Sometimes, for reasons I don’t really understand, I get a bit fixated on a book I plan to read. I’ll just… have it in my mind whenever I go into a bookshop or search Amazon. I won’t necessarily buy it, but it’ll come up again and again. And then I’ll mention it. A lot. To the point where both my flatmates and several other people know I will eventually buy and read it. This was one of those books. I read a review of it a few months ago, one of the little signs you get on the shelf in a bookshop where an employee has read it, and it seemed… quite cool. The blurb is also fairly cool, if not that exciting. But something about it lurked in my mind. Every time I’ve been anywhere book-related, it’s popped into my head. So I finally got round to buying it with the Foyle’s vouchers work gave me for my birthday, and this was a Good Decision. Because I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
That being said… I’m not sure really what to tell you about it. It is decidedly odd, and somewhat defies classification. The blurb reads thus:
Patricia is a witch who can communicate with animals. Laurence is a mad scientist and inventor of the two-second time machine. As teenagers they gravitate towards one another, sharing in the horrors of growing up weird, but their lives take different paths…When they meet again as adults, Laurence is an engineering genius trying to save the world-and live up to his reputation-in near-future San Francisco. Meanwhile, Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the magically gifted, working hard to prove herself to her fellow magicians and secretly repair the earth’s ever growing ailments.As they attempt to save our future, Laurence and Patricia’s shared past pulls them back together. And though they come from different worlds, when they collide, the witch and the scientist will discover that maybe they understand each other better than anyone.
Which makes it sound like a romance that has a couple of bits of SFF thrown in. But that’s not right or fair. Yes, there is some romance in it, but it’s not the romance the blurb would have you expect. And it’s not the whole story by far. But nor is it the SFF you might assume it would be either. In fact, much like Excession, it kept on not being the story I expected it to be, even as my expectations changed. But in this instance, I really liked that. Because I’m fickle, or something.
What that meant was, however, that I really had no idea how it was going to end, and so I was hooked the whole way through. And more than anything else, the book is beautifully paced to grip you and make you want to keep on reading, so I did have a heck of a time putting it down.
I suppose the other peculiar thing is how the author manages to maintain a sort of distance between the reader and the characters – you never really feel like you’re inside their heads or anything – while at the same time giving you such an insight and empathy for the characters. Yes, you never feel like you’re really reading through their emotions and decisions, but you’re getting to know them very well from the outside. It’s really pleasant. This is possibly especially so because you see both protagonists as children for a fair time before it skips to the adult perspective story. I don’t know whether it’s this distance-but-close-focus, or something else, but I really feel like these are some of the most compelling characters I’ve read for a long time. They felt properly real, in a way a lot of characters don’t, and that more than anything is what endeared the book to me. They’re illogical and emotional and contradictory and just… really real. They’re actual people. And as such, I struggle to choose between them who I enjoyed reading the most. Normally, with multiple POV/character focus books, there’s one I like less, one I wish maybe we could skim over a bit, every now and then. But this one? Nope. I would be sad for any lack.
They’re also very different people, and not just in the stereotypical way the blurb would have you think. And they confuse each other. They do things that make sense to the reader, with all their context, but not to each other. They miscommunicate, and let things fall apart, and do all the silly little failures that make them proper people. And that’s what’s quite so charming, I think, about the whole book. The way the author has really captured the many interactions of two people over a span of years.
Which isn’t to say that the rest of what it does isn’t good. Far from it. As I say, I didn’t really know where things were going, and the book kept throwing off my expectations all the way until nearly the end. Is this going to be a charming romance? No. An adventure novel? No. A coming of age? No… and as soon as you think “ah ha, I know what’s going to happen next”, it doesn’t. And, as I say, I really enjoyed that. The downside, I suppose, is that it sometimes feels a little haphazard, a little unplanned, like the author has thrown things together as they felt right, rather than as they planned ahead. But every now and again, something pops up and you realise it had been foreshadowed all along, and so that idea too is dispelled.
Anders also does the thing that I often like (when done well) of not really explaining any of her magic/science. None of it feels implausible; there’s an intuitive rightness to what they can and can’t do, as far as you can tell. But she never says any of that. We never get told how the two second time machine works. No one has reversed the polarity of the neutron flow, or whatever. They’re put into the background, not because the science and magic aren’t important, but because understanding them wouldn’t help us understand the story. Or the people. And it’s more about the people than the story, if I’m honest.
I keep seeing reviews online comparing Anders to Neil Gaiman… which you see a lot with any slightly weird fantasy, to be honest. But in this one? I think they might be fair. She has the same way with creating a world that you instinctively believe without needing to be told the details, and the same charm with her characters. It was so very much a book about people, and people I really wanted to care about, and I loved it.