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Review: The Emperor of All Things, By Paul Witcover

Seven Years' War, run like clockwork

When a publisher bandies about ingredients such as Philip Pullman, Susanna Clarke, Neal Stephenson and Justin Cronin, the book in question had better be one fancy dish of haute cuisine. Fortunately, Paul Witcover's The Emperor of All Things just about delivers on Bantam's claims. It's a novel of big ideas corralled by Witcover into a hugely entertaining read.

The year is 1758, and England is locked in war with France. Working behind the scenes against France is an unlikely covert organisation – the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. Hidden in the dusty, labyrinthine bowels of their London guild hall, the Company's old guard in the shape of misshapen Master Magnus and Grandmaster Wolfe quietly wrestle for power, while their agents – the Regulators – carry out all kinds of clock-based shenanigans.

One of these Regulators is Daniel Quare, a fallible protagonist given to keeping secrets from his masters, but letting his tongue wag about this most shadowy organisation when full of beer. Quare's duties bring into his possession a strange clock with workings of bone that is powered by blood, and may just be 1758's version of a weapon of mass destruction which could swing the war against France.

Quare's adventures are suitably picaresque, with lots of tavern wenches with heaving bosoms, double-crossing, harrumphing fat men with powdered wigs, and a mysterious figure revealed to be a beautiful girl. But the whole novel is turned on its head in the middle section, when a previously minor character ventures into an otherworld where nothing can be taken for granted.

A Zurich-born New Yorker, Witcover is something of a journeyman himself, like his eminently likeable lead character. He's written comics (Anima, with co-author Elizabeth Hand), a biography of the African-American folklorist Zora Neale Hurston and short stories.

In the opening pages, his prose threatens to collapse under the weight of its own cleverness and descriptive girth, as he wrestles his tale into a period narrative that skirts dangerously close to Blackadder the Third territory. Even the minutest thing seems to be described to within an inch of its life.

But stick with it. By the time the prologue is done and the story has started proper, Witcover settles into a more readable rhythm, and allows his story to breathe. There are occasional lapses, but this is a book that is as intricately plotted to the untrained eye as the clockwork that it concerns itself with.

Comparisons to Neal Stephenson and Susanna Clarke are only very slightly premature. As with the finest timepiece, The Emperor of All Things is ultimately a rather beautiful thing, with a lot of components working furiously in the background to make it all happen.