Beth Bernobich’s The Time Roads is Steampunk Lite with a twist of Time Travel. That might sound less enjoyable than the actual reading experience, which is mostly a mild disappointment; flat but still somewhat entertaining. The prose is crisp and the vocabulary appropriately antique; the worldbuilding is thoughtful, but not spectacular. It’s plausible that more research went into Irish names than almost everything else here, except possibly prime numbers.
So, there’s this alternate-history Ireland, see, in 1897. Éire. And in this reality, Éire is an empire with a savvy new Queen and civil unrest brewing in the world. Intriguing premise! Sadly, other than that, there’s nothing truly wowza here. Even thrilling subplots (a love triangle; a string of violent and bizarre murders; even the dire quest for time travel itself) don’t live up to their potential and left this reader unsatisfied. If the main point of the novel had been to focus on the scientific pursuit of the time roads, that would be understandable, but even the method of traveling through time is confusing and unbelievable. The political intrigue, time slippage and interpersonal relations that slowly unspool the plot are too tangled, and no amount of cool steampunk hot air balloons, strong tea drinking, or alternate history lessons can knot it all together quite well enough (though I do love reading about a good cuppa).
The elaborate description of scientist Brendan Ó Cuilinn’s strange time machine – an octopus-like brass and silver contraption with wires and glass tubes – opens the first section of the novel, with a focus on mystical mathematics, as Ó Cuilinn uses his machine to make an iron-chromium bar “disappear,” claiming he has sent the bar into the future. But despite much emphasis on insanity, prime numbers and lots of philosophical name-dropping, it seems as if the reader is expected to accept the book’s time travel premise based mostly on magical descriptions of the time roads themselves, and the characters’ sudden encounters with inexplicable nausea and fugue states – or being dead one minute, and alive the next – with the ability to remember different realities. Why bother with science or pseudoscience at all? There is no concern with paradox. The most pressing issues for the main characters are that of overlapping timelines, the resulting confusion, and possible war among nations, but the narrative is itself so switchbacky that I began to doubt everything, and not in ways that I think were intentional.
The Time Roads is divided into four books, each taking place in a year between 1897 and 1914 (althought at one point, we’re in the 1940’s), and in multiple time streams. The division of the book unfortunately breaks up the narrative flow into a collected of disjointed novellas, further scattered by the use of different points of view. Disjointedness and multiple viewpoints are techniques that really work in time travel stories – hey, they’re often key to the plot. I didn’t feel that applied here, which may have been the point, but if it was, I don’t actually see the point of that.
The first and last books are told in first person by Queen Áine, while the second and third books are told in third person and focus on two other characters. The Queen’s chapter introduces Ó Cuilinn’s machine, Queen Áine (our sharpwitted and independent heroine), and her trusted agent Aidrean Ó Deághaidh – the love triangle that goes in circles. The second book follows Síomón Madoc and his sister Gwen, student prodigies and future (past?) discoverers of the time roads and how to travel them. Gwen is literally two split people in the book – tragically mad and scientifically gifted – but the two personas are neither fleshed out nor threaded together to make either one, let alone two, solid characters. The third chapter involves Ó Deághaidh investigating reports of unrest in the country of Montenegro. Oddly, this section of the book – “Ars Memoriae” – is the strongest, because it is completely unlike the other sections. “Ars Memoriae” is Jason Bourne meets HG Wells, a spy novella with trust issues, reality issues, and thriller-level suspense. If the whole novel could have been like this – BOOM, yes!! It really seems like it tried to be. Alas, no.
The character of Queen Áine is the book’s strong, smart heroine – yes, but more like a box to be checkmarked than a woman to care about – which is too bad. In Montenegro, Ó Deághaidh meets Valerija Delchev, who definitely has the most charisma of the female players, and then she’s promptly dropped from the storyline and footnoted.
For a novel about time travel, The Time Roads is two-dimensional. Is it because the characters are developed only enough to simply suffice for the plot and general reader interest? Is it because the book’s concept of time travel requires advanced degrees in mathematics and physics (does it – really?)? This is a book that could have been. Could have been more. Kind of calls for someone to go back in time and add what’s missing. I would read that alternate-reality version of this book.
I received this book as a free ARC from Netgalley.