Review: The Emperor of All Things, By Paul Witcover
Seven Years' War, run like clockwork
Sunday 10 February 2013
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.
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 President of Argentina adopts Jewish godson to 'stop him turning into a werewolf'
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 3 Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations
- 4 Sir Winston Churchill’s family begged him not to convert to Islam, letter reveals
- 5 AirAsia flight QZ8501 missing: Search for plane carrying 162 passengers from Indonesia to Singapore suspended overnight
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The golden age of TV comedy is here
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
From Marvel to Star Wars: The rise of cinema’s shared universes
Game of Thrones is most-pirated TV show of 2014
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Millions of Britons struggling to feed themselves and facing malnourishment
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Nigel Farage: Ukip leader named 'Briton of the year' by The Times
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk