Book review: Time Was

Time WasTime Was by Ian McDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This time travel novella zips along, taking the sorts of twists one often expects in stories of time travel, and McDonald’s facility with language elevates it. At the same time the brevity of the piece undermines the story to a degree, leaving some characters more as sketches than feeling like real, living people.

And like most time travel stories, if you pull at a thread you’re likely to unravel the entire thing.

The story takes place in the present, with Emmett Leigh, a book collector, coming across a mysterious collection of poems called Time Was. The volumes (there are multiple copies, though they come without any information regarding publication or any other kind of record) contain letters written by one lover to another during World War I. And World War II. And the conflict in Bosnia and so on. Emmett comes to believe they are jumping through time and becomes obsessed with learning all he can about them.

The two lovers, Ben and Tom, are featured both through the letters, and in separate scenes, with the story jumping between different eras and the present. McDonald does fairly well with the protagonist and the present-day characters but Ben and Tom never feel particularly real, perhaps in part due to the way they are presented in the story. This also happens to contradict the marketing push for the novella, which sells it as a love story. It’s more a mystery and the focus is very much on Emmett Leigh, not Ben and Tom.

Still, McDonald has tremendous fun with his prose and it buoys the story beyond the wobbly time travel shenanigans and thin characterizations. It’s a solid, if flawed, read, but one I’d still recommend to those who are suckers for time travel adventures (as I am).

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