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Review: The Outcasts of Time, by Ian Mortimer
Pegasus, 2018. 386 pp. $26

Devon, 1348. Two brothers, John and William, walk through a plague-ridden country, past rotting corpses and scenes of destruction that presage the Apocalypse. When the sickness overtakes them too, they realize that their lives are forfeit, and they fear that their souls may not be ready for death. However, as they sense their strength wane, a disembodied voice tells them they have six days to live and offers them a choice.

They may struggle home with their remaining strength to see what has happened to their town and loved ones. Or they may spend the six days in time travel, as each day will advance another ninety-nine years, during which brief moment they may redeem themselves. After arguing whether they have listened to the Devil and are being led astray, John and William accept the offer. It’s a twist on Faust, without a contract or sale of a soul.

Harry Clarke’s illustration for the Bayard Taylor translation of Goethe’s Faust, 1870-71 (courtesy Project Gutenberg Open Library System, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I seldom, as in never, review historical fantasy and rarely read any. But The Outcasts of Time caught my fancy, and maybe it’ll catch yours. As a literary conceit, time travel has grown a long, white beard by now, but I like it that Mortimer has cast his century-spanning mechanism as a matter of conscience rather than a gizmo. Also, no abracadabra changes the scenery or chases away evil people, of whom there are plenty, for our travelers often land hard as the centuries pass.

The year 1447 seems miserable; 1546 brings the brothers to Henry VIII’s time; 1645 places them smack in the Civil War. Consequently, they must choose a face to present without knowing what’s prudent, because so much has changed. What was counted sinful in 1348 may now be virtuous, and what passed for virtue may now be treason. They have a lot of explaining to do.

That’s partly the point, for The Outcasts of Time has much to say about good, evil, and how material wealth or the progress of learning affect them or are used or misused. The novel also explores the human desire for permanence, proof of our passage on this planet that someone else will find after our deaths. John, a stonemason who worked on the Exeter Cathedral and created sculptures he’s proud of, is conscious of this desire in himself and of how futile it is. As he observes more than halfway through his time journey:

It is a salutary thought that something as insubstantial as a name can endure so long.… Tradition, like a centuries-old creeper of ivy, slowly winds its way into the crevices of our conversations and fastens itself onto such words, holding them firmly in place. You’d have thought that it was the private property, kept away from prying eyes and jealous fingers, which would endure. But all the houses from my time have been replaced. As for possessions, fires consume them, thieves steal them, and time erodes them. Common things, like names and roads, last for centuries.

John’s quest to perform a good deed to redeem himself before death takes various turns. That poses several questions, not least whether goodness can be conscious, or whether such acts can serve a redemptive purpose.

Among other pleasures, The Outcasts of Time offers historical detail in a light but authoritative hand. You see through John’s eyes what has changed, what would strike him most strongly, and why, which makes you think. For obvious reasons, Mortimer has updated the brothers’ language, or nobody in later centuries would have understood them. Yet he’s hewed to simplicity of tongue, for the most part, and seldom does the language jump out and stop the reader.

I do wonder, though, how John, who is excellent at ciphering but illiterate, and his brother, who can read, a little — how that happens, I don’t know — dispute the way they do. Free of superstition, seemingly also of common prejudices, they sound sophisticated. They lack any notion that the world is, and has always been, what they know, and appear ready to step outside it enough to judge the future centuries shown them. They sound like relativists ahead of their time, perhaps too tolerant of what they find.

William, the sensualist of the two, comes across less clearly or deeply than John, and though he’s supposed to represent a person who chooses pleasures over an examined life, I still want to see his dreams and desires beyond the next cup of ale or the next woman. Further, though the brothers remark bitterly on the priests’ flight from their plague-ridden land of 1348, they don’t seem perturbed at the likelihood that they’ll die unshriven, their sins unconfessed. I would have expected terror at the prospect.

However, the narrative and the philosophy within it demand a stretch from the characters, and if plausibility suffers to a mild degree, remember that we’re talking about a story with Faustian overtones, a legend to begin with. The Outcast of Time’s an engrossing novel, worth stretching for.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.