Faber & Faber, 2015, 608 pages
Three interlocking worlds. Four people looking for answers. But who controls the future - or the past?
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.
Dazzlingly inventive and deeply satisfying, Arcadia tests the boundaries of storytelling and asks: If the past can change the future, then might the future also indelibly alter the past?
This book has an inventive premise, if not a very original one for readers of fan fiction. An author creates a world which is brought to literal existence, and then has to enter it to deal with the problems he wrote. Kind of.
Henry Lytten is one of the Inklings, an Oxford literary circle that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lytten disdained Lewis's religious allegory and Tolkien's elves and wizards, and instead created a fully realized fantasy world that was devoid of fantasy. A carefully constructed society of scholars, civilians, royalty, and maybe the occasional bandit for excitement.
The problem with Lytten's fictional world, "Antewold," is the problem I had with this novel — it's boring.
Arcadia is a very well written literary novel with high aspirations, much like the fictitious one written by the fictitious author Henry Lytten. The plot is grand in scope and imaginative in execution. It blends three distinct threads. The first features Henry Lytten, a tweedy professor in post-war England who turns out to have a bit of a bad-ass past as a commando and spy. Now he's writing an epic (non)fantasy novel while occasionally being called up by his old intel chums to do a bit of side work.
Then there is another timeline, a far future dystopia which is interesting in the same way Antewold is in that there are no fantastical or futuristic elements and the society isn't particularly spectacular in its oppressiveness. It's just an authoritarian state that keeps everyone pacified and happy by more or less providing security and plenty while occasionally crushing the few "dissidents" who are still around. Except one woman in this vaguely capitalist dystopia, a scientist, rebels when credit is stolen from her. She is working on a machine to travel to parallel worlds (or so everyone believes), and ends up escaping to Henry Lytten's world.
This leads to the creation of a gateway to Antewold, Lytten's fictitious creation, where the characters takes on lives of their own, and where a teenage girl who befriended Professor Lytten finds herself the unwilling heroine of a new story.
This all reads a bit like Cloud Atlas written by one of the Inklings. It's a story that takes off and flies, but never soars. The plot is tight and the characters, so many of them, are deftly handled, and I was impressed by some of the twists the author engineered. But as a novel, Arcadia just did not leave a strong impression on me. It was like a stroll through a very literary writing exercise.
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