The Emperor of All Things, by Paul Witcover

The Emperor of All Things, by Paul Witcover

This is kind of proto-steampunk, in that being set in the mid-eighteenth century there isn’t any steam in general use. Clockwork-punk might be closer to the mark. Beings native to the fourth dimension – known to us through myth and legend as fey, elves, whatever – are on the warpath and because the fourth dimension is so key to the whole thing, that unexpectedly puts London’s Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in the front line.

A cover blurb says that “comparisons to Neil Stephenson and Susanna Clarke are only very slightly premature.” Well … comparisons to Neil Stephenson are spot on because by ‘eck, he knows how to bang on without saying anything. My inner editor was at work on most pages boiling the verbosity down to what actually needs saying. This is not a crime of which Clarke can ever be accused – she wrote a book you could build houses with which just slips down the gullet.

And for about the middle third I lost count of the number of times the narrator passes out, gets hit on the head or otherwise loses consciousness so that time can pass until he wakes up in bed and gets told yet another thing that he didn’t actually notice happening. On four occasions characters have such overwhelming experiences of the fey that they spontaneously ejaculate. Once, maybe. Four times may be, how can I put it, over-egging the pudding?

The descriptions of clocks and clockwork are beautiful and it’s definitely a novel with a voice of its own. But as I drew near the end I began to feel that dread feeling, worthiness. This was no longer a pleasure, just a challenge, and I closed it with no real desire to read the sequel and see what happens next.

I read it in the first place in self-defence, as I found the sequel in the library and it seemed alarmingly close to my uncompleted Napoleonic novel, provisionally titled N. This is definitively Napoleonic in that it features Napoleon as a key character: a Napoleon who has surrendered to the British and is doing what he hoped would be the case, living out his exile in the south of England. As this is so absolutely what everyone was determined would not happen, it’s obvious even to the characters in the book that something has gone badly wrong, somewhere. Whoever perpetrated this couldn’t hope to get away with it for long, therefore whatever is going to happen must be happening soon …

(Full disclosure: I read somewhere that Napoleon hoped to live out his exile “on a small estate south of Oxford”. As I live on a small estate south of Oxford – maybe smaller than the one he had in mind – I felt this was the novel I was destined to write. Whether it’s a novel I’m destined to complete remains to be seen. And it’s sufficiently different to The Emperor of All Things – the Emperor in that case being Time – that my concerns of rediscovering the wheel are assuaged.)