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Autumn in Carthage

28 Apr

Although I’ve read several such novels since, the last time-travel book that intrigued me enough that I read every word and hated being interrupted was Michael Crichton‘s Timeline. Considering the novel was released in 1999, you can see how tough a sell time-travel stories can be. At least to this reader.

Who knows if I’d like it quite so well if I re-read it today, but it holds a special place in my history (no wordplay intended), and for good or ill has become the marker by which similar stories are measured. The same holds true for Enders’ Game, Roadmarks, and a few other speculative fiction novels. I’ll read something similar, and whether I mean to or not, comparisons are made.

Each book, however, deserves to stand on its own, and I’ll endeavor to write this review without harking back to other books I’ve known.

Readers looking for a leisurely, quiet read, Autumn in Carthage is the story for them. It is a mix of mystery, time-travel fantasy, history, and romance, and much of it takes place in the small fictional town of Carthage, Wisconsin, an enclave of old wealth hiding a powerful secret.

Jaded college professor Nathan Price is our first guide to Carthage. A strange letter arrives one day. It’s from his best friend, Jamie. And it’s dated 1692.

Against reason, against known science, somehow Jamie has traveled back in time. And Nathan is going to find out why and how, and so much more than he ever anticipated knowing.

On that premise and on the decent writing, I decided to read the book. (I liked the cover, too.)

The writing is solid, and by turns scholarly, gentle, literary, or carnal, depending on the point-of-view character for a particular scene and on the story’s events. Although the tactic might work to make characters distinct from one another, for me it makes the story uneven, and the harshness or awkwardness of some word choices made me stumble out of the story. It’s as if the story doesn’t know what it wants to be or how it wants to be told.

There are phrases or moments in the book that gave me the feeling the author was trying too hard, or was unsure of his footing. Or maybe he was just tired. There’s a particular section where the writing is lazy and emotional at once, where adjectives are more editorial than usefully descriptive; where the language is jarringly carnal (there’s that word again; it fits better than “erotic”, due to the tone of the language); and at least one paragraph of dialogue that is filled with pat cliches, as if the author was bored when he wrote it.

The plot is slow to unroll, but not without reason. This isn’t a high-octane story until the last third or so. The author takes time to introduce characters and ideas, and let the reader settle in. Autumn in Carthage is, for the most part, cerebral and intriguing.

Except when it’s not. Sometimes I was reading quirky spec-fic, sometimes an erotic romance novel. I preferred the spec-fic, especially the descriptions and histories of Flectors and Flecting (time-travelers and their abilities to detect and influence history and events).

The first few chapters held my attention better than most novels I’ve read lately, but not to the point I couldn’t put it down. I might never have finished the novel were it not for a promise to write a review, and even then I skipped chunks of story to find something that kept my attention. Events certainly did pick up near the end, when the characters visit Old Salem, and the epilogue is poignant. For me, the end saves — or, perhaps, redeems — the middle of the book.

It is written by Christopher Zenos (pseudonym for a college professor published in other realms), and on the strength of his creativity alone I’d like to read more of his work. As for Autumn in Carthage, were I assigning stars, I’d give five for the ideas, three for the writing, and three for the execution/storytelling.

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