Finished reading: A River Called Time by Courttia Newland πŸ“š

I got this as a Christmas present from my beloved. I had no idea who Courttia Newland is. I assumed it was a woman, at first. It’s not, and it turns out I had experienced some of his work already, as he wrote some of the scripts for Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films; specifically Lover’s Rock, Red, White and Blue , and Education . (I wouldn’t bother clicking those links, it looks like I didn’t write anything about them.)

I started the novel without reading any reviews or anything about it other than the blurb and quotes on the cover. The key one of those is this, from the Observer:

A vast and wildly ambitious piece of speculative fiction that asks what the world would look like if slavery and colonialism never existed.

Which set me up with some expectations. Sensibly, Newland doesn’t make this imagined world a utopia. Far from it, in fact. The world in which the antagonist, Markriss, finds himself, is pretty grim.

And to my mind, at least at first, the only thing in-universe that tells us about the absence of colonialism, etc, is skin colour is never mentioned. Yes, the world is different from our own, and it turns out (reading around the novel) a major reason is, instead of the weird monotheism of Judaeo-Christianity-Islam having the major religious impact on world history, African religions have the biggest influence.

What this means for our hero is he can have an out-of-body experience and it not exactly be unexpected.

Which takes us into the whole out-of-this-world part of this novel. All those blurbs talk about it as a novel of decolonisation and so on, which is fine. But that’s because Newland has a mainstream, literary reputation β€” he has published several previous novels. This, though is a genre work. Science fiction, you might say, or fantasy, looked at from another direction.

And what nothing prepares you for (well, the reviews do, but I didn’t want to read them first) is that this is a multiverse story. Because Markriss’s ability to leave his body in his astral form develops to the point where he can do so permanently; and then drop back down into a different tributary of the titular river.

This takes puts him in an alternative version of himself: another timeline. Some have very similar events and experiences; some are very different, such as one that doesn’t look at all removed from our own. He always has some of the people closest to him, though their relationships vary.

It’s effective and accomplished, but it can be unsatisfying. Because, when he leaves a timeline, he leaves its story incomplete. We don’t know what happened to the first version of Markriss, or the second, or…

Sometimes the language, the linguistic style, can be confusing. But it feels like a positive sort of confusion, the kind that stretches your mind.

On the whole, I enjoyed it.

Books 2024, 6