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.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
New era of cheap oil 'will destroy green revolution'
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Ukip founder Alan Sked and Nigel Farage 'begged Enoch Powell to stand as a candidate'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant