Faction Paradox: Newton's Sleep - Daniel O'Mahony
Being sent review copies is a wonderful thing; not only do I get free books (hurrah!) but I also get to read things that I might not have otherwise picked up. Obviously, this has its downsides when the books in question are crap, but on occasion something brilliant turns up. Newton's Sleep is one of those Jackpot! moments, combining wonderfully-written historical fiction with a dash of time-travel and interdimensional war. The characters are sharp, varied and entirely believable; the historical detail is accurately and intelligently presented with a minimum of clumsy infodumping, and the sci-fi background is slightly confusing (what time-travel story isn't?) but basically sound. This is good. This is very good.
"We were cursed when time entered the world." The bottle was almost empty, so she slugged it back and let the dregs drip moistly onto her lips. "Do you still like me, Sam? I have a room a little way from here." Actually it was bloody miles, but she doubted he'd want to walk that far.
"You're old, Aphra," Sir Samuel Morland told her wistfully, "and you were never that pretty."
He had to duck then. The bottle bounced off the wall and shattered among the shit and vomit on the street, a fine carpet for a stinking city. Aphra Behn felt the wine stewing inside her and began to plot a play that would last. It was to be all about the folly of reasonable and rational men, those foolish tinkerers in mechanicks who thought they had forged keys to unlock men's souls. So you want to go to the moon? Well then, I will have a great emperor descend from Selene to mock your worldly follies and conceits. I will turn you into greedy and foolish alchemists and make sport with you all, and I care not if I am remembered for it. All pages are burned by history, all inscriptions fade, and all finery turns to dust. Time does this.
This is the Dark Age.
The setting is England at the time of the Protectorate and Restoration, which we see from the viewpoints of our three main protagonists. Nate Silver is a genial philosopher turned scientist, who came back from the dead clutching a mysterious egg-shaped artefact; Aphra Behn is a spy and playwright working for the Secret Service, haunted by a red-haired angel; and Mistress Piper, her mundane life overturned by the Plague, is the latest recruit into a war she doesn't really understand. Through a series of short cameos spread non-sequentially across the mid-late 17th century, we pick up hints and indications of secret societies, international intrigue, alchemy and strange science, which gradually reveal some alien or future intelligences meddling in human history, and a war in the heavens that is spilling over onto the Earth.
Aside from the human protagonists, the force behind the story is Faction Paradox, a chaotic-neutral sect of voodoo time travellers who delight in spreading misrule and disorder, but are now in danger of being wiped out. I'd never heard of them before, but a quick Google revealed that they are already the subjects of several shared-world books, and in fact originated as (wait for it) a Doctor Who spinoff(!!). This brings up the one single criticism that I would make about the book, which is one that applies to shared-world fiction in general: to maintain continuity, the author is always having to build on the existing work of others, and some of it may not be that good. While the idea of a group of rogue Timelords is an absolutely terrific one, it's hard to forget that they come from a long line of two-dimensional Doctor Who villains whose main job is to run around in a gravel pit wearing a rubber suit. Some aspects of the Faction Paradox just look weird, for example their insistence on wearing skull masks in public, which is a clear hangover from their low-budget origins. O'Mahony does his best with the material available, but a few of the cracks still show.
The only other reviews I've found of this have been, not surprisingly, on Doctor Who fansites, many of which have just been complaints about the difficult words and non-linear narrative. This is a real shame; while spinoff novels are quite rightly stigmatised and rarely touched by the regular SF-reading community, work of this quality deserves to be read by much more than just Doctor Who fans. I'd even dare to suggest that O'Mahony's writing approaches Bakker or Duncan standard, and is wasted on such a niche audience. Don't let the unfortunate associations put you off - this is a fantastic book, and comes very highly recommended.