Jake Wilde wants to get himself expelled from boarding school in Switzerland. No half measures for Jake. Before rehearsal, he locks the lad playing Hamlet in his room, arms himself with a sharp foil and a fencing mask, and assaults the astonished Laertes. Job done – he’s out. Chapter Two finds us with Sarah on the edge of a wintery Dartmoor outside an Abbey which, according to the Chronicles of Wintercombe, ‘lies in deep countrie, a place of fey and wicked spirits’. Sarah’s a kind of spirit herself – she’s from the far future, returned to our times to save civilisation as we know it by changing the course of history; and she can make herself invisible. The reclusive owner of the Abbey, world famous explorer, Oberon Venn, needs a spot of time travelling himself, desperate to rewrite history to avoid the car crash which killed his beloved wife. Jake, by now en route from Switzerland, is Oberon’s godson, convinced that somehow the explorer caused the death of his Dad, once Oberon’s best friend. (That’s why he got himself expelled – to sort out his godfather.) Jake smuggles his live marmoset onto the aircraft home, which is just as well since the monkey is needed to play a small but crucial role in a later chapter.
That isn’t the half of it. I haven’t got to the obsidian mirror, gateway to time travel and coveted by just about every character. Then there’s the Shee, the strange spirits who lurk in the wood around the Abbey; the crooked man (another time traveller, this time from the Victorian era); Gideon the young prisoner of the Shee, from an even more distant past; Rebecca the undergraduate, who is in love with the crooked man (sort of); and Symmes, another Victorian, an ‘enquirer after strange and singular knowledge’. And I shouldn’t forget the sinister Janus and his Replicants.
Catherine Fisher is a distinguished, award-winning writer of fantasy and currently the first Welsh Young People’s Laureate. Here she may have taken a few risks too many. One of them is to shift the narrative viewpoint with bewildering frequency, especially as so much information is withheld about characters that readers may feel unsure whom to trust, let alone like. Empathy may not be essential to fiction, but it does help to retain a grip on such a story if readers can adopt the perspective of one or two of the characters. I shared some of those characters’ confusions and partial understandings, despite admiring the qualities of the prose. It is possible that some teenage readers will hold on to the multiple strands of the plot with greater tenacity and clarity than I managed; but others may feel adrift among so many motivations, viewpoints and time slips.