Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review: Serving Time by Nadine Ducca

For this review, another thank you is in order to the LibraryThing giveaways program, and of course Nadine Ducca herself for offering the first volume of her Timekeepers trilogy. I'm a winner once again!

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Although I was often confused over what was going on, the original mythological background  of Serving Time was strong from the beginning. The author has clearly spent time developing this mythology and shows it by demonstrating her characters' familiarity with its workings. I found Robert, the wizard who figured out how to blackmail Time, a fascinating character. He didn't play a major part until the end, though, as there is a wide cast of characters scattered across multiple planets, satellites, and outposts. And as for the story's mythology, it's far from comforting. After the Angels meant to guide souls through their many incarnations have fled, the demonic powers, kept barely in line by a frazzled Time, try to pick up the task. Nobody is particularly happy about this. Not Time, who has her own concerns. Nor the demons, who are meant to devour souls, not look after them! And who must contend with the ever-present threat of clerical work.

Things are no more comfortable on the mortal plane, where big businesses now run pretty much everything with no sense of corporate social responsibility. It forms an interesting parallel with the bureaucracy on the mythological plane. Our protagonist's Tristan's opening scene, which shows a day in his life as a hired assassin dogged by robots ready to clean up after his "job," was pulpy goodness worthy of Blade Runner, or perhaps The Fifth Element.

The demands of being a killer for hire have driven Tristan to a breakdown, making him less than useful to his bosses, who sell his contract cheap to another corporation even more lacking in concern for employee welfare. Meanwhile, Tristan's brother Eneld is visited by a demon who gives him a warning: it's his task to look after his brother's soul in this, Tristan's final incarnation before he's damned to the Respository (hell in this setting) as damaged metaphysical goods. Although the brothers may be less than convinced by this vision, they clearly have pressing problems as Tristan is pursued by his new bosses, who he's trying to escape.

The prose and tone of the story varies widely. I admit I have nitpicks--like when the Goddess Time is described as a "fifteen foot" colossus on a limitless plain. The exact number makes her size ever so slightly less impressive (I like to think most mortals won't whip out a yardstick on their first confrontation with a deity). But the dialogue is plausible and mostly snappy. There are also points where the prose becomes playfully visible-"It was on the verge of hyperventilating, if soul dew could ventilate in any way." Fun and fitting with the bizarro tone. And yet in other cases I just couldn't figure out where the author was coming from. What does it mean that Time has strands of hair "like honeyed spiderwebs"? And another thing that puzzles me, and makes me wonder how seriously the science-fiction worldbuilding is being taken: why is Tristan's drug run for his corporate overlords done under cover of an interplanetary shipment of tiramisu? Glad as I am to know we'll still be eating tiramisu centuries from now, wouldn't it be a thousand times faster and cheaper to bake it on-planet? Did nobody find this sort of suspicious?

Speaking of baked goods in the future, fruitcake and Christmas are still going strong, even as the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona has not only been completed but also fallen into ruin again (I see what Ducca did there, and it amuses me, not least because of the sense of scale it gives). All the homey anachronisms could probably be excused in the end, although I always like to see spec fic writers dream a little weirder. But the tone never quite recovered from the revelation that the highly laid-back population of the Stone Cloud spaceship call themselves "Stoners". I love puns from the likes of Peirs Anthony, but I felt rather offended on behalf of my sense of humor at that one (reminds me of cowboy romance talent Diana Palmer's first venture into sci-fi, where she thought she'd be clever by having the alien race of the Centauri system be named the Cehn-Tahr*). How much danger in Tristan's soul really in, and how much should I fear for him, in a world built with puns?

Puns aside, a sort of wordplay does go into the mythology-building of this story too, at least for fans of Madeline L'Engle. Over the ages, Time has developed quite a few wrinkles, and is displeased twice over when various galactic species start exploiting them for time travel--plus the apparently unforgiveable indignity of being a female deity who does not look like a teenager. I mean, Lucifer certainly isn't worried about his looks. Then again, Lucifer doesn't have the problem of being a gorgeous young woman everyone pictures as a white-bearded Father, so I guess I can cut Time some slack here. Mythological figures being irritated by mortals' mistaken impressions of them is a trope I usually enjoy, but I enjoy them because of the surprise factor; a female character being caught up in her looks is, alas, not much of a surprise. In any event, Time's vanity is assuaged by Robert's offer of a cure, in exchange for perks like power and immortality. But Time has another favorite human: Tristan, who in a past life was Time's good friend Alexia. Perhaps I only dreamed the lesbian subtext between those two, but they were certainly very close--Alexia medicated Time's vanity just as Robert does in the present, but they also went on adventures together literally to hell and back. The sweet girlfriendship plot, and Time's tendency to call Tristan "Alexia" even when he's romancing her, redeemed the otherwise disappointing representation of female characters. I warmed to Eneld only very slowly after his intro shows him in bed with a woman who he calls a slut (granted, logical thinking is never his strong point, but why is this supposed to be attractive in the character who serves as the moral center? Tristan's much more screwed up, in that he actually kills people for a living, but he's very upfront and equal-opportunity in his screwedupness). Jim Kirk spoiled me; I expect the 23rd century to be a touch more progressive, to say nothing of free love.

This story ends on a definite cliffhanger, but its resolution centers more around Robert than Tristan in my mind. This is fine, except Tristan has been the more central character, and winds up nothing but a pawn for the last chapters. His story will be continued in the sequels (Serving Time is the first of the Timekeepers Trilogy). Overall, while this story has an entertaining setup and I appreciate the devil-may-care attitude blending mythology and gritty science fiction, the sometimes corny tone and lackluster character development made it hard to lose myself in. Readers more used to irreverence in their stories (use the "Stoners" pun as a guideline) might even love it. 

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*I discovered the MST3K-style running commentary I made for the first few chapters of Palmer's Morcai Battalion, and if you think I'm snarky now, you should have seen me then. Although since I've become a writer myself I try to nicer to my fellows, I think I was also being defensive of my genre. Nobody's an interloper in sci-fi, I don't want to be a gatekeeper, but neither do I like to see such careless writing. It gives the impression Palmer thinks all sci-fi writers are so careless, or that her publisher thinks all sci-fi readers are heedless of the quality of their reading material. Even as a teenager I was eager to prove them wrong.