Time has always fascinated, not only scientists but writers as well. Once time was merely measured by the seasons or the phases of the moon. As civilisation took hold and skills diversified with people moved into cities ways of measuring smaller periods of time became essential. Clytemnestra and candle clocks became important features of the ancient world. Later, villages had the church clock visible for all to see and with miniaturisation, the rich could carry their own timepieces in their pockets. When sailors wandered across oceans finding latitude was connected with time. Now time is more of an obsession for most. Barely anyone hasn’t or doesn’t want an accurate timepiece. The more accurate it is, the better.
Even writers have played with time. There is a whole sub-genre relating to time-travel. Not many have made clocks the centre-piece of a novel.
Fantasy often centres its characters and events around members of a guild. Thieves or assassins guilds are popular as they give the characters a sense of hidden menace. The important part of guilds are the rules of membership that must be obeyed and the loyalty expected in return for a degree of autonomy and protection. Normally in historical fiction the members are burgers and upstanding members of the community. Apprentices are trained in the skills they will require to set them up for the future.
In Paul Witcover’s The Emperor Of All Things, the Emperor is time. The guild involved in the narrative is the Fellowship of Clockmakers. The guild is autonomous and anyone who wants to mend, make or improve clocks and watches must be a member of the guild which guards its secrets jealously. All innovations are scrutinised by the Masters and if too revolutionary are suppressed. The setting is England in 1758. The country is at war with France and when rumours of a timepiece that can also be a weapon leaks out agents from both sides of the conflict want it.
The novel opens with the infamous sneak thief, Grimalkin, attempting to steal the object from Lord Wichcote, a wealthy and obsessive collector of timepieces who is tolerated by the guild. Despite a fierce battle, Grimalkin gets away with the clock. There is another waiting on the roof intent on the same goal on the same night. Daniel Quare is a journeyman of the Guild of Clockmakers and a Regulator. The Regulators are a kind of secret service within the guild. After a chase across the rooftops of London and more by luck than skill he manages to get the clock from Grimalkin.
The Guild suffers from internal political rivalry as two grandmasters vie for supremacy. Quare reports to one of them and working as his assistant discovers some of the strange timepiece’s properties. It doesn’t look or behave like a real watch but works by taking energy from blood. It also kills all of Grandmaster Magnus’s cats.
When Quare suddenly and inexplicably – to him – finds himself a fugitive, branded a murderer, a traitor and a thief he finds himself befriended by Lord Wichcote. The nobleman relates to him a story which purports to be the origin of the mysterious watch.
The setting for this novel is original and internally consistent but works best when Daniel Quare is at the centre of the action. The digression into the adventures of the young Wichcote is less enthralling though necessary for the understanding of later features of the plot. We are also treated to an account of Quare’s selection by Magnus as his apprentice. Although adding a few hints of mystery, it diverts the attention from the true thrust of the novel. The plot is well constructed but the prose style is a little stilted and although it might suit the period in which the story is set, it doesn’t always make for smooth reading. The diversion into Wichcote’s adventures has a flavor of eighteenth century story-telling and seems old-fashioned within the context of modern writing. There is, however, enough that is interesting to make the next volume worth looking at.