March 11, 2021


Master of the Revels: A Return to Neal Stephenson’s D.O.D.O. By Nicole Galland. William Morrow. $29.99.

     The full title of this book – which is reasonably thick at 534 pages, but not exceptionally so when compared with its more-than-750-page predecessor – explains more than most titles do about what readers can expect from the novel. The book acknowledges and bows to Neal Stephenson – but he did not write it. It is very much a sequel. And it revisits places (and times and narrative approaches) in which readers really need to be grounded for Master of the Revels to have anything approaching its intended effect. All that, just from the title.

     Yet that is scarcely enough. Galland does not quite have the outright cleverness with science-fictional tropes that Stephenson possesses, and somehow the collaborative original brought out a vein of wit and humor in the coauthors that is significantly diminished in this sequel: it does not disappear entirely but somewhat changes character. Indeed, it is a tossup to decide whether or not the original book is a must-read before this one: it certainly is for an introduction to D.O.D.O. (the Department of Diachronic Operations) and a first plunge into the multifaceted method of D.O.D.O. storytelling – which in the first book involved letters, journals, official white papers, PowerPoint presentations, an extended poem in the alliterative style of Beowulf, and more, and in this second book includes many of the same forms of communication and a few additional ones. On the other hand, Galland spends nearly the first 200 pages of Master of the Revels providing backstory, which is really a bit too much for anyone who read the original book recently – but is a huge help for anybody who does not remember it or has not read it at all. The recap material is mostly well-integrated with the new narrative, which means it is not possible simply to skip all of it and move along; but the complexity of the original book requires a lot of scene-setting and character elucidation, so Master of the Revels does not really get going on its own until about a third of the way in.

     When it does shift into high (or at least higher) gear, though, Galland’s book stands up quite well to the inaugural volume of what now appears to have become a series or, at the least, a trilogy. The new book is set five years after – well, sort of “after,” this being a sequence about time travel – the formation of D.O.D.O., whose leader has fallen under the control of a witch named Gráinne, who is from 17th-century Ireland and is determined to alter history so the year 1851, when the invention of photography eclipsed magic forever, will be different enough to allow the 21st century to be dominated by magic rather than science. Gráinne is the nominal nemesis of the D.O.D.O. spinoff GRIMNIR, in which the tried-and-true operatives of the first book, Tristan Lyons and Melisande Stokes, have regrouped – along with Tristan’s sister, Robin, a new character – to undo whatever Gráinne undoes and keep the future, or present as the case may be, pretty much as it has been or will be (even writing about the D.O.D.O. books can be confusing, given their time-travel and time-mixing propensities).

     It is not entirely clear whether Gráinne should really be deemed evil, or only misguided, or whether perhaps she has a pretty good point in what she is trying to do. Contemplation of this issue is one thread of Master of the Revels, which weaves many others together into an intricate (if somewhat over-complicated) tapestry. The underlying premise of the D.O.D.O. books is that big changes to the past can cause disastrous multi-universal “diachronous shears” and a host of paradoxical traps, but small changes (essentially a “butterfly effect” sort of thing) can be cleverly used to manipulate the course of events in whatever direction one wishes – unless, of course, other time travelers create other small changes that counterbalance yours and set things back (or forward) as they originally were (or would be).

     The back-and-forth maneuvers and fast perspective and time shifts of Master of the Revels give the whole thing some of the flavor of a Monty Python comedy, and, indeed, Galland keeps things somewhat lighter and a touch or two less intricate and portentous here than she and Stephenson did when they worked together on the first book. Like that volume, Master of the Revels takes readers to a variety of times and places, including Sicily in the fourth century, Florence in the 14th, and Kyoto in the 15th. And Galland’s attentiveness to elements of everyday life in those times and places is one of the book’s pleasures. The main focus, though, is Elizabethan England, specifically the weeks in which Shakespeare is getting the initial production of Macbeth ready for the Globe Theater and then a performance at court. Gráinne is at work here through the spells of the Three Witches in Shakespeare’s play, seeking to change a bit of the text in a way that will reverberate through the centuries and accomplish Gráinne’s pro-witchcraft aims (the fact that Tristan and Melisande are helped by some other witches, who are not quite sure where their loyalty lies or should lie, complicates matters further). The book’s title refers to Edmund Tilney, who is Master of the Revels at the Globe and in that role is a kind of censor-cum-production manager whose job also encompasses special effects for the performances. Obviously he is a key, perhaps the key, to the various factions’ various machinations in various times and various universes. However, there are other keys here and there, too, such as members of the Fugger banking family, who also played a major role in the first book: the specific bankers named Fugger in the D.O.D.O. books did not exist, but certainly could have been descendants of Jakob Fugger (1459-1525), our-real-world banker extraordinaire and possibly the richest man who ever lived.

     Master of the Revels is rife with opportunities for reader confusion, many of them intentional on Galland’s part, some of them inherent in time-travel books of all sorts, and a few that seem to have slipped in inadvertently – but do not derail the headlong pace into which the story eventually settles. Yet perhaps “headlong” is not quite the right word, since the pacing is certainly fast when things get going, but the story is circular and ouroboros-like rather than straight-line progressive. It is very difficult, but in a pleasant way, to join Galland (who is herself, on the authorial level, the master of these revels) on a journey that “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care” but leaves enough threads askew to make at least one further D.O.D.O. volume likely. This book may not be “chief nourisher in life’s feast,” but it is considerably heartier than a snack and decidedly tasty – although it would be merely churlish to point out that, ironically in light of the various emendations attempted in Shakespeare’s witches’ lines, many scholars believe that Shakespeare may in fact not have written all the “witch” material in Macbeth. Perhaps the butterfly wings of the denizens of D.O.D.O. and/or Gráinne have flapped after all.

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