I absolutely loved Sean Gabb’s “The Churchill Memorandum”, with its 39-Steps plot, Harold Macmillan as the villain, and the acid bath murderer from Bulldog Drummond renamed Michael Foot. “The Break” wasn’t as good — the plot was made up as it went along and went off the rails at the end, but you can get a lot of mileage from exploring the implications of an interesting setting. (I preferred “The Great Before” by Ross Clark, which has a similar setting to “The Break”.)
The problem with “The York Deviation” is that the plot is very obviously made up as we go along, and the setting (York University in 1981) isn’t interesting enough rescue it. It starts strongly — the narrator wakes up back at university, in his body from twenty years ago. He spends a few chapters exploring, convinced it is a dream, but after several days he can no longer be so sure. It becomes apparent that there are some slight differences from the real past.
This has nothing to do with the plot that eventually emerges, which is as follows: There is a portal under York University, which can only be opened with a magic key possessed by the protagonist. The government want to open it because they think they will find something useful, but unfortunately what they do find is a portal to 65 million years ago, when the world was ruled by intelligent reptilians, who want to conquer the present day world to escape their destruction by the asteroid which killed the dinosaurs. The book finishes with a small battle between army and the reptilians, which ends when the hero manages to get back to the key and seal the portal.
The problem is that the plot only becomes apparent about 2/3 into the book, and it’s not a good one. And what’s it got to do with the hero waking up twenty years back in time? Nothing makes any sense and there are plenty of irrelevances and loose ends. The universe is administered by some supernatural undertakers, who are supervising the conflict between the humans and the reptilians. Why? One of the characters is a sort of vampire. Why? Some other characters also turn out to be from the future, transported back in time to their earlier bodies. Why? One of them appears to be in contact by email across time with Satan. Why? That same character tries to murder the protagonist with a bomb. Why? The protagonist’s friends have all been removed by the Undertaker. Why?
The actual plot has just as many unanswerable questions. Why is there a portal to 65 million years ago? How did the reptilians know they would be able to rely on this portal for their survival? Why is there a magic key, and why does it give the bearer a dog-monster which is bound to protect him? Why is there a magical Roman banquet?
OK, this is fantasy, so I don’t expect the world to be perfectly consistent. In sci-fi, “if a match stops working, so do you. You can’t change just one thing”, as Eliezer Yudkowsky put it. In fantasy, you can get away with a lot more. You can get away with magic. But we expect to have things explained to us, even if the explanations are magical. The world of “The York Deviation” is completely incoherent, and nothing is explained.
The pacing of the book suffers because it isn’t planned. The plot starting in the final third of the book renders the previous two thirds irrelevant. The protagonist spent them attending a seminar, writing an essay, leafleting for the Conservative Association and giving a speech to the student union.
From the blurb “The ne plus ultra of Tory fantasy fiction!”, I had hoped for something like “The Churchill Memorandum”: jokes involving historical figures. But the only historical figures here are Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, whose presences add nothing to the book. The protagonist makes one political speech with hindsight, and a few political comments, but that’s about it and they are out-of-place in a book with this plot. I can’t recommend it.
Review published on Amazon on the 23rd August 2017
© 2017, seangabb.
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