P. Orin Zack,
The Shoals of Time
(1st Books, 2001)

P. Orin Zack has written an ambitious first novel. It follows half a dozen plot lines and more than a dozen characters while jumping back and forth across centuries. I usually take notes when I read a book I'm reviewing. In this case I had to take notes to stay in the game.

It's the year 2291 and Ernie Vacca is incapacitating agents of the Temporal Planning Commission. His most recent victim is the ex-marriage partner of Healer Gillian Thomas. Gillian begins to investigate what happened to her ex and quickly becomes a pawn in the battle between Vacca and Lara Stinner, head of the TPC. Stinner manages to trap Gillian in a hospital and has her connected to a life-support system so that she no longer controls her own body. If she escapes, it will be through her mind. As a healer she has always been able to sense what was wrong with others and help them fix it. Now she must go even farther.

The start has potential, but the plot soon zooms beyond what even fantasy fans are likely to accept without raised eyebrows. Gillian, in her mental struggle, finds the Tree of Life, which mysteriously connects all humans. She and other characters use it to make mental leaps across space and time into implausibly receptive and hospitable minds -- and then -- the action gets wilder.

Gillian's mind appears first in the body of Professor Patrick Josephs in the year 2137. Turns out he was particularly receptive since he'd just finished channeling Archimedes. Eureka! The professor eventually proves to be an important character, but not yet as Gillian soon switches to 1868, where she is called upon to exercise healing skills through her host Frau Gretchen Kemmer. With many a subplot in between, Gillian eventually finds herself in her own future and deeply involved in a political battle between Earth and a space colony. It is here that Zack tries to bring it all together.

As if the plot isn't enough of a challenge, he also wants to add a few new techniques to the writing toolkit. He tries for a feeling of interdependence between story lines taking place in different centuries by suggesting a sort of simultaneity through abrupt scene and viewpoint shifts every few pages -- the first reason to take notes. The pencil scratches faster as mental time-travelers reach amicable and rapidly changing agreements with their hosts about who has physical control. You need to be alert to know which personality is doing the talking in which body.

Zack's many characters are unable to save the imaginative but overwrought plotting. Gillian is the heroine and comes closest to feeling real. Others are lightly drawn and sometimes seem ghost-like or interchangeable because of sketchy physical and psychological descriptions.

Life is messier than authors can describe, especially if it includes mental and physical time travel. And so I applaud Zack's attempt to paint a truer picture, but weaknesses in storytelling fundamentals undermine the effort. More disciplined plotting and conventional technique would have made this a better book. Maybe next time.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 4 December 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.