by Iain Pears

Hardcover, 2016




New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.


In 1960s Oxford, Professor Henry Lytten is attempting to write a fantasy novel that forgoes the magic of his predecessors, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. He finds an unlikely confidante in his quick-witted, inquisitive young neighbor Rosie. One day, while chasing Lytten's cat, Rosie encounters a doorway in his cellar. She steps through and finds herself in an idyllic, pastoral land where Storytellers are revered above all others. There she meets a young man who is about to embark on a quest of his own--and may be the one chance Rosie has of returning home. These breathtaking adventures ultimately intertwine with the story of an eccentric psychomathematician whose breakthrough discovery will affect all of these different lives and worlds.

Media reviews

"But as Pears steadily builds his multiplicity of stories, his orchestrations become something far more ambitious, a calculated and at times quite droll assault on the very nature of narrative itself."
3 more
"Nonetheless, Pears excels at stage-managing the multiple sets as the actors leap from the dystopian future, to England in the grips of the Cold War, to whenever Anterworld could be said to exist, altering history as they go. A fun, immersive, genre-bending ride."
"A head-scratcher but an ambitious pleasure. When puzzled, press on: Pears’ yarn is worth the effort."
"Thus begins a complex time-travelling, world-hopping caper with insistently epic stakes."

User reviews

LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Fantasy and science fiction? What? Did I fall and hit my head? What possessed me to read this? Iain Pears. Having read 4 of his other books, I knew he wouldn’t leave me with a pile of stupid in the end (Connie Willis, I’m looking at you). And for the most part he didn’t. Even though Pears wrote this book to be read electronically, I decided to get the hardcover. I think the ebook has multiple endings and some other features that are harder to do as a physical book, and one of these days I’ll try it that way if I see a sale copy somewhere. That said, I don’t think being confined to a single ending was a drawback, although there is one big hole in the plot that kept this from being a 5-star book for me.

Another thing that kept it a 4-star book was that it dragged out a little too long in the final third. I can’t really blame the author though because there were so many time and storylines to finish. Everything connects in this book. Sometimes more than connects; the situations, characters and events sort of fold over and become enmeshed. It’s neat though and almost everything checks up well. It’s the kind of clever plotting that, if you like this kind of thing, will light up your brain when you discover exactly how things/people are related. If you don’t like “author is so clever” books, skip it.

Also skip it if you can’t keep a lot of stuff straight - characters, their relationships, time frames, allegoric parallels, backstory, etc. There is a lot going on and I took notes just so I could relax into the story and not worry about who was who and what was what.

One thing that’s interesting is that while Pears is English, he chose to hinge a lot of the time travel variables on US history; specifically Richard Nixon v. John F. Kennedy and the threat of nuclear war with Cuba. It’s an interesting choice, but since I’m American it worked. I wonder if different editions got different situations to document time travel issues and outcomes.

Not being an aficionado of either genre, I think both the fantasy and the science fiction parts worked. There’s a lot of explanation about how Angela’s machine works and what the difference is between travel to parallel universes and time travel. Angela’s world is satisfyingly horrible, hierarchical and rigid in its governance. It reminded me a bit of Oryx & Crake in terms of corporate compounds and how some are better than others. There are also the equivalent of the Pleblands; the spaces between compounds where societal rejects are corralled. In terms of the fantasy world it’s agrarian as you would expect and it has lords and ladies, pre-industrial revolution technology and similar trappings. It’s pastoral, slightly Utopian and a sharp contrast with the world Angela comes from. Nothing new except the absence of mythical beasts or magic/religion, although there is a bit of that toward the end since a world without science has to explain stuff somehow.

Anyway, if you’re a huge fan of either science fiction or fantasy, this book might ring your bells, but I can also see how it might really bug you, too, because it does have an “author is so clever” aspect about it and it probably does borrow heavily from books in both genres. Those more familiar with the canon(s) might find it too derivative, but I really like Iain Pears and how he writes and specifically how tightly wound/plotted his books are so it’s a winner despite a hole in the end.
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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
In my extremely brief assessment of Arcadia I posted after finishing it a few weeks ago, I described the story as an “odd bit of fantasy.” I still stand by that statement because it is very unique. The synopsis only hints at some of the more creative elements of the story. Yes, there are three interlocking worlds, and each of those three worlds has the capability of being the past, present or future of all of the characters or none of them. There is a psychomathematician, a profession I am not certain I can explain even directly after a chapter describing what she does. There is a magical portal. There is what appears to be advanced technology. There is an entire spy subplot which is amusing. See? Odd. Note, I just never said it was an easily understood odd bit of fantasy.

The same phrase could easily apply to The Library at Mount Char, with its twelve Librarians and their special powers. However, that is about all that one can use to compare the two. While one is all blood and violence and mystery and superpowers, Arcadia is much like the pastoral setting into which Rosie stumbles. It is a quiet, cerebral novel. There is more verbal parrying than actual fighting, and the entire novel is at a rather high intellectual level.

The story plays with the idea/definition of time, which makes the three worlds important in being able to decipher the definition. However, in order for this to be effective, it means that Pears does not spend a lot of time building the historical context behind the various worlds. Rather, he focuses on the current events in each and lets the action provide some of the clues. Then, in a stroke of masterful writing, he connects each of these disparate worlds together in such a fashion that all of it makes perfect sense, and the historical context, so vital to a fantasy novel, simply slips into place.

I describe this novel as fantasy because some of the settings are downright nonsensical in their origins. However, I have seen booksellers label this as literary fiction, something that does make sense on some level. There is the concentration on words rather than action to drive the story. In fact, the action is practically nonexistent when compared to other fantasy novels. The problem with classifying Arcadia within the literary fiction genre is that this classification only seems truly appropriate upon finishing the novel. Once you see how Pears ties all of the pieces together, then you realize that the fantasy/science fiction elements are not necessarily as strong as you believed while reading it. Then again, isn’t the very fact that the story makes some believable sense at the end a sign of a good fantasy novel?

I know this review makes absolutely no sense, but Arcadia is one of those novels that defies description, let alone classification. Everything of note would take to long to explain, so it is just better to say that it is a weird, not-so-little story that is, frankly, mesmerizing in its quirkiness. It is best to just go with the flow as the story unfolds. Don’t bother to try to define time or understand the science behind some of the action. It is best to let the words and the worlds wash over you. Then, in time, the story becomes makes sense, and the brilliance of Pears’ story becomes clear.
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LibraryThing member bell7
Arcadia tells three intertwining stories: (1) of Anterworld and apparently a story come to life of Henry Lytten who (2) lives in 1960s England and is sort of continuing the Inklings' legacy while (3) a woman named Angela Meerson a brilliant mathematician somewhere in the future discovers the ability to either jump into alternate universes or back and forth in time, and must protect her project from other scientists who want to get their grubby mitts on her data.

If that all sounds confusing, it is. This is an ambitious, convoluted story and I loved it. There's a fantasy world and lots of story references and heady scientific discussions all mixed in, and the storytelling is such that there's just enough of a cliffhanger or "aha!" moment at the end of the chapter that made me want to keep reading. It sort of reminded me of Thursday Next without all the most madcap elements, but it's an original story all its own and I plan on reading more of this author soon.
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LibraryThing member Meredy
Six-word review: Exploring how the imagined becomes "real."

Extended review:

Several storylines develop in parallel across time and perhaps space in this inventive yarn in which the clichéd adolescent steps through the clichéd portal into another dimension--but things just don't work they way they do in the Ozzified Narnian Wonderlands of so many other tales.

Themes of time, past, future, memory, invention, illusion, choices, alternatives, and cause and effect thread through intersecting narratives that ultimately break through the familiar paradigms without becoming parody.

At the outset I found several of the author's habits and stylistic tics very grating, almost enough to cause me to abandon the book. In particular I am irritated by an author who doesn't pay attention to what he's doing and says things that make no sense to someone who is. (As usual, I ask: where was the editor?) But by about the one-third mark I had become interested enough in the story to forgive authorial lapses for the sake of the author's audacity. In the end I enjoyed it and gave it good marks.

Pears doesn't manage what's-going-on-here revelations as well as Emily St. John Mandel or juggle a host of characters and situations as well as Ian McDonald, but he does a nice job of showing us how he sees the interplay of fiction and reality, or, better, "reality" as we think we know it. I would read other work by him.
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LibraryThing member janerawoof
Intriguing and ingenious novel of mixed genres: science fiction, fantasy, espionage, even a little murder mystery and romance thrown in. I gave up on trying to understand it; I just let it flow over me and had fun with the many literary allusions. A Professor Lytten of Oxford in 1962 has written a fantasy of an ideal society--nothing new there. Bring in a dystopian future, in approximately 2200, with a "psychomathematician" [whatever that is ] who escapes to the 20th century, two guys from that time--one after her and one after a mysterious manuscript: The Devil's Handwriting--and entrance to his faux medieval world through a rusty pergola in Lytten's basement and you have one of the oddest stories I've ever read. Clever, but I feel Pears bit off more than he could chew. He asks the question: do the future and the past influence each other? He gave no satisfactory answer, in my opinion and I felt the novel bloated.… (more)
LibraryThing member BranC
Loved this book. It delighted and challenged me in equal measures. Such amazing, strong female characters. The idea that it had an app appealed to me at first, and, now that I have finished a straightforward reading of it, I think it would be fun to play with the app as well.
LibraryThing member NatalieSW
Multiple-timeline, -universe, upper middle-grade/ younger YA; very enjoyable, scifi/ time travelling story. Style is quite English and somewhat more expository than a lot of kids' stuff now, but no more so than a lot of scifi/ fantasy not specifically for kids. I didn't get into Pears's "An Instance of the Fingerpost" some time ago, but I'll try it again and/or "Dream of Scipio," now that I've read and enjoyed this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
Iain Pears wrote two of my favourite novels, 'The Dream of Scipio' and 'Stone's Fall', both of which have historical themes and feature split narratives unfolding at different times. They both worked very well, yielding intriguing and engrossing stories, and I was, therefore, eagerly awaiting this novel.

With 'Arcadia', however, I fear he has overreached himself. There are ten separate stories in the novel, all woven together in an ambitious embroidery. Sadly, for me the experiment failed to work and rather than an intricate and satisfying pattern, I found myself contemplating an inchoate slop of contrived plots.

In many ways 'Arcadia' reminded me of David Mitchell's 'The Bone Clocks' another book to which I had looked forward for a long time only to be disappointed when I finally came to read it. The publishers have even created a mobile phone app to enable readers to keep track of the different threads of the story, which suggests to me that it must be unnecessarily (and unsustainably) complicated. I am all in favour of writers experimenting with form, but they sometimes seem to overlook the basic integrity of their story.
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LibraryThing member rlsalvati
Strongly considering a 5th star. Lovely. A mix of so many genres I'm not sure where to begin.
LibraryThing member iansales
I’d heard mixed reports about this book, none of which especially encouraged me to read it. But it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and I had planned to read all of the shortlisted books. Over the years, I’ve read Pears’s other novels – although only one or two of his Jonathan Argylle series – and thought them very good. Mention of an Arcadia app also made the book sound intriguing. While I’m not one to look down my nose at lit fic authors attempting genre – some do it badly, but a lot of the more interesting genre fiction these days is being written by those with no genre history – my views on Arcadia on opening the novel were at best conflicted. And when I actually came to read it… I was surprised. It’s woefully old-fashioned, there’s no doubt about that; despite the app, despite the fact it opens in the 1960s. And lead character Rosie Wilson reads like a Lucy Pevensey for the 1970s. But Arcadia is also addictively readable, more so than any other book on the Clarke shortlist – I polished it off, all 736 pages, in a weekend. There are, basically, four plot-threads. The first is set in 1960s Oxford and features a member of the Inklings and the fantasy world he has developed, Anterworld. Then there is the narrative set in Anterworld, featuring some of the characters he’s invented. And another thread in which it’s visited, Narnia-like, by the aforementioned Rosie, a fifteen-year-old girl who part-time housekeeps for the Oxford professor. Then there’s a thread set in a near-future totalitarian UK, where a secretive project on Skye turns out to be time-travel and not, as believed, a portal to alternative worlds which can be colonised. Except the time-travel/Anterworld thing wants to have its cake and eat it too, which leads to some pretty torturous plot-logic, delivered via info-dumps and lectures, in order for it to all link up. There are a few halfway decent ideas in here – and if most of them feel somewhat familiar, that hardly makes this book unique among, well, among award-nominated genre novels… Much as I enjoyed Arcadia, it did feel a little like reading a book from the 1970s or 1980s. But I’d still rate it higher than at least half of the Clarke shortlist.… (more)
LibraryThing member AliceaP
Some books are so amazing that you feel like you're racing to the finish line because you just can't bear to wait one more moment to find out how it's going to end. Then there are others that must be savored. You need to take your time with these books. In fact, you might even set them to the side for days on end because you want to stretch out your time with the characters. Arcadia by Iain Pears is one of those books. It's truly a story within a story within a story within a story. (I hope I didn't leave any of them out.) It's about time, cause and effect, and above all storytelling. Henry Lytten is a professor, part-time member of the British Intelligence, a wannabe fantasy author, and the owner of a cantankerous fat cat named Mr. Jenkins. (That right there should be the tagline.) It's also about Anterwold and the student Jay who is just trying to understand where the Story began and how he fits into it. Not to mention John More and his quest to find a document buried for hundreds of years which may or may not hold great significance to the human race. Of course, it's also about Angela Meerson and her invention which is most certainly going to change the course of history the future all of time. Do you see what I mean about nesting dolls? In the same way that it's obvious how the nesting dolls have a relation to one another, Arcadia is laid out bit by bit so the reader can discover how each of these seemingly disparate stories and characters are related to one another in a seamless narrative that is mindboggling in its intricacies. What I'm trying to say is that this is a must read for 2016. GO, GO, GO!… (more)
LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
I started out loving this book. It has an intricate and complex concept, and is set in three worlds, with three storylines, and overlapping characters.

First, there is the world of three hundred years in the dystopian future. Scientist Angela Meerson, working on an isolated Scottish island, has developed a machine that enables time travel. When she learns her machine will be sold to an evil technocratic corporate entity to be used for nefarious purposes, she absconds to the past, taking with her many of the secrets to the workings of her time travel machine. After she disappears, an extensive search is launched to locate Angela by any means.

Second, there is the world of 1960's Oxford. Angela has ultimately made her way here, and she is a friend of Professor Henry Lytten, an Oxford Don. Henry has for years been working on a work creating a fantasy world similar to those of his friends Tolkien and the world of C.S. Lewis's Narnia. He is also (along with Angela) engaged in some Cold War spying. Angela must also cope with strangers from the future pursuing her.

The third world is the fantasyland imagined by Henry which is known as Anterworld. Unbeknownst to Henry, Angela has created a portal into the reality of Anterworld. This portal is located in Henry's basement. One day, 15 year old Rosie, Henry's cat sitter, unwittingly passes through the portal into Anterworld, and her adventures there begin.

When Rosie first goes through the portal, I thought that she was entering another time era, probably the Middle Ages, and I was expecting (hoping for?) stories going on in three chronologically remote times. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it soon became apparent that Anterworld was a mere fantasyland to be revealed to us through the eyes of Rosie, a prototype of the spunky teenage heroine much beloved in certain YA novels. I found the parts set in Anterworld to be tedious. The imagined society was stratified and bound by ingrained customs and protocols, and many of its inhabitants were idiots. Again unfortunately, much of the novel was focused in Anterworld, particularly as the novel progressed.

So after a promising beginning, I was ultimately let down by this book. I do think Pears writes very well, and he is the author of a well-regarded crime series and of historical fiction. I was excited to discover a new-to-me author, and I will be reading more by Pears. It's simply that I am not a fantasy fan, and this book did not work for me.

2 1/2 stars
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LibraryThing member mamzel
When I read comments about the intricacy of this story, I was prepared for it. However, the convoluted stories had maybe one or two threads too many for me.

A writer, Henry Lytten, creates a world in the style of Tolkein for his story. A woman, Angela Meerson, has created a device that can create an alternate world. Attempting to program Tolkein's story, however, proved to be unsuccessful. Something in it's creation didn't allow the world to grow and continue on its own. Lytten's world, however, appears to be stable and thriving. Lytten has a cat that is befriended by Rosie, a fifteen-year old girl full of intelligence and curiosity. When chasing the cat to Lytten's basement she comes across the device and steps through. She meets a young man but is so startled she jumps back to the basement. Later she is intrigued and goes back through to find a number of years have passed.

More characters join the story including some from the future who are chasing Angela and trying to get their hands on the device. They apparently want to create a world to transport all of the creative people to because they are considered dangerous. Characters in Anterwold eerily reflect the characters in Rosie's world.

I have to admit that I don't get the point of the story. I must be missing something even though I took great care to try and keep track of the constantly new twists that pop up. The online app (available for free on Apple) didn't help although it was pretty.

While fun to read, this book defeated me.
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LibraryThing member otterley
Future worlds, imaginary worlds and the 'real' Oxford of the 1960s intersect in this complex novel. If you like Doctor Who's more confusing plots, you'll enjoy this, though you might well miss the Doctor..
LibraryThing member invisiblelizard
This one took me a little while to fully get immersed into, which I think was due to the multiple narratives all going on at the same time, right from the start. As the reader, I felt jostled back and forth between them, initially. However, once I got the gist of what was going on and began to truly understand all the various threads, I was completely hooked. Not only that, but (just a minor spoiler here) the way he wove all those threads together in the end and brought the various story lines to the same place and time really made the payout worth the extra effort.

On top of that, Pears' writing was quite good. He has a strong narrative style which, clearly, he can alter to match whatever genre he's currently working in (I don't think it's a spoiler to state that this book swung between fantasy, science fiction, and spy thriller). He's got a good voice for his characters and writes them both outlandish yet familiar (that's got to be tricky). And he writes dialogue that feels real and not forced.

Just very good writer who wrote a very good book. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in some genre-hopping fun with a little patience for some necessary confusion in the beginning which (I promise) will all make sense in the end.

Personally, I plan to check out some of his other, earlier works and see if they are just as fun to read and well-written.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
Another deliciously complex novel from Pears, which I enjoyed from start to finish. Reminded me of some of David Mitchell's novels, in a good way, and also of Pears' own earlier works. Lots of different narratives and chronologies, and just a cracking good read.
LibraryThing member DLMorrese
Whereas I can appreciate what was done here, Goodreads ratings are supposed to reflect how much I liked the book. Did I enjoy it? Was it worth spending my limited free time reading it rather than doing something else? My subjective honest rating to such questions would give this about a 2.5. I found it interesting but not really enjoyable.

This is an odd story. It's an old fashion young adult story (think Narnia or Oz) framed by time-travel science fiction. The SF part includes some imaginative hypothetical physics, but the YA part is almost too true to its origins. The young characters start out dim and unimpressive, and the dialogue sounds about as natural as a purple plastic potato. The SF parts have much the same issue. The characters' behavior and speech don't flow naturally. They are clearly and unforgettably artificial constructs, making it impossible to relate to them. Add to that that this is a 500 page tome, and I have to say that it really wasn't as enjoyable a use of my free time as I would have hoped.
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LibraryThing member JohnFair
When 15 year old Rosie offered to feed Professor Lytten's horrible cat, little does she know what she's letting herself in for. Like his contempories and fellow pub goers Tolkien and Lewis, Lytten had written his own fantasy novel, but without the rings and istari of Tolkien or the talking animals of Lewis. Unlike Tolkien or even Lewis, there is an entrance to Lytten's world in his cellar. Unfortunately for Lytten, and Rosie, Lytten didn't know about it - Angela, his friend from the War, had left it there, telling him that it was just some 'modern sculpture', not a simplified transdimensional devise. Angela had not been straight with Lytten - she was an exile from a future England, heavily regulated and run on 'scientific' principles that left the population totally monitored for their loyalty to the World State. She had come to the conclusion that her device was a genuine time travel device while her superiors reckoned that it crossed dimensions and they had a final way of dealing with disagreements. Angela uses Lytten's world to test her device but Rosie complicates the test when she enters Anterworld and meets its inhabitants.

The book got off to a rather slow start but once we got involved with Anterworld, it got more interesting, though Angela's home time was also rather intriguing as we moved between times as Pears gets us involved in the mystery though, as the timelines rarely ran in sequence, one had to re-assess what was going on when the storylines intersect. There was a definite feel that Pears preferred Anterworld as his titular Arcadia though I'm not sure it could be as ideal as he really thought.
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