William Morrow, 2017, 752 pages
From best-selling author Neal Stephenson and critically acclaimed historical and contemporary commercial novelist Nicole Galland comes a captivating and complex near-future thriller combining history, science, magic, mystery, intrigue, and adventure that questions the very foundations of the modern world.
When Melisande Stokes, an expert in linguistics and languages, accidently meets military intelligence operator Tristan Lyons in a hallway at Harvard University, it is the beginning of a chain of events that will alter their lives and human history itself. The young man from a shadowy government entity approaches Mel, a low-level faculty member, with an incredible offer. The only condition: She must sign a nondisclosure agreement in return for the rather large sum of money.
Tristan needs Mel to translate some very old documents, which, if authentic, are earth-shattering. They prove that magic actually existed and was practiced for centuries. But the arrival of the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment weakened its power and endangered its practitioners. Magic stopped working altogether in 1851, at the time of the Great Exhibition at London's Crystal Palace - the world's fair celebrating the rise of industrial technology and commerce. Something about the modern world "jams" the "frequencies" used by magic, and it's up to Tristan to find out why.
And so the Department of Diachronic Operations - D.O.D.O. - gets cracking on its real mission: to develop a device that can bring magic back and send Diachronic Operatives back in time to keep it alive...and meddle with a little history at the same time. But while Tristan and his expanding operation master the science and build the technology, they overlook the mercurial - and treacherous - nature of the human heart.
Written with the genius, complexity, and innovation that characterize all of Neal Stephenson's work and steeped with the down-to-earth warmth and humor of Nicole Galland's storytelling style, this exciting and vividly realized work of science fiction will make you believe in the impossible and take you to places - and times - beyond imagining.
Naturally, when the U.S. government discovers that magical time travel is possible, rather than leaving it alone for fear of causing rifts in space-time, they decide the thing to do is recruit some secret agents to go back in the past and meddle. Just a little. For the benefit of our national interests. Hence D.O.D.O. — the Department of Diachronic Operations. This is a book that takes a premise that's been done in many bad movies, TV shows, and RPGs, and plays it straight despite the obvious authorial tongue-in-cheek.
I tend to be skeptical of coauthored books, especially when a big name teams up with a lesser-known writer, in which case I suspect that the minor author did most of the work with the Big Name contributing minimally but adding his name to the cover to boost sales. But I'm cynical and that may not be how it usually works.
Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors. While I haven't had my socks knocked off by everything he's written, I have never been disappointed by a Stephenson novel, even his early ones, the ones he's said he'd rather people didn't read.
This book definitely shows Stephenson's influence — in particular, his ability to stick crunchy sci-fi into a story about literal time-traveling witches, his cynically humorous treatment of government agencies, and the usual affable, dorky computer genius, even if he's a minor character in this book.
Nicole Galland apparently writes historical fiction (as does Stephenson), and I felt her hand in the narrative in the "softening" of this novel — we did not get Stephenson's usual pages and pages of infodumps about the history of science and technology, and if he were writing the book by himself, we'd probably have had several chapters on the precise mechanics of magic and various historical magical organizations and why witches are always female and the socio-political implications of that... instead, we are just told that magic exists, it's always been around (until it died out in the middle of the 19th century, for reasons around which the entire plot of this book revolves), and the fact that all magic users are women is somehow never addressed at all. There's also not a lot of violence, and while the book is not exactly a romance novel, you can tell a woman wrote all the romantic parts.
This is not a bad thing, as Galland and Stephenson seemed to work well together to produce a book that, while not among my top Stephenson reads, still entertained me as much as any of his other books, and made me willing to check out some of Galland's works.
Our primary protagonists are Melisande Stokes, an expert in ancient linguistics, and Tristan Lyons, a very straight-arrow G-man who recruits her for a very secret black box agency. Soon enough she finds out that it involves recruiting a witch — the last surviving witch — to send agents back in time via a special piece of equipment. (Time travel requires both a magic user and the equipment, for elaborate MacGuffin-ish reasons.) Initially on what was frankly a rather hare-brained scheme to raise funds for this underfunded organization (seriously, you don't think the U.S. government would dump billions into a working time travel device?), but then the government decides they can start tinkering with history, a little.
The mistake, of course, is in treating witches like resources that you'd recruit and manage like any other assets, and not taking into account that they may have goals of their own.
The time travel chapters, in which both Tristan and Melisande go back to Puritan America and Elizabethan England were entertaining and humorous. As was the constant sexual tension between them.
The story doesn't really kick into gear until the later chapters, in which D.O.D.O. has its fingers on so many things it is inevitable that things will start to unravel. The highlight of the book was probably the band of Viking warriors who invade the modern era on what turns out to be an ingenious scheme orchestrated by a 12th century warrior from the Varangian guard and a 16th century Irish witch. It is accompanied by an appropriate epic tale in Skaldic form: The Lay of Wal-Mart
While there are a few suspensions of disbelief — no time travel story can be free of these — I was reasonably satisfied with the handling of temporal physics and how they empowered the plot. It's a successful blend of historical and science fiction, with some lancing of bureaucratic cliches as well.
Also by Neal Stephenson: My reviews of Reamde and Seveneves.
My complete list of book reviews.