Bantam, £16.99

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up
    A Greek island - yours for the price of a London flat

    A sun-kissed island - yours for the price of a London flat

    Cash-strapped Greeks are selling off their slices of paradise
    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    Pogues could enjoy fairytale Christmas No 1 thanks to digital streaming

    New system means that evergreen songs could top the festive charts
    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence

    Prince of Wales: Gruff Rhys

    He is a musician of wondrous oddity. He is on a perpetual quest to seek the lost tribes of the Welsh diaspora. Just don't ask Gruff Rhys if he's a national treasure...