Middle Eastern power struggles, the structural integrity of the space-time continuum and the secret life of Albert Einstein are among the ingredients blended with Machiavellian cunning by prizewinning fantasy author Powers (Declare, 2001, etc.).
An apocalyptic legacy from the Cold War years is unearthed when an elderly woman, Lisa Marrity, dies during a Harmonic Convergence observed from California’s Mount Shasta. Lisa (of Serbian ancestry, born Lieserl Maric) harbored secrets, which are discovered by her grandson, college English professor Frank Marrity, and his 12-year-old daughter, Daphne, as they sort through her possessions. A tissue of allusions to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which implicitly link Frank and Daphne to Prospero and Miranda, provide entry to interconnected revelations about a videocassette of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which actually contains an unreleased 1926 silent film, Charlie Chaplin’s preserved footprint from Grauman’s Chinese Theater and a rudimentary time machine invented, then disowned, by Einstein—for personal reasons that explain why those who seek to reconstruct it refer to the device as “the Einstein-Maric artifact.” Hot on its trail are operatives of the Mossad and the sinister European secret society Vespers—for whoever possesses the time machine will be enabled to enter, and alter, the past, thus reshaping current events as well as the past. Further complications are provided by blinded double (perhaps triple) agent Charlotte Sinclair and Frank Marrity’s estranged father Derek, each with a personal reason for wanting to change history. The novel has two glaring weaknesses: a cumbersome overload of manic invention, and intrigues so convoluted that characters are obliged to deconstruct and explain them to one another repeatedly. That said, this remains an astonishingly sophisticated and engrossing narrative—a powerful and truly disturbing envisioning of global conflict and the paradoxical allure of mutually assured destruction. And Powers succeeds wonderfully with the sorrowing, guilty figure of Einstein, convincingly imagined here as a genuine tragic figure.
Not exactly a shapely construction—but, as Shakespeare’s Othello might say, there’s magic in the web of it.