2018’s Alice Payne Arrives is the first installment in Kate Heartfield’s Alice Payne series.
Alice father Colonel Payne served for England in the American Revolutionary War; he returned home changed for the worse. Life at home is increasingly difficult for Alice. She could escape by marriage, if some well-heeled man were to overlook her mixed race heritage (which is not all that likely). But a staid, conventional, boring marriage has no appeal to Alice. She prefers to make a living as a dashing highwayman known as the Holy Ghost. She has a minion, an automaton named Laverna. (So, steampunk.)
Alice’s scheme to rob the odious Lord Ludderworth goes awry when Ludderworth, almost all of his servants, and his carriage vanish after the robbery. Highway robbery is common enough that it doesn’t draw a lot of attention, but a vanished aristocrat draws far more intense scrutiny. Alice may be hunted down and hanged.
That’s bad enough, but, as Alice will discover, time travel makes everything worse.
Cut to 1889. Time agent Prudence has spent years trying to shape history by steering Crown Prince Rudolph away from a romantic suicide and towards a role as a responsible head of state. All she has managed to do is alter which mistress Rudolph murders before killing himself. Her superiors in the on-going time war decide her work is pointless. She will be reassigned.
There are two sides to the time war: the Farmers, who believe in conserving history, and the Guides, who believe mankind can be steered towards utopia. The adversaries are evenly matched. Thus far the net effect of their efforts is to have made history far more mutable and historical conflicts bloodier and more protracted.
Prudence is a Farmer. She believes that the status quo has value, that change should be slow and cautious. Nevertheless, the futility of her efforts in 1889 has convinced her that only dramatic action can end the time war.
Prudence’s bold scheme requires a patsy. Prudence believes she has found her pawn in Alice’s companion Jane Hodgson, the mechanical genius who built the Holy Ghost’s clockwork companion — and also the woman with whom Alice is smitten. Jane has just the right combination of brilliance and naivety to serve Prudence’s purpose.
Thanks to the bad luck that placed Prudence’s time gate in Ludderworth’s path, Prudence will not ensnare Jane. Instead, Prudence must deal with Alice and Alice is nowhere near as naïve as Jane.
This novella passes the Bill and Ted test: people who cannot use their time machines as competently as those knuckleheads don’t deserve to have time machines. Despite their on-going inability to accomplish anything, the time-travellers are at least competent1. Odd, then, that history only gets worse.
In other news: Alice sees no reason to settle for the status that British society is willing to permit a mixed-race woman (albeit of high status thanks to her father) so she doesn’t. This works out better for her than it might in another author’s hands2. She’s smarter than most aristocratic men, so it’s not hard to outthink them. Yay Alice.
This is the first part of an ongoing serial. Don’t expect all the plot threads to be resolved. Aside from resolving what happened to Ludderworth, this novella is more about set-up than closure. In fact, it ends on a cliff-hanger.
The characters themselves are engaging but I am not keen on books which turn out to be the first instalment of an ongoing series and not a complete story on their own. Clearly I am in the minority here, so if episodic fiction is your thing, and you like time wars, give this a try.
1: So far nobody has opted for the nuclear option of settling in the earliest era in Earth’s history in which humans could survive, thus obliterating known history and the invention of time travel. So, minimal competence.
2: Niven and Pournelle, no doubt, would have reprised the plot development in The Mote in God’s Eye and had the King order Alice to marry Ludderworth.