The Emperor of all Things (Book 1 of The Productions of Time) by Paul Witcover, Bantam Press, 447 pages, £12.99 (tpb), 2013
I have come to a certain conclusion: reading a good book is like being in a time machine. Not just because of the period in which said book is set, but also in the way physical time appears to flow very differently. Such is the case in this particular instance, the first volume in The Productions of Time series, which is highly appropriate since its plot is based around time or, more specifically, timepieces. To be even narrower in specificity, Witcover’s tale revolves around a particularly wondrous timepiece, whose provenance is equally marvellous.
It is the mid-eighteenth century: location – London. England is at war with her nearest neighbour and eternal enemy France, but it isn’t going well for the former. Each side seeks to discover advantages over the other, thereby being assured of the final victory. To this end, the respective governments send out spies and agents provocateur to glean anything that might be useful in procuring that advantage. This is where Daniel Quare, a lowly journeyman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers (a shadowy organisation in its own right), comes in: he is tasked by his superior, Master Magnus, in procuring the rumoured timepiece, as its secrets will be extremely useful in besting France. It is known who has acquired it and Quare has been sent to retrieve it discreetly – but, of course, actually getting hold of it is anything but simple.
Ever taken the back off an analogue watch, to inspect the workings inside? And, once those workings have been revealed, have you ever marvelled at the intricacy of the engineering and precision that goes into creating such a clock or watch? Additionally, has your sense of awe ever increased exponentially as you realise that each component, every wheel, gear and cog, has been handcrafted to tolerances almost on the verge of being superhuman? The same could be said of this book.
Witcover’s plotting is every bit as complex as the inner mechanism of a finely crafted pocket-watch – gears within gears, as a chapter title appropriately proclaims. As one gets deeper into the novel, one realises that the larger picture, ie the gears and cogs immediately apparent to the naked eye, is only the beginning: look more closely and it’s clear that there’s a bewildering array of ever-smaller gears and cogs upon which the larger versions are dependent and without which the piece wouldn’t work. Just when one thinks that all has become sharply focused and straightforward, it’s abruptly discernible that there are even more layers of plot and action beneath.
Luckily, Witcover is in total command here – like the most skilled of horologists, every element carefully dovetails into the overall scheme and, while undoubtedly complex in ambition and effect, never overwhelms. The narrative clips along at a fair pace, the twists and turns arriving at almost regular intervals, like bells striking the hour. If that gives a potential reader the impression that the tale is one of predictable monotony, then be assured that that assessment is furthest from the truth – the plot is marvellously and cleverly constructed so that each new surprise is exactly that: a surprise. Additionally, as many of you should know by now, I have a fascination for lyrical language and prose, and this has it in abundance – Witcover has clearly researched his material closely and deeply, the overall effect being one of plunging the reader into the midst of the eighteenth century. The language employed is tightly controlled, with only the occasional lapse into a more modern idiom at the start – but, in all honesty, that’s an exceedingly minor quibble. The only other fault, if fault it can be called, is a slight winding down of pace in the central portion, where the action shifts both temporally and personally to Lord Wichcote and his stay (as a younger man) in the very odd little Alpine town of Märchen, which has its own horological secrets. However, the action and intrigue ramps up once more in the final third of the book.
The cast of characters are as varied as some of the automatons incorporated into a number of spectacular Continental town hall and cathedral clocks. To name just a few, there’s Quare himself, a headstrong youth who acts before he thinks; Master Magnus, the deformed man who has the air of the Other about him; Sir Thaddeus Wolfe, the scheming Grand Master of the Worshipful Company and his equally ruthless right hand man, Master Malrubius: Aylesford, a tempestuous Scotsman, a man almost too handy with his sword; Lord Wichcote, a somewhat enigmatic collector of strange and bizarre timepieces: Inge Hubner, the large but sensuous landlady of the Hearth and Home, the only inn in Märchen; Corinna, the sole child of Herr Doppler, a fay sylphlike creature intent on becoming a master horologer herself. Each brings life, colour and depth to an already deeply philosophical and intellectual tale, investing the world which Witcover creates with sharply defined clarity and believability.
As to the device itself, it is a grotesquely sinister invention of the imagination, an artefact that itself holds secrets far vaster and more dangerous than any of the earthly protagonists either suspect or are even capable of coping with. Its origins are hinted at right at the very beginning, and its purpose is only gradually revealed as the narrative unfolds. Is it any wonder that emperors and kings are willing to sacrifice anything and everything to gain what it has to offer? The timepiece itself, however, might not be such a willing accomplice…
I sometimes find it difficult to get into a book straightaway, the premise and plot often revealing itself only gradually and painstakingly, but this was an exception. Like time itself, this one happily dragged me along from the very word go, and I dived headlong into Quare’s world gladly and more than enthusiastically. It’s a world where slights are rectified by the tip of a sword or a cowardly stab of a concealed weapon; a world as much beset by intrigue and corruption as our own; where industry, science and art are slowly combining to bring modern society into being, yet it is still a place where mystery prevails and clings to our own world in out of the way locations: it is also a world where magic is still somewhere just around the corner, in odd angles of time and environment, simultaneously enlightening and threatening. The Emperor of all Things is all this and more – I have to admit here that I am not overly keen on trilogies (as I assume The Productions of Time to be) but Witcover’s opening gambit here has more than whetted my appetite for the rest of the series. For that, the author is to be heartily congratulated.