A Tale of Time City

“Fate doesn’t care most of the time.”

Diana Wynne Jones

Another university read, A Tale of Time City is enchanting and baffling in equal parts. It’s set in the titular Time City, a fantastical, futuristic city built on a loose piece of space and time which sits outside the progression of human history. Its inhabitants observe that history, and study it, and keep it on track. But the end of Time is coming, and the City is falling apart, and someone is stealing the Caskets, the powerful and mysterious objects that can send Time City swinging back to the beginning of time again.

And so Sam and Jonathan, two children of the City, bored at half-term, visit history illegally to kidnap evacuee Vivian Smith from the train that’s bringing her to the country, in the never-quite-explained belief that somehow she’ll be able to help.

The real strength of this book lies in its ideas, I think. I loved the idea of time as a horseshoe, with Time City constantly looping around and around; I loved Perpetuum, a library that bends space; I loved the gloriously creepy time-ghosts (especially that panicked rush for the time-locks when the City starts falling to pieces) and the semi-magical Caskets with their ethereal Guardians and the glass clock in the Gnomon and the figure of stone sleeping under the city…

You get the idea. There’s a lot of awesome to this book.

But the story is, unfortunately, kind of incoherent. I don’t think I could actually describe the plot in any detail, which is good for avoiding spoilers but not for much else. The problem, I think, is twofold: firstly, the voice of the novel is a little dated (unsurprisingly, since A Tale of Time City was first published in 1987); secondly, Time City itself  is a whirl of images, concepts and objects that are individually very cool and original but taken together are just overwhelmingly unfamiliar. There’s a food item called a butter-pie that’s made much of in the novel, apparently the best-tasting thing since ever; I still have very little idea what it actually looks like or how it works. I know there’s a hot bit and a cold bit, but no clue as to how they relate spatially to each other. This is a very simple example of how confusing the book was: I found myself unable to imagine anything but the most familiar objects, which is not how science fiction, or fantasy (I’m not sure which A Tale of Time City is), is supposed to work.

The time travel did not help with this state of confusion. Time travel never does.

The characters are uninteresting for the most part: self-important and insufferable Jonathan; bumbling, food-loving Sam; indignant but basically decent Vivian. I was, however, mildly horrified by a scene in which Vivian force-feeds Sam a butter-pie after he’s eaten enough to make him ill; this was supposed to be a payback for a prank but it looked very much like bullying to me, especially after this passage:

She grabbed Sam by the back of his head before he could move and forced the butter-pie against his mouth. Sam bawled and kicked and struggled…Every time he yelled, she got butter-pie into his mouth. If he shut his mouth, she stuffed it down his neck. Jonathan rolled under his cover and laughed till his eyes ran…Vivian was glad to see from this that she had got Sam’s character right. Sam knew a fair punishment when he met one. He was not going to try for another revenge.

OK, Sam has just stolen a fair amount of money from Vivian, but I do not think this merits the kind of “punishment” described here. I don’t think these are the actions of a “good” character. Am I the only one who thinks this?

Questionable revenges aside, A Tale of Time City has plenty going for it, and plenty to ruin it. It just about manages to balance the two so that the resulting story is not a complete disaster, and occasionally quite fun to read. I’d definitely read more books set in Time City, if there were any more (I don’t think there are, unfortunately), and I’d happily read more Diana Wynne Jones, too.

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