, the stories have an internal chronology that is absolutely rigid despite subsequent events, in some cases, stopping previous stories from having happened by the time of later stories; keeping clear what happened and what was subsequently erased from history is a challenge the reader must grapple with as much as the characters, and it works extraordinarily well at conveying some of the complexities and paradoxes of time travel, while remaining an incredibly readable novel.
The Time Roads‘ biggest strength is its characters. They are all interestingly human, from the royal Áine, concerned with status and the safety of her people (an almost dully ideal monarch in the first story, more interesting but still rather frustratingly idealised by the end of the collection) and trying to do what she believes is right through to the scientifically-focused Síomón Madóc and his sister Gwen, who have little care for the outside world other than a refusal to see their ideas weaponised. Each character is interestingly painted with their own idiosyncracies and desires, but the best of the set is Aidrean Ó Deághaidh, also the only character to play a major role in every story; conflicted about his country and ideals, driven but not always confident, Aidrean is the most relatable character because he is the most human, and seeing his development is fascinating.
In the end, The Time Roads works for me because it is written compellingly and does some fascinating things with character; but Bernobich also fails in some pretty spectacular ways, not least of which is her failure to engage with colonial politics while attempting to portray them. Tread warily!
DoI: Review based a copy of the novel solicited from the publisher, Tor Books.