Borough Press | 2017 (15 June) | 752p | Review copy | Buy the book
Melisande Stokes is a lecturer in ancient and classical languages at Harvard University when she is offered a curious job by government secret agency operative Tristan Lyons. It’s likely that Mel would have taken the job anyway thanks to her patronising, arrogant and irritating boss, but it turns out to be simply perfect. Mel is given a number of ancient and more recent documents to translate as part of a test. The texts come from all six continents and from every era and they all attest to one thing – that magic is real. Or rather magic used to be real. The documents also reveal that magic died in the summer of 1851, killed by the Great Exhibition of London.
Mel’s job, should she choose to accept it, is to join a top secret government project, D.O.D.O., otherwise known as the Department of Diachronic Operations. It has one mission – to develop a device that will allow its operatives to travel back in time to save magic and alter history. After all, what government wouldn’t want to have magic at its beck and call? Unfortunately, meddling with the past can have a rather adverse and unpredictable effect on the present, especially when so much depends on MUONs – Multiple-Universe Operations Navigators, better known to you and me as witches.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is quite simply spectacular. It’s almost impossible to describe or to pin down. There’s a distinct science fiction feel to bits of it – it is, after all, a novel about time travel and the descriptions of how it works are both sciencey and deliciously unfathomable. That is indeed the point. This classified government agency likes to blind us by science at the same time as confounding us with acronyms. But the science is powered by magic which is also powered by science. There is a rational scientific explanation for everything. I think. Or maybe there isn’t. I’m not sure the witches care very much.
I’m not a reader of fantasy or anything to do with magic normally but this novel absolutely enchanted me, in the same way that The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter has done. It presents an incredible and seductive mingling of science and fantasy, of alternate universes, broken futures, impossible conundrums and, my favourite, the temporal paradox. All of this on top of some brilliantly visualised journeys into the past, especially late Elizabethan London and 13th-century Constantinople. These are places teeming with the most fascinating and intriguing personalities, notably the witches but there are also lots of others, and it’s particularly fun watching them deal with an unfamiliar future or past.
The missions into the past are fantastically complicated! This is not surprising considering the tangled knot of D.O.D.O. bureaucracy and it all adds up to a wonderfully elaborate and varied bunch of plots as different people pursue their different goals and get into all kinds of trouble. This adds drama and, now and again, tragedy but it also adds a great deal of humour. The humour of The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is lightly done, often the result of the absolute absurdity of a situation or the preposterousness of trying to impose officialdom on potential chaos. There is also a lesson to be learned – don’t underestimate people from the past. They might not know how to operate a mobile phone but they – and I include Vikings in this – are not stupid.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is over 740 pages long but not once did this feel like too much. On the contrary, it quite often felt like too little! There is so much going on. There is so much potential for more to go on. I loved the characters, especially Erszebet. And it is all written absolutely beautifully and in the most intriguing manner. It’s told in a multitude of ways – journal entries, letters, emails, government documents, memos – and they work together brilliantly. At the end is a very handy glossary of acronyms (as defined by POOJAC – the Policy on Official Jargon and Acronym Coinage). As for the premise of this fabulous, clever, witty book, it is ingenious and only equalled by its execution. Neal Stephenson’s previous novel Seveneves was one of my top reads of 2015. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (or TRAFODODO) will do at least as well in my 2017 list. Do not miss it!