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review by Duncan Lawie
Eugene Byrne is perhaps best known for his alternative histories (often written with Kim Newman). Strictly speaking, this is another: the USA and the USSR fought an Atom War in 1962, destroying much of the Northern Hemisphere in the process. The time of the story, however, is 2008 and the central premise is that one effect of the massive radiation exposure of the planet's surface is the re-appearance - where they died but in full health - of those who passed on before their 'allotted span'. This is a terrific foundation for a satire on history and human nature, and Byrne carries it off well.
The book is set in London. The city has been heavily damaged by the Atom War and the subsequent chaos, but is still the centre of British life and remains recognisable to much of its population, who come from almost every period of British history. London remains a thriving metropolis as the nation enters a new era of prosperity after the Feudal Wars. This latter civil war, fought with American weapons, lead to a constitutional monarchy not too dissimilar to our own, but with the crown in the hands of the infamous Richard III. Such a form of government might seem unsurprising to us but it is increasingly threatened by the continuing return to the corporeal of those from other eras with very different ideas of what is natural law.
The author draws up characters, both real and invented, from across British history to populate this setting. The principals include a former Elizabethan slave, a Battle of Britain fighter pilot and a descendant of survivors of the Atom War. These are the good guys, officers of the Metropolitan Police, charged with keeping order. Their main opponents are members of a Protestant political movement who find the existence of a Catholic king abhorrent. These 'Upright Men' read like a caricature of the IRA, professing faith, seeking temporal power and running most of the criminal activities in the city. There is plotting and murder and the 'rozzers' don't seem at all likely to defeat them.
Whilst the characters are lively and the ideas original, the police procedural elements of the plot involve a lot of hand waving. This takes little away from the book, which is really a homage to London, reeking with the scent (and stench) of the city from across the centuries and filled with the language of its many inhabitants. As a London novel, it is a thorough success. Byrne illustrates his city skilfully, combining locations familiar to every tourist with those more likely to be recognised by a student of history. His mastery of location and his unflashy use of past times combine to make Things Unborn thoroughly entertaining.
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