Photography breaks magic by embalming a specific moment—one version of reality—into a recorded image. Once that moment is so recorded, then all other possible versions of that moment are excluded from the world that contains that photograph.” [p. 35]
The premise of the novel is simple: time travel exists, and magic existed in the past but fizzled out with the rise of industrialism, and especially photography. Our intrepid protagonists would like to bring magic back. Of course it is not that simple. 750 pages later ...
Sorry, where was I?
'You will thank me for sparing you the details' one character assures us early on, after brief mention of a database. This gave me hope that Stephenson might have refrained, or been persuaded to refrain from, his habit of wordy exposition. But reader, 'twas not to be: later on we get pages and pages depicting the effects of bureaucracy on a small, innovative startup. That this startup is commodifying time travel does not make the bureaucracy-mockery any more entertaining.
Some of the most egregious flaws:
- a character from the twenty-first century is stranded in Victorian London. She self-censors her 'modern' turns of phrase, and her obscenities, in a journal she believes will not be read for over a century. Why?
- a character from the sixteenth century is Irish. Naturally her letters home include phrases such as 'Gráinne it is who’s writing this' and 'I’m after meeting a gentleman' -- peppered with a plethora of 'sures' and 'indeeds'.
- very few of the characters get a physical description, except the blond blue-eyed 'hero'.
- many of the characters are from central casting (though I did rather enjoy the Vikings)
- a child is forced by her parents to cooperate in a ghastly scheme. She never mentions this to anyone, despite being quick to develop, and expound upon, any grudge.
- features a rather spineless Christopher Marlowe, who is then (possibly) removed from history. [GRRRRRRRR]
- Norwich is not actually in, or near, Surrey
- the ending. What ending?
It's not all bad. There is a rather good, entertaining, swashbuckling novel -- of probably around 250 pages -- cunningly secreted within this tome. (I am so thankful to have read it on Kindle: I doubt my wrists could take it in dead-tree format.) The Viking plan is neat; Melisande an interesting protagonist (more interesting than her male counterpart: perhaps it's Nicole Galland's input, but there are a lot more interesting women in this book than in Stephenson's other works); the tilting balance between science and magic interestingly analysed. It's made clear (repeatedly) that one can't tamper with the past and expect the present to remain unchanged. As the novel progresses, it emerges that there are multiple sides to the story; that DODO (Department of Diachronic Operations) is up against a number of antagonists, some with more skin in the game than others.
But it is too long, and I did not especially like any of the characters: and if I had had the actual book, rather than the e-book, I would have hurled it across the room when I came to THE END.
Adam Roberts liked it more than I did.