The Emperor of all Things by Paul Witcover
Published by Bantam Books, February 2013 (Review copy received)
Review by Mark Yon
From the book: ‘1758. England is embroiled in a globe-spanning conflict that stretches from her North American colonies to Europe and beyond. Across the Channel, the French prepare for an invasion – an invasion rumored to be led by none other than Bonnie Prince Charlie. It seems the map of Europe is about to be redrawn. Yet behind these dramatic scenes, another war is raging – a war that will determine not just the fate of nations but of humanity itself…
Daniel Quare is a journeyman in an ancient guild, The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. He is also a Regulator, part of an elite network within the guild devoted to searching out and claiming for England’s exclusive use any horological innovation that could give them an upper hand, whether in business or in war.
Just such a mission has brought Quare to the London townhouse of eccentric collector, Lord Wichcote. He seeks a pocket watch rumoured to possess seemingly impossible properties that are more to do with magic than with any science familiar to Quare or to his superiors. And the strange timepiece has attracted the attention of others as well: the mysterious masked thief known only as Grimalkin, and a deadly French spy who stop at nothing to bring the prize back to his masters. Soon Quare finds himself on a dangerous trail of intrigue and murder that leads far from the world he knows into an otherwhere of dragons and demigods, in which nothing is as it seems . . . time least of all. Tempus Rerum Imperator: Time, Emperor of All Things.’
Paul’s novel is an excitingly and brilliantly realised, poetically written tale of magic, subterfuge and intrigue. Not to mention clocks.
It is a book of three parts. The first is, as the description above might suggest, an exciting trip through eighteen century London, full of spies and competing secret societies.
The characters themselves are rather Dickensian in their tone, mannerisms and attributes, with aspects that are both recognisable and yet distinct. Quare finds himself ensnared as a journeyman in the bureaucratic mechanisms of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, with him manoeuvring around the opposing demands of Grandmaster Thaddeus Wolfe and Quare’s mentor, Theophilus Magnus. We have honourable heroes and strong female characters that we can root for, villains that we can easily dislike, and an exhilarating plot that dashes from exciting place to thrilling locale, from places that seem to be straight out of history to places that seem out of fantasyland. The places visited are full of atmosphere and vibrant imagery that make the characters feel that they’re in a fully functioning world.
It is quite an energetic development.
The second part is, to my mind, less successful. Here the tale changes from third person perspective to first person, as Lord Wichcote relates the tale of what happened to him in an almost Lost Horizon scenario*. Whilst searching for further evidence of unusual timepieces, like the strange hunter pocket watch described already, he finds himself stranded in the Alpine village of Marchen, in Winter, cut off from the rest of the world. The village is peopled with some very unusual characters, but strangest of all things is a clock tower in the middle of the village square, named Wachter’s Folly. Wichcote’s examination of the tower leads to some very strange goings on, with the clock’s timings seemingly at random and its mechanisms most unusual.
By the end of this section we have a tale of love, sex and horology, which seemed rather at odds to me from the first part. It must be said that the tale is not superfluous, and there are major revelations to Wichcote (aka Longinus) in this section and a realisation by him that perhaps love rules all, even time. The clock and some of the people in the village are much more than they initially seem.
Whilst this section of the tale is undoubtedly entertaining, it worked less well for me. There are some rather discontinuous events here that sit oddly with what has gone before. The fast paced actions Quare the super-agent in the first section is disconcertedly replaced by a rather more humorous (some might say buffoon-like) performance from Wichcote in the second. Whilst the setting was imaginatively presented, things become increasingly unreal, and bizarre. I did find that the oft-repeated erotic ‘reaction’ to being near other-worldly presences was rather superfluous and unnecessary. There is romance here, which is predictable, yet not too cloying. It must be said that the story at this point, for all its meandering, does serve a purpose to the tale.
The third section returns to the espionage activities of Quare, who, now knowing the major revelation of the novel in Part Two, has to deal with multiverses, vampyrric timepieces and dragons. I found a certain amusement at reading about troglodytian dwellers below London referred to as ‘Morecockneyans’ (because they’re ‘more than Cockneys’, see?) and wondered if Mike knows! Things move to a resolution of sorts, although a reader looking for a simple all-encompassing ending will be disappointed. The conflict between England and France, barely mentioned until this point, reappears with a flourish and seems to be of more important in the next book.
Although there are parts I was less enamoured with, I really liked this one in the end. It’s a book with great imagination, a joy of language, and with an interesting take on a well-realised fantasy world.
Literate, intelligent and generally entertaining, this one receives my recommendation.
*Lost Horizon, a book by James Hilton (and a 1937 film of the same name) depicts a group of travellers stranded in the Himalayas, who whilst there discover the lost fabled land of Shangri-La hidden in the mountains.
Mark Yon, January 2013.