Neal Stephenson is one of those writers I find a bit, well, I think variable is the word I’m looking for. I loved Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle was wonderful (though I’ve never managed to put enough coherent thoughts together to write about it), but I struggled to finish Reamde, and others I’ve struggled to start.
But this is something different – for a start, it’s yer gold old-fashioned epistolary novel – told largely through a document written in 1851 by marooned time traveller Melisande Stokes (Mel), backed up by official documents, memos and diaries. It’s largely a “how I got here” story, related with wit, fun and a fair dose of silliness. And it’s great fun.
The initial problem is that magic (actual magic, done by witches) stopped working in 1851, and various people would like to make it work again, principally the US Government and other, unspecified nations. And so, people are recruited – initially into something that looks like a tech start-up, but is actually a covert agency. And thanks to the use of a device that I’m going to call Schrödinger’s Catbox, because that’s the kind of thing I say, and I was mildly disappointed that the characters didn’t, magic is indeed done. The kind of magic is Sending – a witch can send a person (and just the person, no equipment, clothes, dental fillings…) to another point in time and space, requiring another witch to return them, so it’s important to be very careful where and when you get sent.
Much fun follows, as attempts are made to manipulate history, and it turns out that not only are there are, as you might expect, multiple possible branches of time in the future relative to any point, but there are also multiple pasts, so it’s necessary to go back multiple times to influence anything.
As the organisation grows, and things become more complicated, things go Horribly Wrong, which readers will have expected, what with Mel being trapped in the apparently post-magic 1851 with no way back.
Fro a long book, it’s a fast, page-turning read, which is set up nicely for a sequel, or indeed a series, which I’d be happy to see.
Good stuff, recommended.
 Now there’s an expression you don’t see me use a lot
 You may think this is a load of warlocks, but bear with me