Alice Payne Arrives
by Kate Heartfield
Tor (176 pages, $15.99 paperback, $3.99 eBook, November 6, 2018)
Has anyone else noticed that time travel fiction still seems to be REALLY popular? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a massive Whovian, and some of my favorite books and movies involve time travel. But I feel like time travel is everywhere. Tom Sweterlitsch’s The Gone World has gotten a ton of acclaim. Gregory Benford’s Timescape series continued this year with Rewrite, about people using time travel to change events (usually selfishly), and Maria V. Snyder combines far-future SF with time travel investigation in Navigating the Stars. Hells, I reviewed Derek Künsken’s The Quantum Magician and discussed its time travel elements, and I even sold a time travel story of my own in 2018 – twice. My point is that time travel is still hot, somehow, and it doesn’t seem to be cooling down.
The idea of “time travel wars” and competing forces trying to rewrite history isn’t a new concept. I think its popularity now is a symptom of people feeling like the world is spiralling out of control, and that’s definitely a component to Kate Heartfield’s Alice Payne Arrives, the first in what I’m told will be a series of novellas from Tor. In this particular slant on time travel, two rival organizations are fighting to correct the course of history – one with a heavy hand and the other trying to slow them down – resulting in a story that jumps between multiple periods, in a world that’s already different than our own because of repeated time travel. As a history teacher I found this really compelling, especially with focuses on the First World War and earlier 18th and 19th century society.
It’s the chapters that take place in the 18th century that hooked me the most, though, centered on masked highwaywoman Alice Payne, the daughter of a British nobleman scarred by the American Revolution and an African-American mother, carrying on a secret affair with her childhood companion who also designs contraptions to help her rob people on the roadway. There’s so much layer there I’d need twice my usual length to unpack it, but suffice it to say that these characters aren’t just fresh – they’re interesting, quirky and fun to read, setting them apart from other narratives I’ve read trying to liven up this subgenre. It’s not that Arrives’s other main characters aren’t compelling – worn-out time travel warrior Major Zuniga is great as she tries to work against her enemies and superiors to bring an end to time travel – but the novella’s title character really stands out, as does her partner Jayne Hodgson, who is the real hero of this story and someone I’d love to see more of as this series continues.
So maybe time travel is still hot. But unlike zombies or post-apocalyptic fiction, it doesn’t seem tired yet, and I think anyone wanting to get in on this subgenre should take a close look at what Kate Heartfield is up to.
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon has been published in On Spec, Pulp Literature, Electric Athenaeum, and elsewhere. Check out his latest short story “Exactly What You Need,” about a magical bookstore misused by a grieving mother, in the latest issue of Abyss & Apex. You can also follow Brandon at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly.