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A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones

tale of time cityThis books suffered a bit from the fact that I was reading another book at the same time and thus wasn't as focused as I might have been. (Unlike some people I know, I don't usually read more than one book at a time, but the other one I was reading was a large format art book that wasn't conducive to reading on the bus or plane or otherwise out and about in the world.) It's also the first of the DWJ books I've read that I recall being primarily driven by children, as opposed to children working in concert with adults (or, say, adults in the form of dogs), and I confess I found this bit of convention irritating in this particular story. I'm also not a big fan of the time travel genre, so it had that strike against it as well. Nonetheless, overall I found it just as fascinating as everything else I've read by Jones, and I tore right through it.

For one thing, it's more of a science fiction story than most of the other DWJ books I've read -- or at least as much of one as a time travel story can be -- and I did enjoy her stfnal world-building. Aside from Time City itself, which exists somewhere outside of time and has incorporated a complicated array of elements from every time period, including what to us is the far, far future, the characters visit several different time periods in the course of their adventures, and Jones does a great job of creating a distinct feel for each future era. On top of that, the crisis of the novel, as in most (all?) time travel stories, is a crisis of causality, and we have several visits to a point in the past that changes as causality changes. That feeling of the familiar turning unfamiliar is another strong point of DWJ's novels.

The story starts in 1939, with children being sent out from London to the countryside to protect them from German bombing raids. This is something that happened to DWJ herself, and if you know this, there is an interesting autobiographical aspect to the book. Our heroine, Vivian Smith, is going to stay with a relative, but she is instead intercepted by two boys from the future who yank her out of time and into Time City. Later, however, they return to 1939 and meet the relative with whom Vivian was going to live, and she is a hateful creature. Considering that the relatives that DWJ stayed with in real life treated her very badly, this also has an autobiographical whiff to it. The awful fate avoided.

There are layers upon layers of complexity, as usual, and a large cast of eccentric characters. The children are trying to prevent the destruction of Time City, but the whole timeline is under siege and Vivian is also trying to protect her own past world. It's a sign of my distraction while reading this book that I can't remember if the timeline is restored in the end or if it's left altered. I'm pretty sure it's the latter, which is the way it should be. There's something tremendously liberating and frightening about the idea that history itself is malleable. Equally bracing is the way that Vivian's separation from her family in 1939 London comes to mean so little to her compared to the matters of extreme consequence that she's swept up in, all the while we are treated to a sly domestic comedy about schoolwork and childhood pranks and butter pies and other mundane affairs. Not to mention a number of droll jokes at the expense of the twentieth century.

Maybe I didn't like it quite as my favorites by DWJ, but like Archer's Goon it grows in the mind.

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