November 20, 2008


Time’s Chariot. By Ben Jeapes. David Fickling Books. $15.99.

Danger Zone 1: The Devil’s Breath. By David Gillman. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Preteens and young teenagers looking for rousing adventures with nonstop cinematic action will enjoy both these books, even if neither spends much time on character development or scene-setting (perhaps because neither spends much time on those things). Time’s Chariot is about a “routine” expedition in time, back to 5000 B.C., that turns decidedly non-routine when the body of Commissioner Daiho is discovered. The commissioner has been murdered, even though murder is supposed to be a thing of the past. And he has been murdered in the past – which requires time traveler Ricardo (Rico) Garron and his partner, Su Zo, to open an investigation that spans the ages and quickly turns out to point in some very uncomfortable directions. Ben Jeapes writes for pacing more than philosophy – not for him the famous time-travel paradoxes of SF writers of old, who would have made much of Daiho’s dying before he was born, which means he couldn’t have been born, but he was, and so on. Jeapes uses parallel time streams and other familiar SF concepts only to further his plot: “Looking like a man and woman of the reasonably prosperous merchant classes, they strolled…through the Prater park in the Vienna of 1508, capital of the Khanate of Austria. This was the gamma stream, one of several parallel Earth histories. …The alpha stream was the ‘official’ history…” It turns out that Rico and Su’s Home Time is itself in jeopardy, and that the problems are tied up with the murder. How? One character explains, to the extent that it is an explanation, “The Home Time is a period of set probability flux. There’s a singularity…that makes transference possible because it vibrates at a fixed, unchanging probability frequency. It’s a permanent referent. …But it won’t last forever, it’s decaying, and the day will come when it ends and transference won’t be possible any more.” Best not to take all the pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo at all seriously here – focus on the twists and turns of the story (and it does twist and turn) and you’ll have an enjoyable ride that, if thoroughly unbelievable, is undeniably exciting.

     It’s best not to look too closely at the plot of The Devil’s Breath, either. This first novel by British screenwriter David Gillman is clearly intended to become a movie eventually, with its easy-to-grasp story, one-dimensional characters and heaping helping of action. This is also the first book of a series called The Danger Zone, which tries to stay up to date with a series of environmental twists. The central character here is Max Gordon, a teenager whose father, Tom, studies environmental catastrophes worldwide and champions the causes of Third World countries. He is so good that of course he must have enemies – people who are really bad. But it is Max, not his father, who finds himself the target in The Devil’s Breath, as an assassin comes after Max at the teen’s boarding school. This is a pretty inept assassin: he can’t take out an unsuspecting, unarmed teenager during the boy’s nightly run. But no matter – the assassin himself is conveniently killed, so Max cannot learn anything about what is going on and therefore has to set off on his own to search for his father in the wilderness of Namibia (yes, there are plenty of other things Max could do, but it really does not pay to examine this plot too closely). The environmental issue at the forefront here is safe drinking water – a billion people have no access to it – and Gillman makes sure the water issue is central to the book. He also makes sure that Max gets involved with tribal shamanic practices, attacking crocodiles, evil scientific experiments, an airplane crash, and international criminals with simplistic motivations: “Pressure was what he thrived on. He had always won, by fair means or foul – mostly the latter. Winning was everything.” The bad guys don’t win, of course, and the conclusion – of this book, anyway – is along these lines: “Strange place, Africa. Things happen. Things you can’t explain.” More such things will surely happen in later books.

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