The Alice Payne Series
by Kate Heartfield
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1. Alice Payne Arrives / 2. Alice Payne Rides
A new series from the tor.com novella program, the first title of which is Alice Payne Arrives. It came out just a couple of weeks ago, with the second due next March. It's a combination of steampunk and time travel. Many time periods and locations are visited, but the two major ones are England in 1788, and Toronto in 2070. Alice Payne is a thirty-two year old bi-racial woman, born in Jamaica in 1756, brought to England by her father when she was three. She never knew her mother. Her father later fought against the American rebels, returning to England with wounds in body and spirit. While he was away, Alice was cared for by servants and a paid companion, Jane Hodgson, now her lover. Her father is deep in debt, and Alice secretly pays off creditors from funds she gains as a nortorious highwayman, known as the Holy Ghost. Her targets are powerful men whom she also knows to be rapists and abusers of women. Jane is scientifically minded, conducting experiments and inventing mechanical devices, one of which Alice uses to aid in her thievery.
After her latest heist, a mystery arises. The carriage and horses carrying the nobleman she had robbed disappears. She later finds a mechanical device in the bushes on the side of the road. Thinking it must be one of Jane's inventions, she returns to her home and shows it to her companion. Jane has no idea what it is either, but upon examination is able to activate a shimmering portal, into which she throws objects, even lets one of her captured mice enter it. The objects and the mouse disappear. Alice goes through the portal herself, over Jane's frantic objections. By doing so, Alice embarks on a fantastic journey, the ultimate destination of which we won't know for several more stories at least. She meets another black woman, Prudence Zuniga, who claims to be an agent of a military project known as the Teleosophic Core Command. At least two different factions of future agents are intent on changing the past, or not change the past, or correct the other faction's changes, in order to ensure a more harmonious future (and past). Prudence's group calls themselves Farmers, their foes are the Guides, although the Farmers refer to them as the Misguided.
Fascinating characters and an intriguing premise. One notion I hope is explored in more detail is Prudence's claim that all the wars Alice knows from history, all wars we know that came after her time, were actually caused by the infiltration of the past by either the Farmers or Guides. Nearly every time they would change something, or reverse another change, things actually got worse. There was only one thing that got a "wait a minute" reaction. The second time Alice uses the portal device, without Jane's knowledge, how did she know how to change the dial settings to get to the exact time and location to meet up with Prudence in her private office in the future? It's a different location than where she had encountered her the first time. Alice is obviously very intelligent, but Jane is the scientist, the tinkerer. It would have made more sense for Jane to be the one to figure out the particulars of the device. That feeling was reinforced later when the prospect of Jane being a future time traveler was raised. Other than that minor quibble, I enjoyed this very much, and look forward to more adventures. We only have Prudence's word that she is on the right side of the future battle. Only her word that her ultimate agenda is to stop the madness and eliminate the possibility of time travel altogether. Will Alice and Jane work alongside her later, or against her by aiding the Guides? Will they form a new faction with their own agenda? We've seen the possibility of changes to events already depicted, and that is sure to continue. One thing I hope doesn't happen is for Alice and Jane to be on opposite sides, but who knows what can occur when people's destinies are continually altered?.
UPDATE: Alice Payne Arrives is now a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novella.
Alice Payne Rides was released today, another quick, breezy, entertaining read. Lot's of action, close calls, chases, and escapes. It's only a couple of pages longer than the first entry in the series, so I'm sure it's also a novella. I hesitate to say much beyond recommending it, although there are a few things I could nit-pick. It proves any time travel tale runs the risk of confusion even while being enjoyable.
Prudence Zuniga wanted to end time travel completely, since it had done more harm than good, but once it was a possibility it was certain others could work around any of her attempts to stop it. What surprises her the most is that she gets as much pushback from Alice and Jane as she does from her comrades in the Farmer organization. Ex-comrades actually, since she has deserted them to pursue her own agenda. Time travel is probably an impossibility, so any writer using the premise is free to make up their own rules. One story might say no two versions of an object or person can co-exist in the same space without creating a paradox, but that's not the case here. A future version of Prudence shows up to advise her younger self, to either prevent a dangerous action or to propose an alternate course. Several other times they risked alternate versions of Alice, Jane, or their friend Wray Auden, encountering themselves when they looped around events that had already occurred. I even lost track of how many times that happened.
At the end of both books is a list called "The Most Recent Draft of History." The first entry on both is 1756, when Alice was born, and the final entry is 2145, when the Teleosophic Core Command is created. Every other entry in between is exactly the same on both lists. Does that mean that no matter what any of them has done, or will do, nothing changes? Is time immutable, intractable? Then again, only highlights are featured, major events mentioned in both stories. Something not on either list concerns an historical (or fictitious?) personage abducted from 12th Century England, who seems content to remain in the 18th Century. If they decide he can't stay, will they send him even further back in time, maybe to the 5th Century, for him to become King then? His name is Arthur. John Lackland never had a brother by that name, and while it's a minor part of the story, I wonder why the author included it.
Alice Payne is obviously the viewpoint character, but I think I'd rather it be Jane. She's the scientist, highly intelligent, but also shy and reserved, so she doesn't get the attention and recognition she deserves. Even Alice is condescending towards her, expecting Jane to wait patiently in her workshop laboratory while Alice has all the adventures. Jane eventually is able to assert herself more, and I hope that continues. She loves Alice, wants to stay with her, and I'm sure Alice feels the same, but it needs to be more of an equal partnership or Alice risks losing her. More and more people are gathered at Alice's home now, including Prudence's sister and her family. How long will that last? Will they be separated again when the Farmers come after them, which they know is inevitable? No word yet on a third story, but I definitely want to read it when it arrives.
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