SciFi chronicles and celebrating eccentricity

Three novels in this review will fall under the genre of science fiction and fantasy, but it’s illuminating to discern how different the three are from each other. A fourth novel is a quirky, darkly humorous tale that highlights the English and why they’re so peculiar.

Doing Time by Jodi Taylor

Think of time travel as a rousing police adventure, and you’ll have some idea of the reading pleasure that this novel places in your hands. Known for her The Chronicles of St. Mary’s series, this is the first book of a spin-off series by Jodi Taylor that introduces us to theTime Police, an international organization based in London, tasked with keeping the timeline “straight.” It would seem that in the future, with the secret of time travel known by all, the issue was making sure the idiots trying to change history were kept from doing so, especially when it would lead to disastrous consequences for world history, or used shamelessly for personal gain alone. 

This becomes our introduction to the stories of three new Time Police recruits. Jane, Luke, and Matthew are possibly the three worst recruits - one is there because she’s running away from her family life, one is a rich, spoiled brat/playboy being “punished” by his billionaire father, and one is a product of the time-traveling of St. Mary’s and has his own personal reason for signing up with the Time Police. We’re treated to their misadventures in training, their time slip travels to Ancient Rome, and to the time when the Tutankhamen burial chambers were just about to be discovered. Colorful and amusing characters abound, and the humor is such that in no time at all, we’ll be rooting for these three misfits, ready to follow them to kingdoms come and cheer them on. A second installment was just published, but here is the book to first get to know them. 

The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier 

One can call this timely or a novel for our times, and speak of exacting relevance. In the end, however, it’s really a gripping dystopian novel that knows how to worldbuild and talk about government control, paranoia, and how the advantaged will always be holding on to a system that sustains a hierarchical world order. In Chris Panatier’s near-future, radiation has created zones that are uninhabitable and citizens are forced to regularly give their blood to aid those who are defending the “new world order.” Because of the nature of blood compatibility, higher monetary credits are given to those of specific blood types, and Willa is a 60-year-old “blood harvester” who is taking care of her grandson after her daughter passed away.

When a surprise discovery forces Willa to admit to herself that the government has been perpetuating this Harvesting for no real good reason, she refuses to stick to her non-disclosure agreement and suddenly becomes Public Enemy #1. An underground group of dissidents/radicals becomes her only hope for protecting her grandson and escaping government forces out to keep her silent. 

The pacing of this novel is on the studied and deliberate side but one is rewarded with a better appreciation for Panatier’s worldbuilding and makes parallel comparisons to how Covid has engulfed our world. It’s scifi and medical technology fused to come up with a stirring narrative that has much to say about institutional repression and curtailment of freedoms, and keeping a “caste” system alive.

Paris by Starlight by Robert Dinsdale

This novel is the latest from The Toymakers author Robert Dinsdale and it’s a scintillating blend of fantasy with potent social commentary. On the surface, it’s set in the Paris of today, but a Paris unlike anything we may have encountered on our visits to this City of Lights. In this version, there’s a mirror “city” inhabited by The People. They’ve come from far away in Eastern Europe, seeking refuge from persecution and genocide in their native land, and for some reason, a number of the survivors have flocked to Paris. There, they are initially welcomed and the curiosity of the Parisians is heightened when magical and enchanted things happen in the neighborhood of The People. This is the Starlight referred to in the title.

But Dinsdale has more on his mind then gifting us with unworldly delights and splendors. As happens so often, the otherness of The People sets off alarm bells among several of the local populace. Soon, the more militant ones are talking in terms of the Resistance, and restoring Paris to what it once was. In metaphorical fashion, Dinsdale takes on the subject of immigrants, refugees, and how bigotry and racism are just doors away from tolerance and multi-diversity. What’s interesting is how Dinsdale keeps the fantasy and storytelling always in focus. A novel for anyone who’s in love with Paris and is ready to see it “in a new (star)light.”

Mr. Cadmus by Peter Ackroyd 

In the Covid-beleaguered United Kingdom, Peter Ackroyd has been well regarded for over 40 years now not only for his literary fiction but also for his scholarly non-fiction books about writers of the past and literary genres. So it’s interesting to see what his notion of having fun and producing a bagatelle would be like. A slim volume that tempts one to call it a novella, Mr. Cadmus is set in the rural English countryside of Devon, and celebrates the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies of the “very British” townsfolk. Suspicious of foreigners, there is a rich irony and hypocrisy in this, as Ackroyd would have us know through his story.

Millicent Swallow and Maud Finch are spinsterish cousins who live one house away from each other. When a boisterous Greek/Italian-type named Theo Cadmus takes the house in between the two women, their collective lives are thrown topsy-turvy. Theo has a deep, sinister private agenda; but what’s delightfully surprising is how the two women both possess hidden secrets, and have indubitable wiles of their own. Pretty soon, there’s a cat with two mice game afoot. But don’t put all your money on the cat, as these “mice” have tricks up their sleeves. Humorous, deliciously dark, and fast-paced, this is a diverting light read that remind us just how eccentric the English are.