2019’s The River Twice is the first volume in Brenda W. Clough’s Edge to Center series.
It’s good to be the king! And if one lives in a purported republic with a dubious record of democratic transfer of power, it’s good to be the grand-daughter of the President. Calla Ang’s grandmother is Madame President of Jalanesia and (save for the tragic deaths of Calla’s parents when she was but a child) Calla’s life has so far been prosperous. Her future as the likely inheritor of her grand-mother’s position seems secure.
Her comfortable life is disrupted by the sudden appearance of a bewhiskered Englishman.
Reverend Josiah Garamond Wragsland appears in no history book. Nevertheless he deserves mention as the man who in 1867 pioneered time (and space) travel. He succeeded in transporting himself from 19th century England to 21st century Jalanesia. Wragsland has the tremendous luck to encounter kind-hearted Calla rather than any of the rather humourless Jalanesian police, which means that he avoids being beaten and tossed in jail for suspicious eccentricity.
Wragsland convinces Calla to visit Wragsland’s era as evidence that his voyage was real rather than faked. In an astounding development, Madame President Ang asks to accompany the pair. It seems that the naive Calla has completely misunderstood her grandmother’s status. Rather than ruling Jalanesia, Madame Ang is a mere figurehead, who lives under the thumb of the real ruler, Bingamalore (Calla’s Uncle Bingo). Time travel offers Madame President an escape.
The Jalanesians are a nine-day wonder in 19th century England. Alas for the British Empire, Madame Ang brought back with her a 21st century strain of influenza. The English have no resistance to this strain. In short order, a pandemic on a scale not seen since the Black Death sweeps across England and later Europe.
This seems an apropos moment to return home. To their surprise, the trio appear in a world transformed. England’s period of dominance ended abruptly in the 1860s, allowing Germany to dominate. The two world wars were replaced by one long one. Technology is decades behind her 21st century. Finally, Jalanesia is openly ruled by an Uncle Bingo who is astounded to be confronted by a Madame Ang and Calla he had believed long dead in a Jalanesian dynastic struggle.
Calla does her best to adapt to the new Jalanesia. In the end, however, she and Wragsland come to the conclusion the current iteration of history is spoiled beyond recovery. They will have to travel to the past and fix what Wragsland broke.
Wragsland can see only one course of action, one unpleasant and almost certainly fatal for Wragsland himself. Personal extinction is a small price to pay for the man whose curiosity killed millions and reshaped time itself. All they need to do is prevent Wragsland from inventing time travel in the first place by killing his youthful self ages before the idea of time travel even occurred to him.
What could go wrong?
Contrary to the usual rule that people handed time machines have never, ever read any stories featuring time machines or their failure modes, Calla has read at least some. She even references “The Sound of Thunder” during an accidental foray into the Cretaceous. Not that this stops her and Wragsland from inadvertently trampling history underfoot. Happily for Calla, Wragsland, and a lot of other people, history has not just inertia but something like an immune system so while the changes are quite hard on individuals, they do not render history completely unrecognizable1.
In Wragsland’s defense, blundering through time, doing unknown damage to causality, sounds exactly like something an energetic Victorian Englishman might do. As does, for that matter, the manner in which the 19th century Englishfolk treat a head of state and her grand-daughter as curious savages a half-step up from being zoo exhibits. The Empire didn’t get where it did by treating other people like real people.
I must have a heart of stone because the eventual romance between Wragsland and Calla does nothing for me.
Rather like a lot of first world people, Calla is so privileged that the realities of life in Jalanesia have escaped her. Much of the plot involves her education in Jalanesia’s rich tradition of coup and counter-coup. Uncle Bingo might seem like a bit of a cad, quietly imprisoning his mother as he does (or just shooting her in later iterations) but various revelations re Madame Ang’s own political career prove that he is merely prudent.
There’s an odd mismatch between the events of the story — history rewritten! Grandmother revealed as surprisingly murderish! Whatever was up with that brief vision of post-apocalyptic Ohio! The new future of the internet will be one shaped entirely by Steve Jobs! — and the tone of the text, which remains cheerful and upbeat even as the characters are traumatized by the consequences of their decisions.
The River Twice is an amusing little time-travel confection. I am curious to see how Calla and Wragsland mangle time in subsequent volumes.
1: It’s probably for the best that Calla didn’t manage to transmit parrot fever to the dinosaurs.