Oh my gosh…this was just fourteen kinds of fun! Stephenson is known for elaborate cyber-punkish stories so this is a real left-turn for him.
Dr. Melisande Stokes is a linguist, recruited by Tristan Lyons who works for an uber-shadowy secret government agency even the name, D.O.D.O., is unrecognizable. She is asked to translate a variety of documents from different ages and different cultures but all related to very real magical events. Apparently, Lyons discovered that magic really did exist prior to 1851 when it disappeared from the whole world forever. And he wants Melisande to help him figure out why and how to bring it back.
Along the way they recruit a genius who built a tiny time machine, big enough for a cat, and his wife who may or may not have had witchy ancestors. They are sought out by a self-proclaimed witch who knows way more about the super-top-secret project than anyone should. And then things start to get really weird.
With the help of the genius, Tristan gets himself a time machine large enough to hold two people…one of which has to be a witch; because…only within the time machine does magic still work. Their resident witch, a 160-year-old Hungarian woman is asked to do the oddest, sometimes mundane, tasks. While Melisande doesn’t have the clearance to know Tristan’s plans, she does trust him so participates in some really wild missions into the past with the aim towards gradually changing the future. She doesn’t begin to question the ‘end game’ until the military starts showing a heavy hand in taking over the administration of the project. But knowing the ‘end game’ and agreeing with the methods to accomplish it are two very different things; especially when trying to appeal to a rigid military mind. But, in the usual way these things occur, the military makes a plan that from their perspective is logical and fool-proof…without bothering to get any outside perspective from the people who really work in the field. This is always the downfall in any such story and this one is no exception; but the vehicle that brings everything crashing down was a pretty good surprise and I’m not telling you…
It was a very cleverly constructed story and book. It begins as a journal that Melisande is writing…from 1851 where she is apparently stranded. She is writing about the events as they brought her to this point. As the book starts rolling along we start to see journal entries from the genius’ wife, Rebecca the one with witchy ancestors, interspersed with the story narrative. She acts as the disinterested third party looking in. Farther along, we also get a perspective from a witch of the 1600’s who writes of her encounters with the visitors from the future to her Queen, for whom she works as a spy. And as the government/military complex becomes more involved, then we are treated to memos and emails to round out the story. It was enormously entertaining and some of the discussions and uses of acronyms (and the book is rife with them!) made me laugh out loud…or, at least, snort.
While the style might seem a bit cool and distant for the reader to feel connected to the characters, I actually felt it to be highly effective. Instead of a well-crafted sentence in the third person, as most good literature uses, we get, instead, little snippets of how people really respond to each other and an insane situation. For example, it isn’t really necessary to have a very detailed exposition of the events in the Walmart when it was invaded by the Vikings; it was quite effective as an after-action report. And funny.
I loved it. I highly recommend it. And I fully intend to reread this one. You should, too. ~~ Catherine Book