Claire O’Dell says that The Time Roads is a story about murder, mathematics, and time. It is, but it’s also a deft, complex, and at times explosive political thriller, with characters that are well-drawn, intriguing, and who seek to understand the truth about the world they live in.
Eire is the country of my birth. You will know it as Ireland, a small island nation whose nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, has a rather fractious history with it. Ireland spent generations fighting for its independence from its British masters, ultimately gaining sovereignty through a series of rebellions, a civil war, and then political agreement which resulted in the six counties of Northern Ireland remaining under British control. This divide continues to have repercussions in this new Brexit era.
But what if none of this happened? What if Eire was the dominant force in Europe, and the Anglian Dependencies sought independence for themselves? Claire O’Dell creates such a world. Alba (Scotland) is independent, but Anglia, Cymru, Manx, and Wight are subjects to Queen Aine Lasairiona Devereaux and her court of Lords at Cill Cannig, where the kings and queens of Eire had lived for six centuries. It’s a marvellous concept, one I found so intriguing that I had to get a copy to read for myself. I love speculative fiction that takes in alternate history.
Aine takes the throne after her father, the king, passes away suddenly. She is young, idealistic, and looks to a future where there is a league of nations, where there is peace and prosperity. But not every nation is willing to be part of this prototype U.N, though. There are anarchists in Europe who are willing to fracture time itself to stop this from happening. This happens because, at the start of the book, Aine funds the research of a scientist, Breandan O’Cuilinn, who has found a way to move objects into the future. There is a spark of romance between Aine and Breandan, further complicated by the arrival of Commander Aidrean O Deaghaidh, a former spy who’s now enlisted in the queen’s Constabulary, the Garda. There is a hint of a love triangle, but following a series of gruesome murders, and a tragic death, the story goes down a couple of roads that are literally fractures in time.
The Time Roads consists of four interlinked novellas, set years apart from one another. The Golden Octopus focuses on events in November 1897, which I have related in previous paragraph. We meet Aine, Breandan, Aidrean, and the many lords who make up the queen’s parliament of advisers. The second novella, A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange, is set in September 1902, and this is where the tale becomes more complex. We meet Siomon Madoc, a student of mathematics at Awveline University, whose sister Gwen is a resident at a sanitorium and does nothing all day but reel out sequences of prime numbers. Murders occur, or do they? Aidrean is investigating, but things are not what they seem. Time itself if fracturing.
The third novella, Ars Memoriae, is a good old-fashioned spy story, with Aidrean going undercover in eastern Europe, at great danger to his physical and mental well-being, as he attempts to root out anarchists and traitors to the cause. The book concludes with a section called The Time Roads, where Aine and Aidrean must confront a future that cannot be allowed to happen. It’s 1914 now, and the queen is older and wiser, and knows she has to stop a war that would destroy all she holds dear. She must travel along the time roads themselves.
As I wrote earlier, this is a complex story, one that held my attention from the first page. Claire O’Dell does some great world-building here, and while I would have liked to know more about this Europe and its nations of Frankonia, Prussia, the Turkish States, as well as the new world of Mexica, what information she gives to move her story along serves its purpose. There is a grander story taking place in this world, and Eire is at the centre of is. Being Irish myself, this is as it should be.
Previously published in 2014, writing as Beth Bernobich, Claire O’Dell repackaged The Time Roads for Kindle recently. It’s definitely worth reading, and taking your time as you do. There’s a lot going on, and at times you might find yourself puzzled by what’s going on. But rest assured, while not all answers are forthcoming, the resolution is gratifying and uplifting. Time can be our enemy, but if we use it wisely, it can be our greatest ally.