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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.