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Caught Up in Circles

A Tale of Time City

By Diana Wynne Jones 

7 Jul, 2018

Twelve by Diana Wynne Jones

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Diana Wynne Jones’ 1987 A Tale of Time City is a standalone young-adult SF novel. 

1939: a year after World War Two has broken out, young Vivian Smith is sent off to the country, to live with her cousin Marty for the duration. She is not met by her cousin; she is met by Jonathan Lee Walker, who kidnaps Vivian and whisks her off to a destination outside of time itself. 

In Jonathan’s defense, he means well. 

Time City exists in its own timeline; it is able to access any moment in the past and future of our universe, whenever suits its inhabitants. Time City’s inhabitants use their unique position to shape history itself. It is an existence that, for many years of their own time, has suited the people of Time City quite nicely. 

Now, however, the City is subject to accelerating entropy. Having overheard conversations between his father, the Sempitern — Mayor, more or less — of Time City and the Time Council, Jonathan is convinced that the culprit can be none other than the Time Lady, whom he believes to be a certain Vivian Smith. He plans to waylay Vivian Smith and save the city! 

There are a few problems with Jonathan’s plan. He has based it on fragments of overheard conversations and a few folktales. He has failed to notice that Smith is a common surname. So common that there are many Vivian Smiths to be found. Nor has he twigged that the name Vivian’ can be either male or female. He assumes that he’s looking for a female Vivian … when Vivian Smith could just as easily be male. Perhaps there is no Time Lady! 

So it comes as no surprise when we learn that Jonathan and his friend Sam have kidnapped the wrong Vivian Smith. Instead of a mythic figure of pure evil, they’ve absconded with an eleven-year-old refugee. The boys have committed some serious crimes in the process and don’t have the means to put Vivian back where they got her. Not to mention that this Vivian now knows too much. Were she to be returned, all history might be reshaped. 

But it is true that Time City and history itself are in danger: in Vivian’s timeline, World War Two began in 1938, not 1939. The repercussions of this change are rippling backwards and forwards through time. It’s up to the three kids to work out what’s actually going on and how to stop it. 


A criticism: the book does provide a solution, of sorts, for Vivian’s problem. She cannot be allowed to return to the 20th century, but she does want to be reunited with her parents. The solution is not exactly what she or her parents would want (at least in my opinion). I suspect that the author wanted to end the book on a feel-good note and resorted to handwaving. 

I wonder if Jones ever said anything about possible inspirations for this novel. I was reminded of the long-running TV series Doctor Who, of Asimov’s The End of Eternity, and of Bailey’s The Fall of Chronopolis1.

In the course of unravelling the mystery, Vivian gets a crash course in history to come. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the notable events appear to be events one would not want to live through in person: World War IV, Conquest of Australia, Mind Wars, The Waigongi Atrocity, the Revolt of Canada, The Sinking of the Holy Fleet, The Demise of Europe, and the Depopulation of Earth all seem like interesting periods about which to read well after the fact. Of course, the misery of the unstable periods is what allows the long, stable eras, when history is more or less stable and boring. Eras during which regular people can live unremarkable lives for the betterment of Time City. 

As is so often the case in Jones books, the adults in this are mostly useless, distracted, uncommunicative, or even hostile (chipping away at time itself our of greed). It’s just as well that the kids are there to take matters in hand, however ill-equipped for this task they may be. They are the time hopping cousins of Lindgren’s Kalle Blomkvist or Blyton’s Famous Five, 

I aged out of the target market for this novel some years before it saw print, but I can imagine that younger readers would enjoy it. Provided that they don’t think too deeply about the dismal future that Jones predicts for ordinary humans … 

A Tale of Time City is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: I could read A Tale of Time City as a prequel to Asimov’s The End of Eternity. In the same way that I can take Tanith Lee’s Biting the Sun duology as backstory to Clarke’s The City and the Stars.