It’s time for another book review, and like the last one, this one will tackle the book from a prospective author’s perspective. Like the book in the previous review, I picked this one up almost by chance. I was at the Arisia sci-fi/fantasy (SF/F) convention a week ago, as I mentioned in a previous post. One of the panelists lit up when I mentioned how history informed my writing. And since the first of her own books involves time travel and the Battle of Waterloo, and I was an ardent wargamer in my youth, how could I not take a look at what she’d written?
So what lessons can Heather Albano’s Timepiece (2011) teach an aspiring writer?
Write what you read. “Write what you know” is the common advice, and in fact the author was on an Arisia panel of that name. Given the improbability of most of us living SF/F plots, I prefer the variation I’ve suggested. This book starts out in 1815, and given the amount of detail the author put into it, I suspect she’s in love with Regency Britain. And there’s at least one early SF/F novel that informs the main plot of this story. Those two reading-loves help the book by providing detail and hinting at something that will excite the more knowledgeable readers.
Pile mystery upon mystery. You can write a good story and explain everything as you go along. But isn’t part of the fun of SF/F trying to understand a different and mysterious world? And to pile mystery upon mystery is a good way to introduce an SF/F story and suck the reader in. This one uses mysterious soldiers, a mysterious timepiece, and a mysterious threat to draw the reader into the plot. And the author plays fair with the reader, to her credit: the three mysteries are all related and central to the plot.
When your characters encounter the unexpected, ground their reactions in their life stories. There’s an ancient debate over whether people will take the extraordinary in stride or freeze up. It’s a stupid debate. People react according to what their characters, knowledge, and expectations. Albano’s time travelers are definitely out of place, and their problem is adapting to quite foreign worlds. At the same time, how well they adapt depends on their backgrounds. I found William’s adaptations to be the liveliest, possibly because he gets to play many more roles that show off more facets of his character.
You don’t have to answer all the questions. Time travel begs questions. Can you change the past? Can you create a paradox? Almost any SF/F idea will suggest many questions. (How do vampires cope with different blood types?) You can sit your characters down and have them get a lecture, but that can become boring very easily. Or you can rush them pell-mell through your world, and let them learn it all by themselves, at the risk of confusing your reader. Don’t do either if you can avoid it. Figure out what questions must be answered in your story for the reader to follow it, and not feel your universe is run arbitrarily, and find a way to have your characters encounter the questions and their answers. Leave everything else about your world aside. This story is not about time travel, as such; it’s about how three time travelers deal with the situations they encounter, given their ability to travel in time. So we learn a lot about where and when they travel as they do. We learn what happens when time travelers try to change the course of events. But we do not get a general theory of time travel, or even of the paradoxes that might be produced, because we don’t need one for the story.
If you’re going to tease your readers, give them a pay-off as well. This book is the first in a series. (I have not read its sequel yet.) This is a common practice in the SF/F world; just ask the fans of Asimov, Tolkein, and even of the last time travel story I read, Connie Willis’s award-winning Blackout/All Clear pair of novels. By definition, plot threads are going to be left hanging at the end of a book such as this. The issue for the author is whether she/he has given the reader enough so they can finish the first book with a feeling of satisfaction, while still wanting to read the next book. Too many threads hanging, and the reader feels cheated. Guessing as to what is probably in the sequel, I think the author here picked a logical place to break the series. The main characters have dealt with their first major problem. Now, at the very end, they have to consider the consequences of what they did and how they will resolve their other problems. And there are hints of a mystery yet to be disclosed that I suspect will be used to bring either the second volume or the series to a close.
So there you have it: five rules for writing you can derive from this book for use in your own writing. They can be used in SF/F, or any other genre that depends on suspense to drive your interest. For example, I was just rereading Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) the other night. It’s a detective novel that piles on the mysteries, most of which get explained, and those that don’t end up not mattering much.
As a reader, I have to admit to a number of prejudices against this book. It’s labeled “steampunk,” a designation that usually sends me fleeing in the other direction, because it seems to be more of an æsthetic that’s been done to death than a real genre, in my opinion. (Look up the cover of Fortean Times #295 to see a pretty example of the æsthetic.) Although it is effective, I have ethical as well as æsthetic objections to the “mystery upon mystery” approach, which are too lengthy to go into here. And I loathe a book that ends with threads hanging that you have to buy another book to get answered. Have I read many such? You bet. Did I do something similar by serializing my own story on this blog, and therefore am being a bit of a hypocrite? Guilty as charged.
That said, in general I enjoyed the book, despite myself. The author loves her historical details, and it shows. The book features credible characters. The plot’s a good bit of fun, and I give the author credit for combining her three mysteries together as well as she does. The story generally runs along at a good pace, though I think it sagged a bit around the time the main characters arrive at Waterloo. Bottom line? I bought the sequel. Maybe I’ll review it another day.