THEBES OF THE HUNDRED GATES by Robert Silverberg (Review)

A short novel – 30,000 words or so, hardly more than a novella – by one of the grand masters of the genre.

In Thebes of the Hundred Gates, the Time Service in Home Era (like NOW) sends a young “volunteer” (none of the more experienced operatives will touch it) back to ancient Egypt in search of two of their own who overshot the mark and got lost in time a year and a half earlier. Now Service backroom-boys have managed to pinpoint them in Thebes – Thebes at the height of its splendour, under Amenhotep III, the great pharaoh whose son, Amenhotep IV, better known as the arch-heretic Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti, attempted to reform the Egyptian religion.

Edward Davis, our all-American-boy hero, materialises in the heat and dirt of a secluded back alley and immediately falls ill. Not because of the filth …

Two donkeys stood just in front of him, chewing on straw, studying him with no great curiosity. A dozen yards or so behind him was some sort of rubble-heap, filling the alley almost completely. His sandal-clad left foot was inches from a row of warm green turds that one of the donkeys must have laid down not very long before. To the right flowed a thin runnel of brownish water so foul that it seemed to him he could make out the movements of giant microorganisms in it, huge amoebas and paramecia, grim predatory rotifers swimming angrily against the tide.

But he had been inoculated against anything Thebes might come up with. No, it was temporal shock – it’s like “a parachute jump without the parachute“, they had told him, jumping so far uptime, “but if you live through the first five minutes you’ll be okay.” He had been back 400 and 600 years before, but never anything like this.

He loses consciousness; and when he wakes up, finds himself in a temple, in the capable hands of Nefret, Priestess of Isis. However, she seems only to want to be rid of him, and as soon as he recovers, arranges for him to live and work among the embalmers, the mummifiers, in the necropolis on the other side of the Nile.

It is a refuge for which briefly he is grateful, but it turns out that he is little more than a slave there and the overseers have whips and he has only thirty days – twenty-eight left now – before his rendez-vous for pick-up at exactly midday back in that alley. How can he hope to track down the missing time travellers from there, stranded on the wrong side of the river?

A wonderful glimpse, not only of the world of the future where chrononauts travel uptime and back downtime – it is still, obviously, the early days of time travel – but also of the past, of Thebes of the Hundred Gates, teeming with people, all of them, in the childhood of the world, concerned with only one thing: death, and the afterlife; and reincarnation.

This little book is perfect.

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DÉJÀ VU by Ian Hocking (Review)

The story opens with Saskia Brandt arriving at the EU Federal Office of Investigation building close by the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin in September 2023 after returning by Eurostar from a trip to London where she broke up with her English boyfriend Simon.

(There is no guarantee that Eurostar will still be running – the tunnel seems to me an easy target for terrorists – or that the Brandenberg Gate – or even Berlin – will still be there in 2023, but they probably will, for 2023 is not far away. Which leads me to wonder about the wisdom of setting a futuristic piece in so near a future. I hope I shall still be writing this blog in and after September 2023, and I can imagine avid readers coming upon this post in, say, September 2024 and failing to realise that this story was set in the future. Think “1984” etc. So let me just point out that I am writing this review in January 2019)

But back to the – (I almost wrote “the Future” there instead of “the review”. It may have been a dream I had last night. I never remember my dreams but know I have been dreaming and often suspect that the contents or setting of a dream are lingering in my subconscious. Who knows what dreams may return to haunt our troubled musings?)

But now, seriously, back to the review.

So, Saskia returns from England to find her secretary dead and stuffed into the refrigerator.

(Do you think there is any connection, causal or otherwise, between my reading about scenes like this in books like this – which I do all the time – and the dreams I imagine I have?)

She also very quickly finds that she herself is being framed for the murder.

But this is not your average straightforward murder story. It transpires that she never went to London at all, never had an English boyfriend called Simon, that all this was a “memory” planted in her mind by means of a microchip, and that she is not being framed at all. She was there. She committed the murder.

Beckmann, her immediate superior, says: “Oh, Frau Kommissarin. You are so worried about being caught for your secretary’s murder. You think they’ll wipe your brain. It’s too late. They already did.”

Then they convince her that she is – was – a convicted murderer whose brain was wiped and the persona of Saskia Brandt implanted to replace the original. The mind and memories of Saskia Brandt inhabit and control the body of the condemned woman.

She is now Saskia Brandt, and because of this staged murder, and because of the microchip in her head – which Beckmann has a remote control for and can operate, operating her – she has no choice but to obey.

Then she is sent on the mission to which all this has been a prelude. And that is fine, a great introduction to the story.

Problems arise, though, when we are presented with too many other relatively major characters, each with their own point of view, and what is in effect their own story, at least during the first half of the book until the various stories start coming together. And this is not helped by the fact that some of these stories are set in the past when Professor David Procter of Oxford University committed  a murder at a research facility in Scotland some twenty years earlier. Or is he, too, being framed for committing a murder he did in fact commit?

Or the stories are set in a present that was prearranged by people in the past, twenty years ago. Anything that happens may be happening because someone travelled forward through time twenty years ago and arranged for it to happen … Nothing in this book is what it seems.

But I am giving away too much.

Though difficult to follow at first due to the abrupt changes of setting and point of view, the story is well plotted, while the characters, if somewhat stereotyped, are rounded and convincing, especially in the case of Saskia, whom I identified with from the very first page. The body in the fridge shocked me almost as much as it did her!

THE MEDIEVALIST by Anne-Marie Lacey (Review)

I have been a committed Richard III supporter ever since I read, many years ago, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. (Truth is the daughter of time.) For those of you who haven’t come across that classic of the murder mystery genre, Tey’s Inspector Grant is confined to bed for a long period after being wounded and he passes his time by attempting to solve a very cold crime – the murder of the princes in the Tower. To his surprise, he realises he has no choice but to acquit King Richard of the murders.

The Medievalist is, in a sense, a similar investigation of the same crime, but it is also a love story, and has that in common with two more wonderful novels featuring Richard III, namely We Speak No Treason and The Court of the Midnight King. In both of these stories the heroine is in love with Richard, and in the second there is also an element of time travel (click on the titles to see my full reviews on this site of these two excellent books). In The Medievalist, however, time travel underlies the whole story.

Jayne Lyons is an American student working on her PhD in history who, for no particular reason (other than a family legend that they are descended from King Richard) is convinced that Shakespeare got the whole thing wrong and Richard was neither a villain nor a hunchback. At the newly opened site of Richard’s grave in a car park in Leicester she finds a silver boar pendant, and when she holds it is transported back to the 15th century and the camp of Richard and his army, where – naturally. given the way she is dressed – she is taken for a camp-following whore and accused of stealing the silver boar.

Her adventures during the coming months, leading up to the Battle of Bosworth, make the book an all-night read, and the author’s version of what really happened to the two little princes is at least as likely as any other theory I have come across.

Well researched (by an obviously devoted student of the period and the person) and well written. Highly recommended.

MARKING TIME by April White (Review)

Saira Elian is a 17-year-old Californian girl whose English mother disappears while Saira, a solitary parkour free-runner and tagger (hope I got that right!), is out doing her thing in “the tunnels” somewhere under LA. Faced with the Child Protection Services unless she can name a relative who will take responsibility for her, Saira reluctantly tells them about someone in England.

That someone was waiting for me when I stepped off the British Airways fkight in London: Millicent Elian. I hadn’t seen my grandmother since I was three years old […] My mother couldn’t stand her. Not a big surprise given the way she was sizing me up, probably wondering if I was worth the effort. […]
“I see you got his height.” Millicent’s tone was not flattering.
“Hello, Millicent.” I knew I should be more polite and call her “Grandmother”, considering she just kept me out of foster care, but she hadn’t really earned the title.
“And his manners, too, obviously.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
[…]
“I have a car waiting.” Of course she did. Millicent’s fancy gray Rolls Royce waited at the curb outside the airport, and her fancy gray driver held the door open for us.
“Home, Jeeves,” she said with total authority.
“Jeeves? You’re joking.”
“I don’t joke.” Millicent’s expression didn’t change.
Jeeves caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and very slowly, he winked. It wasn’t much, that wink, but it was something.

It turns out that the Elians are a family of time-travellers, and Saira’s mother, who is normally gone for only a couple of days (or so it seems!) is now being held against her will in Victorian London. And that, of course, is where half the story, and most of the adventure, takes place.

One aspect of the story that fascinated me was the love between Saira and a young man in Victorian times who had already known Saira in the future in her own time and fallen for her there – or should that be “then”? He, of course, doesn’t know about this yet, and she can’t tell him because the secret of how he came to be still a young man all those years later is just – well …

I’ll leave it to you to sort all this out when you read the book, and add only, by way of encouragement, that while the ingredients may not be entirely original (there’s Hogwarts here, and Ann Rice, and Jack the Ripper, and Time Travel) the resulting dish is something different from the usual run-of-the-mill YA, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

A Glance at ROBERT HEINLEIN

I’ve been rereading some of my grandmother’s old SF. (I read them all in my teens.) Her two favourite authors in this genre were Julian May and Robert Heinlein, and it’s Heinlein I picked up first this time round; one of his Howard Families novels, Methuselah’s Children.

Heinlein Methuselah cover

The Howard Families are the result of an ongoing experiment in – let’s not mince words – eugenics: the selective breeding of a species for one or more traits, in this case of people for longevity. The Howard Foundation actively encourages people from families where living to a 100+ is the norm to marry each other and pays them a large sum of money for each potentially long-lived baby they produce.

What I really like about Heinlein is that whereas most if not all other SF writers would have had this result in either tragedy or catastrophe, implying that these people were doing something wrong, Heinlein passes no such judgement and we find ourselves siding with the Howards when they start reaching ages like 150, 200, and it becomes necessary to hide this from the rest of society, the short-lifers.

However, some of the Howards prefer to be open about it, to “come out”. A mistake. It is not so much the envy and bitterness of ordinary “ephemerals” as the fury of the governing classes, who will stop at nothing to get hold of the Howards’ secret but naturally have no intention of sharing it with the plebs.

The arrests and tortures start. There is, of course, no secret to reveal, but no one will believe that.

Enter Lazarus Long, captain of a spaceship, paying a visit to his native Earth – and, as it happens, the oldest man alive.

Can he save the Howards? Of course he can.

Which brings us to To Sail Beyond The Sunset, the story of one of the earliest groups of Howards, set in the United States towards the end of the 19th Century. A historical novel then, but cross-genre, for it takes place within an SF frame.

Heinlein Sail cover

Maureen, the heroine (who, it turns out, was Lazarus Long’s mother), tells the story of her first life-time as she awaits execution for a murder she did not commit somewhere, somewhen, in the future (approximately 2,000 years hence).

They just don’t write books like this any more, but luckily I have one still to go: Time Enough For Love, which continues the story of Lazarus Long. I’m trying to read it slowly, make it last!