There are a whole bunch of reasons why I shouldn't like 'The Time Roads', but the one that overrode the others was a surprise to me. What I found was that I liked the stories in it quite a lot, but didn't like how they played together in a single volume.
Being English, the most obvious reason for me to dislike it is the conceit that has it unfold in an alternative past where various British factions (such as Anglia, Cymru and Wight) use terrorist tactics to attempt their independence from the sprawling empire of Éire, led by their new monarch, Queen Áine. As it turned out, I wasn't offended in the slightest by this switcharoo and found a lot of sympathy for these good Irishmen and women in the struggle to maintain their empire and improve the world at large.
A more valid flaw, albeit a minor one, that needled me throughout the book is that Tor didn't even attempt to provide its readers with a pronunciation guide for the many sprawling Irish names. It wouldn't have been a troublesome thing to do, as Del Rey do just that with the 'Iron Druid' series by Kevin Hearne. That was a godsend for me while reading those books and it helped me here, but I still had trouble.
I presume that Ó Tíghearnaigh is the Gaelic form of O'Tierney? Ó Bruicléigh might be something like O'Bruley? But what about the name of the most prominent of the characters, Aidrean Ó Deághaidh? His first name is presumably Aaron, but is his surname O'Day? That seems convoluted even for Gaelic. I'm sure that Bernobich can pronounce these names, even if she was born as far from fair Erin as Pennsylvania, but the cynical part of my mind wonders if she merely played Scrabble with a set of vowels and way too many Ds, Gs and Hs to conjure up these names.
The point is that my inability to pronounce some of these names hinders writer Beth Bernobich's attempts for me to appreciate the characters who own them. This could have been simply countered by a short pronunciation guide at the beginning. Take heed, Tor!
The overriding flaw stems from the fact that 'The Time Roads', which has been nominated for awards as a novel, isn't really a novel in the slightest; it's what the blurb on the back cover accurately calls a 'series of braided stories'.
Now, each of these stories is interesting on its own merits, but they really don't play too well together in a pack. They're told with different voices, at different lengths and in different styles. There are common characters but their importance in the stories varies considerably, to the degree that the leads change. The stories are spaced out much further in this empire's timeline than we might reasonably expect for a single volume's continuity. There's also hardly any attempt to create an overriding arc to the book, even if the fourth story ends some of what the first raised.
For instance, the first story, 'The Golden Octopus', appears to be a coming of age piece that revolves around the succession of Áine Lasairíona Devereaux to the throne of Éire. She's set up to be a major character, just as you might expect, and that she is, but she's not the main one and she vanishes frequently from the book entirely. Before she does, we're confused by the folk supporting her. Just as we see a future for her with Aidrean Ó Deághaidh of the Queens Constabulary, he's promptly sidelined in favour of Dr Breandan Ó Cuilinn for this story. Yet Ó Cuilinn then vanishes into the future, with his memory too prominently preserved in the later stories, while Ó Deághaidh becomes their lead.
Well, sort of. Ó Deághaidh certainly becomes the most prominent character in the book, but he's the least consistent one in play, for reasons that are as good as they are often annoying. So he's merely a potential love interest in the first story, a supporting detective in the second, the lead spy in the third and a reliable old soul in the fourth, the one the book is named for.
So what's the book about, now that I've read all four stories? I'm not entirely sure.
It could easily be seen as a collection of stories set within the empire of Éire, certainly the most obvious interpretation. Yet it's only the focus of the first and fourth stories, which have to do with the grand schemes of state. It merely serves as a backdrop to the second story, 'A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange' and a distant thought in the third, 'Ars Memoriae', which is set as far away as Montenegro. As world building, this is sadly lacking; while we're given fabulous detail at the points we're focused in on, there's absolutely nothing in between, leaving us with the equivalent of a few detailed pages ripped from a lost history book.
We might see it all as the rise of Áine, but she's too absent from the majority of the book to be a focus, more of a figurehead. We might see it as a musing on mathematics and time travel, but the former is overdone (every Irishman appears to be a mathematician, whatever his profession) and the latter serves mostly to confuse as time in 'The Time Roads' is far from a stable thing.
And that's important because it's what I believe Bernobich wants this book to be, above all else. Each of the stories involves a character or characters apparently discovering the time roads of the title, ways in which they can travel through time. I should emphasise, though, that this book doesn't explore time travel as a concept, it explores how its existence (and also the belief in its existence) might affect a world. Each of these stories happens because of time travel, even when time travel isn't actually happening. There's a dearth of actual time travel in this time travel book because it isn't your usual time travel book.
If that's what Bernobich wanted, what it ends up being is a play on a single character, Aidrean Ó Deághaidh, and his importance in each of the stories, even if neither he or his empire are the same in any of them. This very fact highlights how he's the sort of character who is always fundamentally important in the grand scheme of things, even if he wouldn't be prominent in the history books for various reasons.
Unfortunately, while that sounds really good to me now, it didn't feel as good while I was reading the book. At that point, I knew I wanted something else and was trying to figure out what. Maybe it would be more coherent if there were a half dozen more stories to fill in the gaps, but that would make it a large volume indeed. Maybe it might have played more consistently if they were more consistent in length and tone, but that would have lost the agreeable diversity of Bernobich's writing. Maybe that could have been retained by mixing these four stories with half a dozen unrelated ones, dotting them amongst a more varied group to play with that versatility.
So, while I believe I understand what Bernobich aimed for, I feel that, for once, the book's biggest problem is that she achieved it. Her prose is fluid and engaging, while her characters are interesting and the circumstances into which she places them are even more so. However, this book would have benefitted from being something its writer didn't want it to be. ~~ Hal C F Astell