This Week’s Word is “Romans.”
As novel pitches go, “Orwellian surveillance society meets Ancient Rome time travel,” is probably one of the more unusual I’ve encountered. To be honest, it sounds unworkable. That I’m sitting here reviewing Echo Cycle at all is a measure of just how well Patrick Edwards has taken this singular idea and fashioned into a solid story with a compelling narrative.
What is Echo Cycle?
At its heart, Echo Cycle is a Brexit novel. It opens in the near future, with a boy from a British private school going missing on a school outing to Rome. Tormented by his “friends,” the boy snaps and beats one of them almost to death before fleeing into the Roman night. Later the same night, he disappears.
In this short prologue, we learn that Britain has become more isolationist. It is ruled by the sinister “Albion Party,” membership of which is strongly encouraged. Britain has turned inwards, and this school party is one of the last to leave Britain’s shores before it cuts itself off completely.
Fast forward fifty years. Lindon Banks returns to Rome. Lindon was one of the other children on the school trip. He’s now a civil servant in the British government. A government which is finally looking across the channel to its European neighbors. In the intervening time, Britain has declined. Its use of technology has slowed and it is gradually returning to the 1950s (see, it’s a Brexit novel). Meanwhile, after a rough ride, Europe is ascendant and Rome is at its’ heart.
Lindon finds historic multi-cultural Rome bewildering and wonderful, but something strange is going on behind the scenes. There are sinister machinations underpinning the British delegation. Not all is as it seems. Things take an even stranger turn when Lindon’s old schoolmate turns up, homeless on the streets of Rome. But where has he been for the last 50 years?
Well, he’s been in Rome, only the Rome of 68CE. When he disappeared, Winston Monk woke to find himself in the time of Nero. He is immediately captured by the emperor and imprisoned. There then follows a whirlwind of Imperial takeovers and Winston is buffeted from one peril to the next, thrust into the arms of his newly acquired lover one moment, and mercilessly ripped from him in the next. There’s also some awesome and visceral gladiatorial combat.
The two tales interweave, both featuring political struggles and internecine squabbles. Eventually, things build to a head in 2070 and the two plots collide with explosive consequences.
Why Read Echo Cycle?
Did I not have you at gladiatorial combat? What more reason do you need?
Echo Cycle is an intriguing blend of historical and speculative fiction. It is a highly political novel throughout. 2070 Britain is not a pleasant place, and Patrick Edwards borrows heavily from Orwell, a nod to whom he gives with leading character, Winston.
The insular “Britain knows best,” attitude that pervades the desperate British government is a barely veiled swipe at the isolationist politics that drove Brexit. Similarly, though more subtly, the political machinations of Rome, in the historical strand, I think are meant to mirror the cut-throat nature of the political elite in the UK. Both build their empires on shifting sands.
Edwards’ vision in his depiction of this future Europe is well-realized. The backstory is present but never overwhelms. There are hints of catastrophes in Asia and North America, which have given rise to a European powerhouse, as well as some intriguingly plausible developments in travel and communications technology. 50 years isn’t far into the future, but I imagine the world I will see, if I’m lucky enough to live that that long, will be far cry from the one in which we live now. Edwards captures this alien, yet familiar, landscape, perfectly.
The juxtaposition of the two time periods does jar at first. And it’s hard not to wonder what this all stands for and where it’s going. If you’re looking for a neat explanation of the time travel, you’re not going to get one, but nevertheless, the novel’s temporal shenanigans end up being central to the novel’s exciting denouement.
Characterization is excellent. The cast is wide and varied and from different time-streams, but all the players are well-drawn and provoke deep reactions in the reader; both its tentative heroes and slimebag villains. Italian-Japanese diplomat, Mariko, with whom Lindon has a relationship, is a wonderful character. She embodies the beauty of belonging to multiple cultures, and the absurdities of holding one as greater than another.
Echo Cycle has an understated complexity; a tale with many layers and awesome fight scenes. The story and settings are great but the novel’s real strengths are its themes and ideas.
If you enjoyed this review, do check out my other Word Wednesday reviews, here.
Disclosure, I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.