Ophelia Sings's Reviews > The Outcasts of Time

The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer
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's review
Mar 06, 2017

it was amazing

This reader is accustomed to travelling through time with the wonderful Ian Mortimer. His acclaimed Time Traveller's Guides provide vivid windows on the past which are at once entertaining, sobering and endlessly informative. But Mortimer, it seems, is not content with transporting us to one era at a time; in The Outcasts of Time, the reader is taken on a whistle-stop through six centuries of tumultuous history. It's an ambitious undertaking, but a wholly successful - and powerfully moving - one.

John and brother William, desperate, far from home and ridden with plague, are given a choice by a faceless, nameless voice; they may stay six more days in 1348 and see out their lives with those they love - and, in all probability, pass their death sentence on to them. Or, the voice in the sky offers, they may live each of the last six days of their lives in the future - each day, 99 years hence from the one previous. The plague will trouble them no more, and they will be able to seek absolution for their souls before the final bell tolls. The brothers choose to spare their loved ones and instead become time travellers, seeking goodness in a world of increasing confusion and apparent barbarity. But can they save their souls and secure a place in heaven before time runs out?

The Outcasts of Time is a richly satisfying novel, dizzyingly huge in scope and beautifully crafted. It is also intensely moving, something which I was not expecting when I picked it up. The reflections on mortality, particularly when John and William are faced with death - both their own and that of others, in the form of shapeless nameless corpses littered along the roadside like so much wind-blown refuse - are powerfully affecting. We are set to thinking about what we all leave behind; our legacy to the generations which follow us, as the voices of the ones past call to us down the centuries. There is rich religious imagery and a heavy dose of superstition, all perfectly at home in the fourteenth century but increasingly jarring - and dangerous - in the ages which follow; woven deftly through the narrative, they are a constant in the ever-changing lives of the brothers. Indeed, the book feels like something of a parable, and there is much to be learned here - and not only in terms of historical detail.

There is naturally, however, much in the way of historical knowledge to be gleaned. The sights, sounds and smells of the progressing centuries are vividly evoked, as is John and William's bemusement by the mores of each era. This is history red in tooth and claw; no punches are pulled, and no concessions made to modern distaste. We meet a vast cast of detestable characters, each perfectly and hatefully rendered, yet in each era, there is a beacon of decency, preventing both the time travellers and the reader from entirely losing hope in humanity. The vile Kinner is the stuff of nightmares, and is not easily forgotten; but neither is the delightful Father Harington, wise and kind. The denouement is, quite possibly, one of the most moving and affecting endings I have ever read; it shimmers unforgettably, searing itself onto the mind.

The Outcasts of Time, as well as being a rip-roaringly fast paced and utterly compelling tale, illustrates the importance - and relevance - of history; it demonstrates the thread which links us all, inexorably, to the past. It recalls James Long's sublime Ferney, and the rich texture of that book; the same loneliness of the man forced to live through oceans of time resonate in Mortimer's beautiful novel. The reader may take much from the book: historical knowledge, impeccably researched and scattered like sequins through the narrative; the notion that we are all travellers, here but for a short time, and all of us with the ability to do good; the idea that, perhaps, we can demonstrate understanding and compassion to travellers in our own time, bemused and fearful as they may be. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the warning that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The Outcasts of Time is a tour de force, rich in spellbinding detail. Haunting and atmospheric, there is warmth and humour alongside fear and torment; all human life is here.

As perfect a novel as any I've ever read.

My sincere thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Reading Progress

March 3, 2017 – Started Reading
March 3, 2017 – Shelved
March 3, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
March 10, 2017 – Finished Reading

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