Jane Austen Characters in an H. G. Wells Situation
If Elizabeth Bennett or Eleanor Dashwood had been given the choice of living the privileged, restricted Regency life into which they were born, on the one hand, or hurtling into the future to battle metal giants, on the other hand, are you certain you know how they would choose? After reading Timepiece, I'm not so sure.
Elizabeth Barton, an energetic, adventurous, bored young lady in 1815 Kent, chafing under the tyrannical rule of her repressed aunt, able to look forward only to an arranged marriage with a nauseating husband, inexplicably receives a strange pocket watch from an unknown benefactor. She and her neighbor, the wounded officer William Carrington, are whisked by this device into 1885 London, where metallic constructs, created to defeat the descendants of (honest) Frankenstein's monster, now hold the city in (dare we say it) a grip of iron. From there it's one breathless adventure after another: haunted time travelers and obsessive inventors and vicious revolts of monster-slaves and and the Battle of Waterloo and, and … Well, it may be a trifle confusing at times, but it's never dull.
One of the things that's delightful about this novel is the juxtaposition of things we wouldn't expect. How *would* a Jane Austen character fare in, say, War of the Worlds or The Time Machine? Not too badly, it turns out. Obviously there are things with which she wouldn't be able to cope (among my favorite moments is when Elizabeth first encounters a locomotive), but pluck, resourcefulness and courage count for a lot.
But there are bigger fish to fry here: central to this novel is the philosophical question of the personal vs. the global, the private hurt or the public evil. Her characters find themselves in a world where tremendous, disastrous change is upon them, but ultimately this matters less to them — and to the reader — than the fate of their friends, lovers and children. Whether this is the way they or we *should* feel is another matter, but wisely Albano does not try to answer this question. Like a good artist, she leaves it for us to chew on.
Heather Albano paints compelling characters without even appearing to try. Not only are the four or five major figures so clear I feel that I know them, but even minor characters, appearing only for a chapter and dashed off with a few quick brushstrokes, take hold of your heart and squeeze. At the same time, she is quite the art director — the sets for this drama are exquisitely painted, scented, textured and soundtracked, and the field hospital at Waterloo gets under your fingernails just as intensely as the Victorian workhouse and the tedious drawing room.
Lovers of logical or scientific consistency in their SFF will have a lot to swallow here. There is a higher-than-usual Bolognium Quotient (not really surprising, in a work that bills itself as Steampunk — just sayin'), but if you can get past that and just take it all as "given," you'll be in for a wild ride.