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An Oddly Compelling, Yet Unsatisfying Love Story
on 11 May 2014
If you're like me and like your narratives to be mostly resolved by the end of the movie/book/story, then you might want to skip this otherwise excellent and intriguing book. I don't mind some ambiguity, but this was a case where I was definitely expecting some kind of "aha!" reveal moment that never came. Which is not to say that I regret reading the 3/4 of it I loved, but over the last 100 pages the book took it from a best of the year contender to an interesting item I'm happy to donate to the library book sale.
The story opens in a vividly rendered near-future Great Britain, or rather, Islamic Republic of Great Britain, circa 2040 or thereabouts. Global climate change subjects the island to major hurricanes, and an unspecified insurgency subjects the island (and much of the world) to political instability. None of this is spelled out in any detailed way, which I loved. Other authors would have gotten sidetracked for 50 pages establishing the details and background of this setting. Instead, we meet a photojournalist just returned from Turkey, where his wife was killed in a mysterious bomb attack. As he's shuttled around the IRGB to a series of safe sites for debriefing, things get more askew.
Suddenly, in the next section we're with a stage magician traveling to the front in World War I, where he's been asked to try and help camouflage airplanes while they're flying. Along the way, he meets and has extensive interactions with H.G. Wells. Cut to the next section, where we're in WWII, meeting an English bomber mechanic and a refugee female Polish aviator. These characters, places, times, and relationships are all clearly related, but just how is left murky. There's some kind of weapon or something that may or may not act like a mini Bermuda Triangle, removing people to alternate realities or parallel quantum worlds. The themes of what is real and what is illusion and what the nature of either is, runs deep and strong through the story.
In the final quarter of the book, we find ourselves on an island that's apparently part of a chain of islands detailed in some of Priest's other books, such as The Islands and Dream Archipelago (neither of which I've read), where characters and plotlines start to collide more directly. I read eagerly along, waiting for Priest to pull everything together with a twist of the wrist, like one of his beloved magicians conjuring the beautiful woman from thin air. And in a sense he does do this in a literal sense, but one is left scratching one's head at the end -- rather like the characters in the book -- wondering what we just experienced.