It is the year 1758, and England and her allies are at war with France and its confederates in a conflict that could go either way at any moment, so when evidence emerges of a weapon that could affect the course of this most mortal combat, patriots on either side of the divide are enlisted to track the device down, and claim it in the name of their nations.
But the hunter, for so it is known, is no ordinary weapon: it is a clock, of a sort—an impossible watch with dragon hands which measure something utterly other than the hour—and it will be won, if it will be won at all, by no ordinary agent. Enter Daniel Quare, recently installed regulator for a certain secret society:
By royal decree, the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers was the sole arbiter of the techniques and tools that horologists throughout Britain, whether members of the guild or amateurs, were permitted to employ in the manufacture of timepieces. All journeymen of the Worshipful Company had the duty of protecting its patents and interests. Any timepiece that utilized an already forbidden technology was destroyed, its maker reported to the local authorities, while those clocks evidencing new technologies and methods were confiscated and sent to London for study. The prosperity and safety of the nation depended upon superiority in business as well as in battle, and nothing was a surer guarantee of dominance in both realms than the ability to measure the passage of time more accurately than one’s adversaries. Whether coordinating the shipment and delivery of merchandise over land and sea or troop movements upon a battlefield, the advantage belonged to the side with the best timepieces.
To that end, then, our man is charged with the recovery of a unique timepiece belonging to one Lord Wichcote—an incidental character who becomes markedly more prominent as Paul Witcover’s novel goes on—and indeed, he succeeds... if only because Daniel arrives at the target’s townhouse in the immediate aftermath of a pitched battle between the Lord and a little-seen legend, “the mysterious Grimalkin—the grey shadow whose identity is known to no man. [Who may be] no man at all, but a devil sworn to the service of Lucifer.”
Whether by accident or some more malign design, Daniel manages to disarm Grimalkin after the infamous thief of thieves has herself acquired the hunter. Then, as surprised by his success as anyone else, the retiring regulator returns to the Worshipful Company’s base of operations, the better to investigate his perplexing prize alongside his master, a humpbacked old man called Magnus, or Mephistopheles by his many enemies.
Daniel and Magnus have hardly begun to understand the strange technologies powering this awesome watch when, all of a sudden, the day is done. The pair arrange to resume their studies the following morning, but the meeting is not to be. Later that night, you see, Daniel is stabbed through the heart by a French spy... yet it is Magnus, rather than The Emperor of All Things’ reluctant hero, who dies.
Here we hit upon one of the first of the manifold mysteries hidden within this nested doll of a novel. Nothing is ever quite what you think in The Emperor of All Things—though you’ll have an inkling, just to keep things interesting—and Paul Witcover doubles down on that aspect of his meandering narrative in its surprising middle section, which does not feature Daniel at all.
It does, on the other hand, have dragons, so there’s that. And in the meanwhile it serves to introduce readers to a world—our world—where “all the old myths and legends were true. A world that floated, like a bubble of time, on a vast sea of unbeing: the Otherwhere. And in which time itself was... what? A disease? A drug? An imperfection introduced into a perfect creation, a flaw in that glittering jewel, the original original sin?”
This is The Emperor of All Things at its most fantastical by far, yet even in this section there is room for rumination. Room for extended metaphysical digressions, chapter-long dialogues about philosophy, screeds of science, history and religion—or so the author supposes. Would that Witcover had reined in his rambling! Would, while we’re at it, that he had made Daniel a more dynamic character. As it stands, the story seems always on the back foot, with something else to explain or detail or for its cast to converse about endlessly, and its main narrator has distressingly little agency at every stage of the tale... though late in the last act, Witcover does at least make a plot point of Daniel’s indecisiveness:
He was in over his head. That much was plain. Had been for some time now. But this was a whole different order of drowning. He was used to the idea that he could not trust anyone else. But now it seemed he could no longer trust himself.
Nor, given his dithering disposition, can readers truly trust him, therefore there will be those who have trouble engaging in any meaningful way with The Emperor of All Things’ tiresome protagonist. Relative to Daniel, supporting characters such as Lord Wichcote, Master Magnus and Grimalkin appear unduly alluring, though the narrative marginalises all three to differing degrees.
Thus, The Emperor of All Things is master of almost none, but excepting the exact examples aforementioned, it’s very good at nearly everything else it attempts. Witcover’s prose is playful, yet persuasive; even the novel’s more self-serious scenes are enlivened by a winning sense of whimsy; and unconstrained by the conventions of any one genre, it reinvents itself with refreshing regularity, segueing seamlessly from wonder, whimsy and conspiracy to intrigue, espionage and action. And that’s just for starters.
I would not say that The Emperor of All Things is undone by its monolithic ambitions, but perhaps it is momentarily overmatched. There can be no question that Witcover’s would have been a better book had he left a few of its multifarious flourishes for the sequel he’s working on currently, and focused more closely on developing those that remained. Despite this, though, The Emperor of All Things makes for a thorough, yet thrilling beginning to a series in which anything you can imagine could and should come true.
The Emperor of All Things is published by Bantam Press. It is available in the UK now.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for Strange Horizons, The Speculative Scotsman and Tor.com. On rare occasions he’s been known to tweet about books, too.