WRAITHS OF TIME by Andre Norton (Review)

Andre Norton’s classic Wraiths of Time is classified as Science Fiction on the cover – “science fiction at its best” (The Portland Oregonian) – but in fact, like most of her work, it is cross-genre: Speculative Fiction (there are dreams, possibilities, conceivables, but little science) and Fantasy (her books are pervaded by magic, and in any contrast between magic and technology magic will always win).

Actually, I chose this particular book to review here because it was the first Time Travel story I ever read and I have been hooked on Time Travel and Time-slip stories, a whole sub-genre of SF and Fantasy, ever since.

Tallahassee Mitford, a modern American with attitude and a PhD, is suddenly transported from the museum where she works as an assistant to the Head of the African Division to ancient Egypt, and finds the ankh she had been holding still there in her hand when she wakes up on the hot sand with a dead woman, the image of herself, lying beside her.

That would be traumatic enough, though no doubt she could handle it – she is after all an Egyptologist, and nothing if not resourceful – but this is not our ancient Egypt. It is another, rather different, civilisation in an alternative universe. (American English “alternate”, but I just can’t make that make sense in my mind.)

In this world, “though Egypt had fallen to invaders, first Greek and then Roman, even as in her own world history, it had not been lost. Retreating south to Kush, the modern Sudan, those of the Heirarchy who had survived again brought their civilisation to a peak.” They called this land Meroë, but after a few hundred years it too fell, and “the refugees – the royal family and what was left of those with the Knowledge – had fled westward.” Again their civilisation flourished, and “there followed a peak of prosperity and success that lasted for nearly two centuries. But what favored their safety was the fact that in this world there had arisen no Mohammed, no way of Islam to drown in blood the central African states, as had happened in the history Tallahassee knew.”

But now an invader from another time or space – or another space-time continuum – had arrived. Just one man, known as Khasti, but with the aid of his vastly superior technology he was quickly taking over the country. Who was he? Where was he from? Was he really alone? If so, why?

Tallahassee, marooned there in that world, finds herself cast as Ashake, who is one of the few people left with the Knowledge, the Power. She is also, as it happens, the heir to the throne of the Candace. And before the question of how – and whether – to return to her own world arises. she must play a pivotal role in the battle between magic and technology, between good and evil.

Is magic always good, technology always evil? Ah, what a question.