A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones

Rating 9.0/10
A timeless classic

A Recommended Book of the Month

I first encountered A Tale of Time City back in 1990 at the age of eight. While I absolutely loved the book (so much in fact I managed to severely offend my best friend when he visited by running off and reading rather than spending time with him), it was a rather odd introduction to Wynne Jones, being (to my knowledge), her only pure science fiction novel. Indeed when I similarly devoured The Lives of Christopher Chant two years later, I did not realize that the lady who had created such wonderful worlds of magic and enchantment had also been responsible for the quirky, semi futuristic world of Time City, although when I found out I wasn't too surprised given how much I'd enjoyed both.

A Tale of Time City follows the adventures of eleven year old Vivian Smith, who is evacuated from London in 1939 to escape the air raids. Instead of meeting her mother's cousin Marty at the station however, Vivian finds herself unexpectedly lead away and kidnapped by two boys, the lordly Jonathan and his young sidekick Sam and taken to Time City, a strange, semi futuristic metropolis existing somewhere outside the normal flow of history. The two boys believe Vivian is actually the Time Lady, one of the city's two legendary founders, however when they discover their mistake it is already too late to return Vivian to her own time. Vivian then finds herself stuck in a very alien place, pretending to be Jonathan's cousin for fear of what might happen should the authorities in Time City discover her, having to get used to regular lying and to a decidedly futuristic lifestyle; all while trying to help Jonathan and Sam discover why history is going critical and why Time City might be heading for collapse.

The first thing to say about Time City, and one of the things which truly grabbed my attention as an eight year old, is that the setting itself is completely unique. Possibly even more than the magic enhanced Edwardian Britain of Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci books, Time City is itself a very fascinating place to explore, a city which treats over a hundred centuries of history like separate countries, where the culture is somewhere between a 1950's science fiction vision of the future, a slightly gothic Victorian Britain with servants and dinner parties, and an almost oriental focus on rituals and family pride. I will say, that having now read many more of Wynne Jones works, it did feel as if she were treading some familiar ground in the way that Vivian interacts with servants and must learn the correct etiquette inherent in living in the house of Time City's ruler, on the other hand since those servants include an android butler, and appliances involve brass plated automat machines that can call food from any time, even if there is some resemblance to other themes in her books, the sheer weirdness of the setting more than compensates and keeps things feeling fresh.

I do not know if Wynne Jones was a Doctor Who fan or not, since undoubtedly the idea of an advanced civilization existing outside of time and yet treating all of history as a thing to be observed, guided and studied does seem rather a familiar one, (there is even a conflict about the morality of interference). Unlike the inhabitants of Gallifrey however, whose depiction ranged between byzantine political machinations in the classic Doctor Who and a rather overblown mythologizing in the modern era, what is wonderful about Time City is that we see it from Vivian's perspective, and get an idea of what it's like to go to school, do homework, observe tourist attractions and even have picnics, facts which unfortunately are mostly lacking from depictions of the Doctor's home world. Another thing I personally love about Time City, which undoubtedly is far more interesting to modern readers, is that even though the book was written in 1987, modern technology has not invalidated the science or made it feel any the less fantastically odd. For example, each citizen of Time City is equipped with a belt which serves a number of functions from temporarily reducing a person's gravity to producing a holographic pen to write with, to receiving and sending messages or checking the city's weather. What makes the belts unique however is that information is displayed in green holographic symbols on a person's hand or another near by surface, a technology which, even in a world of touch screens and voice activation is still wonderfully futuristic and different.

What gives Time City a sense of reality though, is one of Wynne Jones strongest aspects, her characterization. Vivian is something which seems rare these days, a reticent protagonist. Not to say Vivian is a passive character, but it's almost refreshing to find books which feature people who do not instantly step up to leadership roles or constantly regard themselves as the centre of the universe. Not that Vivian is docile or lacking in motivation; however the way she often finds herself swept into Jonathan's schemes feels very real, especially for someone out of their time. Vivian also manages to be that rare thing, a protagonist who is realistically decent and responsible without being just a stereotypically angelic good girl. This particularly shows in one of her more human aspects and something which ties very much back to the time she comes from, her constant concern for her mother stuck in London during the bombing, and her growing worry about the need to continually lie to Jonathan's family. Despite her sense of responsibility, Vivian is a long way from dull, and her occasional fits of temper, stubbornness, her love of films (something else which makes her easy to identify with), or her bursts of humour make her a wonderfully well rounded character and someone it's easy to sympathise with.

Jonathan similarly, despite being the son of Time City's ruler with a constant pride in his family name is wonderfully three dimensional. Wynne Jones is probably the only author I know who can deliberately create characters who are self centred or self obsessed and yet make them utterly charming. In other hands Jonathan would come across as merely arrogant and high handed, however Wynne Jones manages to temper Jonathan's self possession with a sense of responsibility and occasional moments of honesty, which, especially combined with Vivian's rather rye observations of him make him extremely likable. The only one of the protagonists Wynne Jones slightly fails with is eight year old Sam, since I found his constant obsession with food (especially 42nd century butter pies), went rather too far, particularly since it somewhat obscured other potentially interesting facts about him, like his genius with technology. Sam's gluttony and constant whinging is perhaps one of the few ways in which Time City reads a little too much like a typical children's book, since it makes him skirt close to just being a source of slapstick. That being said, Wynne Jones is far too careful a writer to make Sam's obsession just a character quirk and at least part of the role butter pies do play in the plot is genuinely amusing.

Speaking of the plot, Time City is probably one of the best paced and best plotted of Wynne Jones novels, indeed she reminded me rather strongly of the first Harry Potter book in which she managed to equally explore the fantastic world Vivian finds herself in, slowly introduce a world shattering mystery which we gradually find out more about, and work up to a truly compelling climax which takes up nearly the final third of the book and makes for absolutely compulsive reading. While some other of Wynne Jones books have occasionally got a bit bogged down by details of her character's daily lives, Time City itself is so very perplexing, that even sequences when Vivian is worrying about the homework she needs to do for the fearsome Doctor Wilander (homework involving learning a chart of over 100 centuries of history), did not cause the plot to falter. I also appreciated the way Wynne Jones was able to have so many elements of the mystery which click together upon a second rereading but which aren't immediately apparent, running the gamut from mistaken identity to predestination, and (as we'd expect in a book about time travel), a little playing with paradoxes and famous historical figures.

One mystery element I particularly admired, and something which I did not get at the age of eight, is the subtle way in which Wynne Jones starts to suggest that history has gone wrong by interweaving real and changed facts into Vivian's accounts of life in the twentieth century. For example, even as Vivian details recognizable facts like the public's fear of German gas attacks, she casually remarks that war was declared in Christmas 1938. Indeed, this is a hallmark of Wynne Jones style, the ability to combine wry, down to earth often humorous details of the lives and experiences of her characters, with little asides, extra embellishments or allusions of the beautiful or horrific. Time City has both; both concerning the vast sweep of history which ranges from the stone age to the depopulation of earth when humankind finally spread out to the stars, and historical atrocities such as the mind wars, a period when the world was close to destroyed by a war using entirely silent weaponry which attacked people's minds. Indeed, while Time City is by no means a horrific book, the shocking moments it has are truly shocking and give the book a distinct sense of danger, especially when Vivian finds herself journeying with Jonathan and Sam into the wilder and darker parts of history, complete with fantastic landscapes and more fantastic dangers.

For all its exploration of a strange world, mystery and occasional shocks, the typical Wynne Jones style social comedy is also very evident. One of my favourite incidents is the regular and hilarious occurrence when Jonathan's otherwise sober and serious father frantically prepares for one of the city's rituals, charging about the palace half dressed roaring for people to bring him obscurely named regalia, pursued by a hoard of family and household staff attempting to deliver said items. 
Yet, even this light comedy isn't simply weird for its own sake, and Wynne Jones garners some complex, and even touching character insights from it.

The one major problem with the plot is that there were rather too many moments when things were moved along by convenient coincidences. Early on for example, we learn that Jonathan and Vivian are destined to make a major discovery in a certain corridor. Not only however does this begin with them discovering a previously unknown time lock (as Time City's time machine's are called), in that corridor, but it also leads them to assume that every trip into history through said time lock will yield a new revelation and cause the destined discovery to occur, a prophecy which is fulfilled on several occasions, a literary technique you might call Chekhov’s sub machine gun, not merely using a mentioned element of the plot, but using it repeatedly, noisily and spectacularly!

The coincidences however didn't even stop there. On an initial trip back to Vivian's home century, Jonathan happens to get "a feeling" which leads him to go tearing away just in time to conveniently find a theft in progress and realize said theft is related to some previously unmentioned legendary aspects of Time City, even though he and Vivian do not discover exactly what the object of the theft is until much later. Speaking of the legend, it also is rather too easy that when Vivian is given a piece of translation homework, said translation is the very legend relating to Time City's current troubles.

Though some coincidences do happen to lead the plot on however, Wynne Jones does manage to very firmly avoid making her characters unrealistically lucky, indeed it's surprising how much the plot revolves around how often the protagonists make mistakes, right from the get go when Vivian turns out not to be the Time Lady. Indeed, this is one way in which reading a book with child protagonists is more satisfying as an adult, since the tendency of child characters to go off half cocked, make a right awful mess and then grow from the mess they've created is probably more fun to observe from the perspective of someone who can see just how much of a mess their making, and in Time City Wynne Jones certainly has some pretty spectacular, history shattering messes.

The book's ending is an extremely well structured climax, pulling together all the threads of the plot and giving a surprising conclusion with a looming apocalypse, a truly twisted take on history, a dramatic confrontation, several revelations and even a little something that is genuinely heart-warming, in a typically offbeat, understated Wynne Jones way. My only issue with the ending is that when the villains are finally revealed, the only way Wynne Jones finds to explain their part in the plot is by the rather clumsy device of villain monologuing. While Wynne Jones did undoubtedly need an explanation of the villain's actions and part in the rather complex web, it is a shame that she had to resort to such a hoary old convention to give it. Then again, once all the pieces are in place, the final moves were definitely worth the wait, both in terms of what happens to Time City, the villains and to Vivian herself.

From when we first meet Vivian aboard a hot, noisy evacuee train from London (experiences which I'm fairly sure are true to Wynne Jones own since she was evacuated herself as a child), Time City is one of those perfect instances where truly believable and relatable characters are put into absolutely bizarre and alien situations. There are few books I know that can both casually toss off a hundred centuries of history, with advances from starships, to holograms to mind destroying weapons, and yet make me feel again what it's like to be eleven and faced with a world of well meaning, but ultimately misunderstanding adults, threatening tutors, and the feeling that nobody else can possibly realize what a state the world is in.

Despite some of the shortcuts in gluing together a few strands in its complex web of a plot, Time City is Wynne Jones at her absolute best. In many ways you could describe it as Harry Potter meets Doctor Who, (not surprising I enjoyed it so much really), and yet there's something about it which is definitely and uniquely it's own.

Whether you’re a vintage Wynne Jones fan or are discovering her books for the first time as I was, whether you’re an eight year old more interested in reading than socializing, or indeed a thirty four year old still more interested in reading than socializing, Time City is absolutely worth a visit.

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