At least once or twice a year, I manage to luck into discovering a book or two that offers up a truly new twist on a traditional science fiction element. Back in 2014, I found Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August that took the concept of time travel and twisted and reformatted it into a story that lived by its own (new) rules and mythology (review here). North followed that up with Touch in 2015, that was just as fun and unique a twist on the concepts of mind-control and possession (review here). These back-to-back novels have won me over as a Claire North fan for life. Also, in 2015, I discovered Wesley Chu’s Time Salvager, which was a blast to read.
Well, 2016 is off to a great start because I’ve just had a new novel drop onto my doorstep that has shown me that good authors aren’t running out of new ideas any time soon, especially when it comes to time travel tales. I just finished up Tim Powers’ Medusa’s Web, and I am absolutely loving the rules and logic he created for this tale that moves between 2015 and the 1920s… and a few dates in-between.
The story takes place in 2015 Hollywood, California at a house called Caveat, the unusual home of the now-deceased Amity Madden, aunt to Scott and Madeline, mother of Claimayne, and adoptive parent of Ariel. The four lived together in the house with Amity until Scott and Madeline left abruptly; now the four are reunited after Amity’s unusual suicide, and it’s not a warm, happy reunion. Aunt Amity’s fascination (and involvement) with the 1920s silent film era and the various characters who orbited that world lies at the center of the story, and Scott and Madeline quickly discover the most vague of hints of a secret known by Aunt Amity, Scott and Madeline’s missing-and-presumed-dead parents, and Claimayne and Ariel. They’re special images called spiders, and it doesn’t take Scott and Madeline long at all to realize they encountered these spiders at a very young age.
Here’s the basic idea of how a spider works: an eight-legged image of a spider is drawn on a small slip of paper (or seen in a painting or in the cracks of a plate). When a person looks at this image, they are transported to a different point in time and briefly inhabit a person’s body in that time period. That point in time varies, but people like Ariel and Claimayne typically use what’s called a before-and-after spider image. For example, Claimayne can look at a spider today (the before), intending to hide the slip of paper away for a year and then look at it again. That creates the “after”–when Claimayne (a year from now) looks at the spider, he trades places with the Claimayne of a year earlier. Spiders can be clean (brand new) or dirty (already used), and anyone looking at a dirty may find themselves sharing a body with the original spider’s user… basically two time-travelers inhabiting a body temporarily. And there are even more strange uses for spiders, including using them as a way to predict the future (obviously) or even achieve immortality.
There’s even a mother-of-all-spiders that is rumored to have some very unusual powers of its own, and it’s the search for this special image that has Scott and Madeline being followed and threatened by a number of parties who are all involved in this strange culture that forces the siblings to learn fast to survive. What they find are a number of mysteries to unravel–their parents’ disappearance, Aunt Amity’s suicide, the cousins’ strange behaviors, a mysterious (and missing) canister of film, and even the odd involvement of silent film star Rudolph Valentino.
I know it all sounds very odd… but it works! Powers does an outstanding job of keeping the twists of the spiders straight. He also feeds bits and pieces of the rules and mythology at a sufficient pace so you don’t get impatient waiting for answers. It’s a fun mystery by itself, but the little bits of paper and the body-swapping moments are fun and intriguing. By the time I was a quarter into the book, I knew I was hooked… and I knew I’d found another of those rare novels with a time travel twist.
Now it’s back to the hunt, but Medusa’s Web was a great way to start 2016.
Note: Medusa’s Web was released on January 12, 2015. I received a review copy from the publisher.