A while ago, I read Popcorn on my daughter’s recommendation. Although I found it funny and abrasive, the style and subject matter meant I wasn’t in a hurry to go searching for another Ben Elton. And then I saw this offering on the shelves, and being a real sucker for books with an element of time travel, decided to have go.
It’s the first of June 1914 and Hugh Stanton, ex-soldier and celebrated adventurer, is the loneliest man on earth. No one he has ever known or loved has been born yet. Perhaps now they never will be. Stanton knows that a great and terrible war is coming. A collective suicidal madness that will destroy European civilization and bring misery to millions in the century to come. He knows this because, for him, that century is already history. Somehow he must change that history. He must prevent the war. A war that will begin with a single bullet. But can a single bullet truly corrupt an entire century?
That’s most of the blurb. So we are in the territory of alternate history – a beguiling sub-genre that works incredibly well when properly crafted and is incredibly annoying when it isn’t. Elton falls mostly into the former camp. His protagonist, Hugh Stanton, isn’t a particularly nice man but then this isn’t a job for a nice man. His job is to try to prevent WWI by stopping the assassination of Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and killing someone else instead. Despite the fact that Hugh isn’t nice, I really cared about him, or more accurately his mission. Elton very effectively evokes the wonder of the belle époque and some of the wonders we lost, never to be seen again, along with some of the unfortunate attitudes that were prevalent then.
The pacing is spot on, with the tense onward momentum needed in an adventure thriller and yet there is sufficient description and information to keep the stakes high and give a pin-sharp picture of everything going on. I was utterly engrossed and stayed up reading way longer than I should in order to finish it. And, for me, that’s the other must-have for an alternate history book. Why is Time being mucked about? What is the ‘what if’? In this version, Newton worked out that Time was affected by gravity centuries before Einstein existed – and left instructions on how time travel could be effected using his theory. So the payoff must be big. You don’t travel back in Time because you forgot to lock the car and it was stolen – unless it contained world-changing secrets.
Any grizzles? Well I have to say the love interlude jarred. Given that Hugh was a history student, he should have been very familiar with the butterfly effect and he’d already had a graphic, bloody illustration of what could happen when you start tweaking with events. He was also on a mission and grieving for a lost family, so taking time out to chat up a pretty young thing on a train simply didn’t ring true. It might have been a dealbreaker, but for the fact that the ending is a doozy and one I didn’t see coming. It has left me musing a lot about the outcome, being exciting and disturbing by turns. If your taste runs to time travelling tales, have a go – I’d love to know what you think.